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Ribbs back in the driver's seat at Baltimore Grand Prix

The latest chapter in the remarkable 35-year career of racecar driver Willy T. Ribbs began "in the middle of an Iowa cornfield."

Ribbs, the first African-American to drive in the Indianapolis 500, didn't see any helmeted ghosts of Daytona's past or hear any of them imploring him to drive in Baltimore and they would come.

It was simply an invitation from Chris Miles at a dinner one night at the Cinder House restaurant in Newton, Iowa, during an Indy event held at Iowa Speedway last month. Miles, who grew up in Indiana an aspiring racecar driver who idolized Ribbs, is now president of Starting Grid Inc., which in partnership with American Honda established the Willy T. Ribbs Racing team in May with another African-American driver, Chase Austin.

"I had no thoughts at all of ever being in a racecar again — none," Ribbs said in a telephone interview Monday night. "I said, 'All those drivers are wearing Huggies and I'm wearing Depends.'"

Though Ribbs is still in pretty good shape at 56, it had been 10 years since he last raced competitively and 17 years since he last slid into the driver's seat of an Indy car. It took a grueling 200-mile practice session last week at Putnam Park in Indianapolis for Ribbs to realize — or at least start to believe — that he could still be competitive enough to drive Miles' racecar in the Firestone Indy Lights round of the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix this weekend.

"The first half of the day it was just learning again, reacclimating yourself, your depth perception, your timing and you'd better understand what the car is trying to do and what the car is telling you," Ribbs said. "I was getting reacclimated to what my limit is, and I was not reaching the limit. Especially toward the end, when you're a competitor in any sport, you're making phone calls to yourself and you're trying to call up what you want from yourself. It got better and better towards the end of the day."

Before that, most of the racing Ribbs had done was along the deep canyons of his 13-acre ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas, near Austin, where he and his son Theo, now 20, had moved several years ago. The ranch was more of a big target range for Theo Ribbs, now one of the country's top trap shooters. Ribbs, a single parent since his son was 9 months old, had spent much of the past decade chaperoning Theo to competitions around the world.

Ribbs' activities on the ranch have actually kept him sharp for racing. When Ribbs recently took a physical at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the doctors told him that the most impressive result came on the vision test.

"I told him, 'I've been shooting a shotgun with my son competitively and you've got to have good vision to hit moving targets at the speed they're going," Ribbs said. "The vision part is important."

Though he is some 35 pounds heavier than the 175 pounds he weighed in his prime, Ribbs said that he has been working out "twice a day" in preparation of his trip to Baltimore.

"Physically you've got to be there, especially driving an Indy car," he said. "Driving a stock car, you can eat a ham sandwich [while driving] at some of the tracks. It's not that physical. When you're on a Grand Prix course like Baltimore, it is physical. I never had a weight problem, but I'll tell you, carrying weight in a racecar, it'll fatigue you."

In making his comeback, Ribbs concedes that he is thinking about the way he was raised by his grandfather, Henry Ribbs, on a 300-acre cattle ranch in Northern California.

"My grandpa was born in 1899, and it was all about how tough you had to be," Ribbs said.

It was that toughness that enabled Ribbs to claw his way through the deep-rooted racism of the sport, winning five times on the Formula Atlantic circuit and becoming the first African-American to race a Formula One car. He was considered "the Jackie Robinson of racing" after he broke the color barrier at the Indianapolis 500 in 1991. Not that Ribbs ignored what he considered to be what he and others thought was — and remains — a clear bias among corporate sponsors toward African-American drivers.

Ribbs said he is not surprised that few African-American drivers followed him to the elite levels of racing, and his disdain for those involved on the sport's corporate sponsorship end is clear.

"I had very minimal support in my career. My Indy car career was primarily Bill Cosby's money," Ribbs said. "Prior to that I was racing for Dan Gurney and he had a major manufacturer. That was the disappointment — that the dollars weren't there. This year there were four women drivers in the Indy 500 — four — and GoDaddy[.com] is a major backer of Danica Patrick, and rightfully so. I love Danica and I'm a supporter, but when I was doing it, it was really hard. There were no Go Daddies. There were No Daddies for you. That was the hardest part I had to deal with emotionally."

His expectations for this weekend are not that high, but he jokes that he is now "the George Blanda of racing" and said that George Foreman's heavyweight championship at age 45 is inspiring. But he acknowledges that he isn't sure whether he will continue in his comeback.

"This is not really going to be a really accurate test because I only had one day of practice," he said. "But if the sport wants me in the sport, I'll be there. And they know exactly what I'm saying. Danica just left IndyCar and is going to NASCAR. I'll be back, but you'll have to want me."

Miles concedes that corporate sponsors "are still not behind [Ribbs] or the true diversity initiative. It's tragic." But Miles, who is also African-American, said the demographics of Baltimore make it "the perfect place" for Ribbs' return.

"It wouldn't have mattered in Long Beach [Calif.] or in the middle of Ohio," Miles said. "It's our people."

Miles met Ribbs in Indianapolis in the spring of 1992, a year before Ribbs finished a career-best 21st at the 500. Miles said that he views this weekend as a victory lap for Ribbs' career.

"This was literally my way of saying, 'Thank you,'" Miles said. "It was my way of letting Willy know that I still cared, that other people cared. We're not looking to win the race. This allows Willy to go out on his own terms, one more opportunity to be in the racecar. It's a situation where I wanted to give thanks and let him enjoy the moment, whatever comes to pass will come. If he qualifies last, finishes last, so what? If he has a big smile on his face when he climbs out of the racecar, we've won."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Signing appearance

Today, 7 p.m.

Who: Driver Graham Rahal and Indy 500 legend Al Unser Jr.

Where: Macy's, The Mall in Columbia, men's department

BALTIMORE GRAND PRIX FESTIVAL OF SPEED

What: Auto racing festival, featuring IndyCar Series open-wheel race

When: Friday through Sunday

Where: Downtown Baltimore

Tickets: Available at baltimoregrandprix.com or by calling Ticketfly at 877-435-9849

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