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Ribbs Looks on Bright Side despite Losing Probable Pro-Am Victory to Gear Gremlins

Amid the expected disappointment, Willy T. Ribbs reiterated his message will persevere despite having a car break Saturday while leading for a second consecutive year in the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational’s Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am Presented by RACER Magazine.

Ribbs, the first black driver in Indianapolis 500 history, emerged from his black No. 36 Chevrolet Corvette and bemoaned a broken gearbox that prevented what would have been a most meaningful visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Victory Podium.

He tugged on his black hat with the word “UPPITY,” the title of Adam Carolla’s recently released documentary about how Ribbs overcame racism to make history as a racer.

“Oh, I’m up and away,” Ribbs said. “The Willy T. legacy was a great one, and it was successful and we’re not finished. We’re not done yet.”

He and amateur teammate Edward Sevadjian enjoyed a lead of more than 20 seconds in the timed Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) race on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile IMS road course. But that ended on lap 15, about halfway through the event, as they finished 17th out of 23 cars.

Ribbs reiterated an “UPPITY” message that defines the 63-year-old Californian as “Tough. Never quit.” He won 17 Trans Am races and was a Formula Ford champion in Europe before breaking the color barrier to race in the 1991 and 1993 Indianapolis 500s.

His documentary fittingly premiered Saturday, May 26, the day before the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“It went real well,” he said. “I was prepared to be real critical. Adam Carolla did a fabulous job. That thing could be looking at an Academy Award.”

Being awarded the traditional bottle of milk as well as a trophy this day would have been special, but as the old saying goes, that’s racing.

“Last year, we had four minutes to go, and the oil pump belt broke,” Ribbs said. “This year, no gears. First, fourth gear went. And then all the gears. As Graham Hill used to say, it was ‘a box full of neutrals.’

“You accept the fact that these are vintage cars. Through lots of years of technology in racing, the cars have gotten more reliable. These things have got 1,100 horsepower, a lot of grunt, so it puts a lot of stress on the equipment, and the gears, especially. It is what it is. This is for charity, and this is a big party for the drivers. Sure, you want to win. That’s why you’re a pro. But this is great for the fans and the charities.”

Despite being so far ahead, Ribbs insisted he didn’t allow his mind to wander and think about a win.

“You’re using up a lot of real estate fast, so you don’t have time to daydream,” he said of the track. “The track got hot and greasy. This is the hottest Pro-Am we’ve had so far. You could tell. It was slipperier than a greased pig out there.”

The outcome didn’t diminish how much Ribbs enjoyed driving at IMS in an SVRA event for the fourth consecutive year. Make no mistake, the “UPPITY” fire still burns.

“It might not be a forest fire, but it’s a log fire,” he said. “It’s great to be back at the Speedway. I don’t know if I’d want to do a race anywhere else but here. This is the biggest and most important racetrack on planet Earth, no question about it.”

Visit to buy tickets, see the complete Sunday schedule and for more information about the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational. All kids 15 and under are admitted free Sunday when accompanied by an adult ticket holder.

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