Column: Remember, Racing Is Supposed To Be Fun–and That Time I Met Willy T. Ribbs

Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Everyone has an origin story: a collection of those seminal moments or life events that defines their ultimate narrative. 

For comic book heroes, it’s pretty simple: Watch someone murder your parents in an alley, get kidnapped by a bunch of terrorists that use the weapons you designed to strike back at you, or simply stumble into the nearest source of unknown radiation, and boom, you’re on your way.

But for most of us, origins are more complex and far less clear–especially as they’re actually happening.

I’m no different in that I’m the product of a million different decisions over half a century, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to point to a couple specific catalysts that got me here. 

Two big things happened in 1985. I was 15 and fortunate enough to live near a really cool independent book store in Gulfport, Florida. I was pretty into cars already, always searching their shelves for the latest imported magazines or obscure titles that covered more than the usual combination of commuter hardware and the occasional unattainable exotic thrown in to keep the newsstand numbers up. 

One day a glorified zine called Auto-X showed up on their shelves, and the amazing DIY approach to both car culture and magazine production–it really felt like a magazine made by people that didn’t know making magazines was supposed to be something you couldn’t just decide to do one day–appealed to me in a very deep way. 

Riding around in the back of the high school driver’s-ed car reading those dogeared copies of Auto-X–which would, just a few years later, become Grassroots Motorsports and, for some inexplicable reason, hire me–clearly shaped my sensibilities about what my approach to car culture would be.

But another cool thing happened in 1985 that kind of sealed the deal. In March of that year, my parents dropped me off in downtown St. Pete with a ticket to the grand prix and whatever cash I had scraped together to keep me in sodas and fried treats for the day. 

There I met a dude named Willy T. Ribbs at an autograph session, where he was signing posters with his teammate Wally Dallenbach Jr. Ribbs was driving the factory-supported Motorcraft Mercury Capri in the featured race of the weekend, the SCCA Trans-Am series. 

At the time, Trans-Am was one of the bigger deals in American road racing. IMSA GT had the long races, but the Trans-Am series was known for its intense, shorter-format racing with roaring, tube-frame GT cars that were impossibly wide, impossibly fast, and looked just enough like their roadgoing counterparts to give the loyalists something to root for. 

Anyway, this isn’t a history lesson about Trans-Am, or even Mr. Ribbs, who has been back in the news lately and has an exceptional documentary streaming on Netflix about his life. I won’t even comment too much about his current status, because there’s nothing I could say that would add any more insight than he already has, except to say that it’s worth your time to seek the man out, listen to his stories, and let his considerable experiences shape your view of the world.

In 1985, though, he had an early chance to shape my world. When I got to the front of the autograph line–Ribbs’s line was far shorter than Dallenbach’s–he signed my poster and made the cursory small talk about my race fandom. I told him I was really into cars, but I had also just learned about this thing called autocross, and that there were clubs where fairly regular people could go racing, and not all racing was conducted in huge public venues with transporters and corporate suites and autograph lines, and that that may be something I wanted to get into some day. 

I remember him kind of lightening up, smiling, and becoming genuinely animated. We proceeded to have a legit conversation about amateur motorsport, with him explaining things to me that I genuinely wish I could remember the specifics of, but all I recall is enthusiasm and the universal hand motions that someone makes when describing two cars dicing on a track. 

Until that moment, I had always viewed race drivers as people who just read ad copy while someone put different hats on them. But this guy was having fun. Later that day, he won the race from the pole position, got out of his car in victory circle, and danced on the goddamn roof

At the time it seemed like such a pure expression of joy at accomplishing something that was clearly difficult, as well as a breath of enthusiastic fresh air in a sport that seemed to be contested by a fair number of soulless robots who were really happy their teams gave 110% today so the Henderson Furniture/Gus’s Frozen and Preserved Meats Buick LeSabre could score those important fifth-place points. 

Later I’d find out that a lot of folks took umbrage at my new friend dancing on the roof of his car, that it wasn’t respectful to the serious business nature of the sport. 

But I always kind of felt like if you don’t want an athlete to dance on the roof of their car after they win a race, or spike a football after scoring a game-winning touchdown, or pump their fists after sealing a Wimbledon victory, all you have to do is outcompete them. If you can’t, well, enjoy the dance.

So, if you’re looking for some insight into why I slide on the Nomex, look to Mr. Ribbs. Aside from that day in 1985, I’ve never actually met the guy, even though my job probably makes him no more than a couple phone calls away. 

So if you’re talking to someone who’s just entering our world someday, yeah, it’s great to let them know how much srs bzns motorsport is, but remember: The best part about this world is how much pointless joy we experience doing these things we love. After all, it’s supposed to be fun.

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View comments on the GRM forums

Great article JG.  And if you think you could reach him without exhausting all 7 connections, I'll bet he'd appreciate the story and a quick note of thanks. He seems like a guy who really is in it for the love.

DjGreggieP HalfDork
11/23/20 10:14 a.m.

But I always kind of felt like if you don’t want an athlete to dance on the roof of their car after they win a race, or spike a football after scoring a game-winning touchdown, or pump their fists after sealing a Wimbledon victory, all you have to do is outcompete them. If you can’t, well, enjoy the dance.

This is the best line I have read regarding winning in a long long time 

racerdave600 UltraDork
11/23/20 10:31 a.m.

Great article JG.  Ribbs was the man in the '80's.  I loved the jumping on the roof, he looked so happy to win.  I was a big fan.  Too bad he never got a better shot in Indycar.  It would have been fun to see what he could have done with a Penske or Newman Haas.  

Tom1200 Dork
11/23/20 11:01 a.m.

When I was five I declared "I want to be a race car driver".  Ribbs' experience in one of several that make me appreciate being an amateur; hugely talented guy, who if he'd had better backing would be a household name. He's a racer's racer for sure.

Streetwiseguy MegaDork
11/23/20 3:19 p.m.

I was a fan of Willy t back in the old days.  Not a huge fan of the Ali-esque behavior, but I think at the time, that's probably the kind of guy it took to be a black dude in a race car.

He was fast.  Too bad about not getting the ride with Eccelstone in F1.

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