ESPN Network: | | | | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY   

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Ribbs first African-American to qualify at Indy
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

May 19, 1991

In an amazing run that has the crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway screaming, Willy T. Ribbs makes history. The 35-year-old driver becomes the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indy 500 with a burst of 217.358 miles per hour, the fastest on the final day of qualifying, to bump former Indy winner Tom Sneva from the field with less than 45 minutes left in the session.

In realizing his boyhood dream, Ribbs, the son of an amateur race driver from San Jose, blew four engines, including two loaned to him by Buick in the final days. Four hours before his historic run, his turbocharger blows up.

But Buick engineers fix the problem and Ribbs qualifies with the four fastest laps he's run this month. He's so elated that when he drives back into the pits he takes both hands off the wheel, with the car still rolling, to wave to the crowd and high-five his crew.

"When you're growing up and it's all you wanted to do in your life, it's very satisfying," Ribbs says. "I didn't have basketball or football heroes. My heroes were race drivers. It's been my life's only ambition."

In the Indy 500 a week later, Ribbs will exit the race after six laps because of engine failure.

Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories