All firsts aside, it all comes down to winning Ribbs, St. James want to be focused



When: Sunday

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Time: 11 a.m.

TV: Channels 13, 7

Pole sitter: Arie Luyendyk, 223.967 mph

Defending champ: Al Unser Jr.

Cars in field: 33

Indy 500 winners in field: 6 (Arie Luyendyk, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Sr.)

MA Average speed of field: 219.692 mph (record: 223.479 in 1992)

INDIANAPOLIS -- At the mention of Lyn St. James, Willy T. Ribbs stretches his arms in front of him and crosses his index fingers as if warding off the devil.

"No, no, no, get away from me," Ribbs said. "I know exactly where you're going with this."

The comparisons are inescapable.

* Both are ra0cing in their second Indianapolis 500.

* Both are representing racing minorities.

* Both have heard their racing nerve and skill questioned.

"I'm not getting into any comparisons," Ribbs said. "I'm not dealing with the only-woman, only-black racing thing. People can say what they want about that, I don't care. I'm not answering any questions about that."

What both are dealing with is trying to make an impact Sunday in the 77th annual Indianapolis 500. And as they do that, their goals are eerily the same.

"First, I want to finish," said Ribbs, echoing St. James.

She will start on the outside of Row 7. He will start on the outside of Row 10.

She will have her eyes closed as she sits in the driver's seat Sunday morning, continuing her concentrated efforts to visualize the race.

"I still can't visualize 200 laps," she said. "That would be perfect. But it's hard. I can sit in a chair now and visualize for 20 to 30 minutes. I've learned I had to visualize the passes and visualize myself winning. I learned in Trans Am racing, that if you haven't visualized winning, you don't know how to react when you find yourself with a chance to win."

Ribbs will sit in his race car Sunday, and he too will be concentrating.

"They've made the track a little narrower," he said. "It's very important to get a good car setup and know exactly what you want to do when you head into that first corner. It's a lot tougher than ever before."

In his first try here in 1991, Ribbs' car lost its engine on the fifth lap, relegating him to a 32nd-place finish.

St. James, only the second woman to start at Indy, knows how to get near the finish. Last year, her car ran for 193 of the 200 laps for an 11th-place finish. That was good enough to earn the Indy Rookie of the Year award.

They both say the biggest difference this time around is simply knowing the ropes. Knowing what to expect. Knowing where to go for drivers' meetings. Knowing what they need to do to be ready for Sunday.

"It's the experience," Ribbs said. "It's still intense. There are still a lot of demands. But just having had the experience before makes this better."

Yet Ribbs, 37, still is dealing with critics who rush to point out that driver John Andretti got 221 mph out of Ribbs' car, while Ribbs' best was a 217.891 on the third of his four qualifying laps.

St. James also hears the critics. They say she isn't a competitive driver, that she won't take a chance on the track, that she's too conservative.

"My philosophy is to make moves, not take risks," said St. James, 46. "It is immature drivers who risk it all at a point that is not the point to do it.

"I'm driving to pass every driver I can," she said. "It's not as perfect as I'd like it to be -- but I'm improving. My critics, men like Bobby Unser, can say what they want. I know that at the end of the day, I'll be a hero, a jerk or anonymous. But I'd like to pick the time. I'd like to have something to say about it and not simply allow the media or the critics to rush me into something I'm not ready for."

Ribbs also turns a deaf ear. He is too busy enjoying his new two-year sponsorship deal. This weekend, Bill Cosby, who has been Ribbs' mentor for the past four years, is expected to arrive for the race.

"Things are much better," said Ribbs, who did not have a ride last season, despite Cosby's support. "I don't have time for the negative. I'm enjoying myself. I've got a much better chassis and engine this time. I've got a sponsor for a full two seasons. My only thoughts are to go out and finish the race. Five hundred miles is a long haul, and I didn't get very far last time. I want to finish; I plan to finish."

In the end, of course, it had to come back to the St. James/Ribbs comparison. Does Ribbs feel any commonality with St. James?

Ribbs moved toward the door. His helmet in his hand, he was about to escape into his race car for yesterday's final practice run.

He stopped. He turned. He smiled.

"We do have one thing in common," he said. "We're both race drivers, like the other 31."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad