The Ballad of Willy T. Ribbs

I did NOT write this article. I found it on the internet. I believe the "Tom' is Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer newspaper.

When Willy T. was sent packing back to California, Dale Earnhardt called and asked if he could drive the car. After approval from Humpy Wheeler, a deal was made and the rest is history.




These articles, stories and accounts of my life, as I recall them, and are copywrited. Unauthorized use will be pursued at my determination, to the degree that I am inclined. Any hard feeling caused by memories that don't match yours are unfortunate and you'll just have to get over it! Feel free to contact me if you have a request for their use.


The phone call came very early in the morning and I immediately sensed urgency.
On the other end of the line in the spring of 1978 was the secretary of Humpy Wheeler, president and general manager of the race track then known as Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"Tom," she said, "we're having a press conference at 10 a.m. at Charlotte/Douglas Airport. I know this is short notice, but Humpy says you absolutely have to be there."
The public relations department at the track, now called Lowe's Motor Speedway, was notorious for scheduling press conferences for the flimsiest of reasons, just to get space in the newspapers and airtime on television in advance of its 600-mile NASCAR race on Memorial Day weekend.
"I'll be there," I said. "But this better had not be another P.R. stunt."
"It isn't," she reassured.
About a dozen motorsports writers like me and two or three Charlotte sports TV crews gathered at a conference room at the old Charlotte/Douglas airport site, now a major, modern hub.
We'd been there about 20 minutes when Humpy walked in, followed by colorful, longtime NASCAR crew-chief/engine builder Harry Hyde and a promising car-builder/crew-chief Will Cronkrite.
With them, smiling broadly, was the handsomest young African-American man I'd ever seen--and still to this day.
Humpy wasted no time or words.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to introduce Willy T. Ribbs!" exclaimed Humpy. "He is our latest entry in the World 600 on May 28, 1978. And he is going to make an immeasurable impact on our sport."
Wheeler then revealed that Ribbs, 23, and a native of San Jose, Calif., had been racing in Europe in the Formula Ford series. He'd won the Dunlop Championship in his first sseason of competition.
The microphone then was turned over to Ribbs.
He proved articulate, charming and funny. He won over everyone in the press corps--plus tough old NASCAR veteran Harry Hyde and Will Cronkrite.
I wrote a glowing, very positive column about Ribbs.
Said Humpy Wheeler, "Willy is what we promoters have been waiting for since Wendell Scott. An African-American driver who can compete. That's like discovering oil in your ground."
Two nights later, I'm at home and the phone rings again.
"Tom, this is a sergeant with the Charlotte Police Department," a voice says. "We have a guy here under arrest on several traffic violations and he says he wanted us to call you. By the way, he was driving a Charlotte Motor Speedway pace car."
Thoughts raced through my mind.
"Is he black, glib and funny?" I asked.
The sergeant bellowed.
"Is he ever!"
I said, put him on.
"Willy T., what in the world!? What have they got you for?"
"Well," said Willy, "I made a wrong turn down a one-way street and when they blue-lighted me I tried to outrun them. I wanted to see what these Charlotte cops had."
"Oh, no!" I said.
"Do you need me to come bail you out or get you a lawyer?"
"No," said Willy. "I'm fine."
"Then why did you call me instead of Humpy?"
"I just thought you'd like to know about me getting nabbed."
I immediately sensed the scheming Charlotte Motor Speedway PR machine at work. Any news is good news--including controversies--so long as it gets space in newspapers or time on TV.
Had the track people put Willy up to it?
We'll never know.
But only later did I learn that Willy outran the cops to the swanky Queens neighborhood of Charlotte. He ditched the pace car and sprinted into the gym at Queens College. When the officers found him there he was shooting basketballs. He professed to be a student and expressed surprise when they began arresting him. "Sorry, son," one officer reportedly said, "This is an all-girls school, and it's lily-white."
A couple weeks after Willy's introduction at the Charlotte airport, Wheeler took him to the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. They attended the pre-race driver's meeting on May 14, 1978.
At the the conclusion, tough ol' Bill Gazaway, then the Winston Cup Series director of competition, asked if there were any questions.
Only Willy T. raised his hand.
"Is it OK to pass in the grass?" asked Willy, who wasn't in the race.
The crowded room erupted in laughter.
Getting into the grass along the backstretch or homestretch at ultra-fast Talladega is a strict no-no-, almost certain to create a colossal crash.
A chartered bus took the starters from the drivers' meeting to the start/finish line, where they were to be introduced. Driver Darrell Waltrip started singing, "Pass in the grass and bust your a--!" The bus rocked with mirth.
The incident inspired two country music song writers from Statesville, N.C., to record "The Ballad Of Willy T.," which was popularly played on radio for a few weeks.
Willy T. subsequetly missed two scheduled practice sessions for the 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Wheeler scrubbed his ride. It went instead to a young-up-and-comer named Dale Earnhardt, who placed 17th in the race won by Waltrip on May 28.
What since of Willy T. Ribbs?
In 1983 he won five races in the Trans-Am Series. In '86 he ran three Winston Cup Series events in an under-powered car with a best finish of 22nd at North Wilkesboro.
In 1990 He joined the CART circuit and in '91 became the first African-American to qualify for the Indy 500.
Later on, in 2000, Ribbs drove in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for team owner Bobby Hamilton in 23 of 24 races. He had a best finish of 13th and was 16th in points.
Ribbs once said, meaning colorful and outspoken, that he would like to become "The black Darrell Waltrip of NASCAR."
Given a decent chance, I think he relatively could have become that.
Wherever you are, Willy T., from your old friend and admirer, Godspeed.