Racing pioneer Willy T. Ribbs admits he was caught off guard six months ago when asked if he would consider coming out of long retirement to compete.
“I said, ‘Look, I’ve been a hell of a stallion for a long time, and I’m grazing right now with my head down and my tail wagging,” “Ribbs recalls. “Rather than going to the glue factory, I told them I would.”
And that’s how Ribbs became one of many legends dusted off to be part of the Camping World SRX series, which begins its inaugural season at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut on Saturday. The series will run for six consecutive weekends, ending with an event on July 17 at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in Tennessee.
The series includes racing legends Tony Kanaan (Indianapolis 500 champion in 2013), Tony Stewart (three-time NASCAR Cup Series and 2020 NASCAR Hall of Famer champion) and Michael Waltrip (Daytona 500 winner in 2001 and 2003 ).
It has been 36 years since Ribbs, now 66, made his first attempt in 1985 to qualify for the Indy 500 after becoming a dominant driver in Europe. Ribbs ran into roadblocks on his return to the United States and tried to participate in a sport that did not welcome black people.
The portrayal of boxing promoter Don King in 1985 aided Ribbs in his attempt to race in the Indy 500. Funding from comedian Bill Cosby helped Ribbs become the first African-American pilot to compete in the Indy 500 in 1990. (He also participated in the race in 1993.)
Ribbs, during his career that will now span six decades, was a leading driver in the NASCAR Cup, NASCAR Camping World Truck, IndyCar and Trans Am series. He competed in his last IndyCar race in 1999.
While Ribbs jokes that he’s been pasture since retiring, he’s actually kept himself pretty busy. He has traveled the world supporting his son, Theo, in his rise as a professional clay court sport shooting champion. As Ribbs got involved in the sport, he also began to participate in competitions.
“I thought when I retired that I wouldn’t travel anymore, but ended up traveling more with him,” Ribbs said. “We traveled to Dubai, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico City, Cyprus and England, and I got into competition. But Theo got so good at it, I had to quit.
Ribbs also spent a lot of time last year promoting the documentary. Uppity: The Story of Willy T. Ribbs, which debuted last year on Netflix.
“We spent almost three years on the project, and what was most satisfying was that almost everyone who responded to it said they were crying at the end,” said Ribbs, who added that ‘a TV series about his life was in development.
Ribbs last competed in 2019 when he competed in the Vintage Race of Champions, winning an event in Indianapolis. While the pandemic prevented him from using a car last year, Ribbs said, he will be competitive in the SRX series.
“My whole career has been dedicated to the extraordinary,” said Ribbs. “I have been known to be thrown in the ring and without training. And get the job done. “
The SRX series will see Ribbs compete with other riders who are past their prime (Ribbs is the oldest rider in the series; Ernie Francis Jr., 23, is the youngest), but he predicts the races will produce fiery moments.
“You always have that competitive spirit, no matter what your age,” said Ribbs. “We are bigger. We are older. We have lost feathers. But it’s always going to be a hell of a show.