The phone call came very early in the morning and I immediately sensed
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
"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
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 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
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.