Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story (2020) Movie Script

[wind blowing]
[Willy] My grandfather
told me,
[engine roaring]
you must be better.
You must be,
not good, not average...
[engine roaring]
You must be better than the best.
He made it clear.
It wasn't a matter of
whether you want to succeed or not.
You're going to.
[cars zipping past]
[indistinct announcement on PA]
There was no black driver
at that time.
There was death threats.
If this nigger races in this race,
he not might not leave alive.
They called me Uppity.
Uppity nigger.
And I loved it.
My grandfather,
he was the only black plumbing contractor
in the city of San Jose.
His business was pretty much all white,
and he knew he had to be
better than his competitors,
and he drilled that in us.
That was, to me, very important.
He started in 1927.
By 1960s he was doing so well
that he bought a ranch
and left the plumbing business
to my dad and my uncle.
Because of the family business,
my dad had motorcycles,
and he had go-karts,
and he had sports cars.
And that was my introduction.
My dad was racing as a hobby.
[Phillip] He competed
in amateur racing.
We were always exposed to
racecars, and racing car drivers.
He was maybe about five or six
and he met Dan Gurney
and oh, God, he just followed him all over
the track.
[man in promo] If a race driver is ever
elected president of the United States,
it probably will be Dan Gurney.
Dan Gurney, he was such a nice person.
He says "Okay, let's take our picture."
Dan was smiling all over the place.
He thought he was a real crack up.
[Willy] The Dan Gurneys
of the world.
The Jim Clarks of the world.
They were the reason
I wanted to be a race driver.
And I knew that at nine years old.
[Geraldine] From then on,
he spent his time
with the automobiles rather
than brothers and sisters.
I had a Lotus Cortina,
which is a little two-door sedan.
Every opportunity he would have
when he came home from school,
first thing he did was go
jump in the car.
I knew where the key was...
[engine spluttering]
...and I went up to a windy road,
called Mount Hamilton Road.
At 12 years old.
The sheriff called me and said,
"You know we got Willy T.
out in your car."
I said "Huh?"
[sirens wailing]
My mother didn't spank me,
and my Dad didn't spank me.
But they said you're going to the ranch.
If you got in trouble,
my grandfather, who was
the person you worried about.
It wasn't the law.
He was only five foot four,
but he was as big as Shaquille O' Neal.
I said you need
to stay out here for a while,
where you can run a car
without it running over somebody.
My grandfather hated
auto racing.
It was not to be mentioned at the ranch.
So you didn't talk about it around him.
He thought that being involved
in auto racing was
spending money recklessly.
You had to have a goal.
And it better pass
the smell test with him.
He wanted to know
what I was going to do.
I told him, I wanted to be
a formula one driver,
or an Indy 500 driver.
There was no black driver
at that time.
He said to me,
you're a goddamn fool.
[Geraldine] Told him,
"No, you can't do that."
Willy T. said, "Grandpa,
but that's what I want to do."
And he says, "Well, I don't care what
you want to do. You can't drive a car."
[Willy] "I built this business
to hand over to you,
so you wouldn't have
to work for somebody else.
So you could be your own boss."
And with him, being your own boss
meant everything.
You had to be your own boss.
I wanted to be my own boss.
Behind the steering wheel.
I wanted to be a race driver.
Young drivers from all over
the world would all go to Britain,
and run the Formula 4 championship.
[announcer] This is Formula 4,
a late outgrowth
to the Formula B division.
[Marshall] Formula 4 is a place where
if you have a desire to be
a professional motor racing driver,
that was where you went.
That's the place
where you find out if you're real.
And if you're good enough,
you come out and people pay attention.
[Willy] I let my parents know,
that I'm not going to go to college.
Look at me going to England
to race Formula 4,
is like sending me to college.
My dad knew the dangers of racing.
He would never admit that
he was worried about me
getting hurt or killed.
But he knew it was there.
He lost
quite a few friends
right in front of his eyes.
Killed right in front of his eyes.
He was reluctant.
Especially as a career.
When you do it as a career,
you're all in.
You're all in.
When I got to England, I knew from reading
Autosport Magazine.
There was a team that
was very successful. It was called
Scorpion Racing. And the owner
was Mike Eastick.
So I drove out to his farm
and knocked on the door.
He thought I was there
to get a job on his farm.
I said, "No, I'm here to talk to you
about driving one of your racecars."
If you brought money. Whether it was
personal money or sponsored dollars,
he'd put you in a racecar. I paid him
with my college money.
We shook hands on a deal.
Two weeks later, he had me
testing his racecar at Mallory Park.
If you want to be an IndyCar driver
or a Formula One driver,
you start at that level.
The older model racecar,
which is what he put me in,
costs 200 pounds per race.
I finished third in my first race
and right then, he said, "Okay, I want you
to go to the newer model."
[announcer] Coming to get
the green flag...
[Willy] The second race I won.
When I called home from England, I said,
"I won." And there was a pause.
"You're kidding," and I said, "No, I won."
I was racing against Nigel Mansell
and Michael Rowe.
And those guys were really tough.
Mansell went on to be
Formula One world champion.
It was my fourth or fifth race.
The head of Formula One
was there, Bernie Ecclestone.
[Marshall] Bernie Ecclestone
took over Formula One.
Turned it into the world's
number two sport behind soccer.
Made it a commercial success,
billions upon billions.
[announcer] And a beautiful start!
[Marshall] You can't even quantify
how big Bernie Ecclestone
is in Formula One.
If somebody was doing well
in any of the lower series,
they would probably come
into GP3 or GP2
and then get recognized
and go into Formula One.
And that's why I was there.
I wanted to catch your eye
so I could be a Formula One driver
or an Indy 500 driver.
I won six out of eleven races.
I had such a large points lead,
I couldn't be beat.
Willy was so dominant
with the Scorpion Racing Team.
He didn't even need
to finish the season.
He'd earned so many points,
championship was already his.
Once I won my championship
in Formula 4,
I was out of money.
[Bernie] You do need some
support financially,
in order that you can get recognized.
Because you can't just say,
"I think what I'm going to do
is be a Formula One driver,"
and pop into a car.
[Marshall] Once you start coming out of
Formula 4, getting into Formula Three,
that's when things start getting
a little bit expensive. Family support?
That comes to an end
after Formula 4.
You really do need sponsors.
[Chris] Wanting to be a racecar driver.
It costs.
It costs a lot of money.
[Willy] A lot of the drivers were being
sponsored by their own country.
I didn't get that, and so...
I could not go to Formula Three,
and I had to come home.
When I came back to the United States,
I was 22 years old.
The next step from Formula 4
to the United States was Formula Atlantic.
And I got a phone call from
the Long Beach Grand Prix Association.
They had a sponsor that put me
in my first race in the United States.
I didn't have a car that I could win with,
but the objective was to get my feet wet
in the United States.
Before every race,
there's a drivers meeting.
You could feel the tension.
In England there was no animosity
about the color of my skin.
It was about,
"Hey, let's go out and race."
And when I walked into
that drivers meeting
in Long Beach.
Not one driver spoke to me.
Not one.
They didn't even look at me.
After that, there was nothing.
Despite what I accomplished in England.
He came back knowing
that, "I just did something,
accomplished something
that very few Americans have.
Let alone African-Americans."
And no one would give him a shot, no one.
I came to speedway back in 1975,
and I was always looking for an angle.
We would do crazy things like Robosaurus.
He ate six cars.
Then we had high wire acts.
When Geoff Bodine came down here
from Chemung, New York,
and I used to say,
Earnhardt's Robert E. Lee and
Geoff Bodine is Grant.
For a while there, they sold
a lot of tickets
'cause there was a civil war
kind of aspect about it.
I get a phone call from
a promoter in Charlotte, North Carolina.
[Humpy] If 30% of
the population is Black,
you want to get some
of those people in it.
[Willy] He said, "I could put
you in a car."
I did not know
he was The Blonde Don King.
Humpy Wheeler was smart enough to say,
"This would be great for our series."
"We're going to get some
attention down here,
and you're the guy
that's going to bring it."
I knew it would work
If we got the right black race driver.
And his record was pretty darn good
considering the equipment
he had to work with.
I've had a lot of guys in cars out there
just trying to see what they can do.
Usually it takes them two days
just to figure out
how to get through the first turn.
He didn't waste any time, he just got out
there on the fourth lap,
and he was running pretty steamy laps.
I said, "You gonna crash this
thing if you keep going." He said,
"That's the only way
to go fast, get it loose."
[Marshall] So Humpy and Willy announced
they are going to get Willy
into the World 600,
one of NASCARS biggest events.
I didn't think about any
of the political or social ramifications.
That didn't, it didn't cross my mind.
But he knew.
You think about that time period
we were in in the '70s.
Everything was supposed to be integrated
and yackity yack across the country,
but it wasn't. There was
still a lot of segregationists.
[indistinct chatter]
Next week, I'm going to put
Jews under-- [speaks indistinctly]
[Al] Willy had challenges
in front of him that
other race car drivers didn't.
You're coming into a sport where
the majority of the people are white,
and they have been
from its conception.
You go to a racetrack
and 75% of the infield
was still waving rebel flags.
They might call it the
United States racing series.
It's a Southern racing series.
Daytona's down there,
Talladega's down there.
That is all white.
Humpy said, "There's a few people
that are not going to like you down here."
I said, "Well, they're just
gonna have to get used to not liking it."
No, that's not a place to go.
Not if you're black.
That weekend there was
a big race in Talladega.
And when we got into the pits,
people were actually
spitting on the ground near me.
It wasn't a very warm
welcome, and it
really started to piss me off.
If you're such a badass, don't spit,
start swinging your fists.
The clash of taking a west coast,
Northern Californian, black man,
dropping him into the deep south,
and expecting him to know
the Jim Crow playbook
and that he's not expected
to be proud to be his own man
and thinking that's going
to be a success?
I don't know how anybody
actually thought that was going to work.
[Willy] And so I said, "Okay,
you wanna have a reason
not to like me?
I'm gonna give you one."
[Humpy] All the drivers were there.
All the crew chiefs were there,
some of the car owners,
and some press guys.
A hand went up,
an African-American hand.
In Talladega, Alabama.
And Willy said, "Can you
pass in the grass?"
[Willy] They had a real narrow
pit lane
and the drivers were
coming out of the pits.
They were nearly running into each other.
You stood at the driver's meeting and said
to the grand national competitors,
"I have one question,
can you pass in the grass?"
Do you regret having said that?
Oh, no, because it was probably
one of the most intelligent questions
ever asked
in a Grand National Driver's meeting.
Uh, Chief Stuart was a card
carrying member and his face tightened up,
with rage.
Boy, that was a huge mistake.
[Willy] There was death threats
that were called in.
If this nigger races in this race,
he might not leave alive.
It was not only that call,
but we got a lot of other calls.
"If you let that blankety
blank run in the race,
I am going to kill you"
My grandfather believed
in right and wrong.
And you don't turn the other cheek
when you're right.
You do not walk away from that.
[Humpy] Things just kept
getting worse and worse and worse.
So I sat Willy down.
I said, "Willy,
maybe next year or the year
after, but this is not the time to do it."
This place is too inflamed.
He was definitely fighting
an uphill battle.
Especially being the personality
that he was.
[Humpy] That kind of ended
as they say, "The Battle of Willy T."
[Willy] Humpy had
to pull the plug
and I wish he hadn't.
In England, in 1977,
I met Muhammad Ali.
From then on, he sorta
took me under his wing.
He said to me, "You're going
to deal with some challenges...
For one reason only.
You're not in basketball.
You're not in baseball.
You're in an all-white sport."
What gave me resolve
was thinking about my grandfather
and what he taught me,
and then there was Muhammad Ali.
And his three-and-a-half-year layoff.
Where he couldn't make a living.
It took his livelihood away.
I thought about those, those two men...
And I thought, all right.
Don't give up mentally.
You might not be in a racecar,
but don't give up.
Don't quit on yourself because
the only person
who's going to beat you is you.
No one was jumping to put me
in a racecar. I didn't want to be...
working for my dad.
I didn't wanna be in that business,
but I had to.
Everything I achieved
in England was meaningless.
I went from driving a racing car
and winning races, to driving
a service van for my dad.
It was devastating.
An acquaintance
with my dad's company was doing
a job for-- On a building that he owned.
He asked me to go to a race with him.
And I said, "Nah, I don't wanna go."
And he says, "Well, they're having
a Can-Am race at Laguna Seca in Monterey,
and would you go?" I said,
"No, I don't want to go."
He says, "Come on, I'll drive down.
I'll drive you down. Just walk
me around, I've never been."
Went down there and I was
walking through the pits
and I met Jim Trueman.
I didn't know who Jim Trueman
was, he said, "I own Red Roof Inns."
[announcer] And Jim Trueman has
moved up into fourth place right now.
[Marshall] One of
the great sportsmen.
Jim Trueman's life was
really all about IndyCar
and Bobby Rahal. But given
the chance Jim would absolutely
spend some of his money
to help give chances elsewhere.
My version of success is to see how many
other people I can help be successful.
[Willy] He says,
"What do you wanna do?"
I say, "Well, I'm out of racing."
He says, "Yeah, I know."
He says, "Why?"
I said, "No, no backing."
"All right, I want you to
call me next week. Call me Tuesday."
I asked him, I said, "Are you serious?"
He says, "Call me."
"What kind of cars do
you want to race?" And I said,
"Well, I want to continue
to do Formula Atlantic."
You find the team
and if you like it, tell me
how much it's going to cost.
[Ian] The Formula Atlantic Series,
was in many ways the pre-eminent
road racing series
in North America, in 1982.
It was the most similar to what
a race driver would be driving anywhere
else in the world at the same level.
[Willy] My first Formula Atlantic race,
I ran in the top Six.
Then next year,
I put it on the pole.
And the guys that were in that race
were Al Unser Jr.
Michael Andretti,
Jeff Brabham.
Willy qualified three-tenths of a second
faster than the entire field.
That surprised me and everybody else.
The only person who wasn't
surprised was Willy.
[Willy] In front of Formula One,
in front of Bernie Ecclestone,
in front of the elite
of the sport. With no time.
And we put that
son of a bitch on the pole.
I knew that. I said, "I'm as good
as anybody in the sport."
[Ian] Took off, and I had a good week.
He led more than half of the race.
But what took us out
was the failure of the engine.
[Willy] And I could feel
the engine start to fade.
If it wasn't for mechanical failure,
I might've won the race.
The reason that engine failed
was because
it had something like 1800 miles on it
before we even started the race.
Everybody we were beating,
they had a brand new engine with
a hundred miles on it.
And it was special for Long Beach
and much better power
and torque than our engines.
[Willy] But it didn't matter.
I knew I was back. You all saw it.
Now what do you have to say?
What do you gotta say now?
Where's the deals?
Where's the phone calls?
What are you scared of now?
Nothing happened. No deal.
So I worked in the family business.
That was hard.
The end of 1982.
Two days before Thanksgiving,
the phone rang, and it was Paul Newman.
[Wally] Paul Newman took
racing really seriously.
[engine roars]
He wanted to be
respected as a driver.
The only thing that I ever found
any grace in was an automobile.
[Willy] I first met Paul
in the pits. It was brief,
and he said, "Keep up the good work."
I did not know that Newman
was actually paying attention,
until I got that phone call from him.
"Hey, kid,
I got a deal for you."
I know you like Formula Atlantic but
the Trans-Am Series is an opportunity
for you to become a paid race driver.
It's going to be a first class team.
Think about it,
and let me know.
I said, "No, I've already
thought about it. If you recommend it,
I'm doing it."
He says, "All right,
you're going to get
a call from Budweiser.
They got a few hard asses there,
so if there's any problems,
call me."
[Marshall] SCC Trans-Am
wasn't as big as IndyCar,
but it was definitely popular.
[Willy] DeAtley Racing was
sponsored by Budweiser.
For Trans-Am at that time,
it was state of the art.
And when Paul Newman called me
and recommended this Trans-Am which--
I didn't know anything
about Trans-Am.
I was blown away.
But I knew he knew I could
go fast. That, he knew.
He said, "I'm not helping
myself here
'cause I'm going to be
racing against you
and I know how fast you are."
[announcer] They go into turn
number one and Paul Newman
from third starting position sneaks
to the inside and passes Willy T. Ribbs,
but Ribbs grabs the lead back.
"But I'm driving a racing car
for a different reason than you are,
I enjoy it, it's my hobby.
You drive a racing car
to put a roof over your head.
And that's why you need
to be in that car."
[Willy] It took five years for me to be
in this position. To be a paid pro driver.
This was an opportunity for me
to not have to
go back to where I was.
I didn't want to go back
to driving a plumbing van.
The difference between
a Formula Atlantic car
versus a Trans-Am car,
is night and day.
To go fast in a Formula Atlantic car,
you had to be smooth.
The Trans-Am car ,
the engines in the front.
It's a big high horse power
car with big tires on it.
Trans-Am cars of that era were absolute
hand-made monsters.
Eight hundred horse power engines.
These cars, very quickly,
told you whether you had the skill
to get the most out of them.
Being on the ranch sliding
those trucks and vehicles
and all that. I mean, I learned
car control at an early age.
And that's what you needed
with that Trans-Am car.
[Pat] Willy ended up being
way faster than I
expected but I was certainly hoping for.
[Willy] Then I had a good teammate
by the name of David Hobbs
David Hobbs is a very
accomplished driver.
Won a lot of races.
[Marshall] IndyCars,
Indy 500, Le Mans,
just everything.
World renowned race car driver.
[Hobbs] First race was at
Melrose Park in Florida
when I met Willy and
Willy became the second car.
I knew he was a very
nice personal young guy.
And practice showed
he was pretty quick too.
I was the designated
number two driver.
[Marshall] David Hobbs was
the number one driver, period.
There was no argument.
There was no question.
There is a hierarchy of
how things are done.
The number one driver is going
to get the number one equipment.
[Willy] You get the best engines. You get
all the best components.
In auto racing,
the title teammates
really doesn't apply.
Because you're trying
to beat your teammate
more than you're trying
to beat the other teams.
Just to establish who's going
to be top dog on the team.
[Pat] There was a motor
improvement that David got.
A next generation intake manifold.
to perk his car up a little bit.
A real super motor, right?
Now going to David's car.
You know and then,
the one that's really good, but not
that good would go in Willy's car.
[Willy] If you were to put
it on a clock,
the number two driver is going
to be a half a second
slower than the number one driver.
And it was designed that way.
He didn't have
the car David had.
Whether there was
an order or not.
The deck is stacked against you.
You have to be very determined.
My mindset was like my grandpa taught me.
That I had to be better.
And I wasn't gonna let David Hobbs
get in the way of that.
He was the number one driver
until we got to the first race.
When qualifying was over,
I was on the front row.
He was behind me.
And that didn't go over well.
His fish and chips weren't
tasting too good.
Dave and Willy were neck and neck.
I mean they didn't have any fear.
They were gonna be going for the lead
pretty much no matter what it took.
[Willy] I lead the race until
I had a flat tire. The second race was
Summit Point, West Virginia.
Hobbs, he had that look on his face like,
I'm coming for you.
That's when my crew chief
said to me,
"I had heard you were fast,
but we had no idea you were that fast."
I said, "You ain't seen nothing yet,
wait till I've learned this thing.
I don't even know the car yet."
[Willy] The fourth race
was in Portland, Oregon.
Willy and David went
to the front.
And Willy took his first lead
in a Trans-Am race.
[indistinct announcement]
[Willy] I was starting to learn
how to control tire wear
and I just drove a smart race.
[indistinct announcement]
[Willy] It was just a good hard
race you know.
If he would have won, I wouldn't
have felt bad, and I hope he doesn't
feel bad with me up front.
It had been so long
to get to victory circle.
Going from a Formula Atlantic
car to a Trans-Am car,
this is one of those
things that might take someone
a couple of years
to figure out the nuances.
How Willy adapted to this so soon,
I genuinely don't know.
[Willy] It was
my first professional win.
And it was awesome. It felt good.
It was no looking back after that.
I was making no bones about
"I'm here to win."
And I'm not number two.
[Marshall] His rookie year became a thing
known for winning.
He made that statement
right away.
Guy in a racecar,
tough ass series,
bad ass competition.
Kicking the shit out of them,
more often than not.
Willy was unbeatable in a Trans-Am car.
He just flew.
[Pat] He was definitely
the number one driver.
And I'm not sure that the team
realized how fast Willy could be.
[Hobbs] As the year
progressed, it was apparent
that Willy was a very,
very fast driver.
But he certainly didn't make friends
very easily and he was very abrasive.
Between me and my buddy
David Hobbs, it was personal.
David knew that.
[Robby] Willy was a polarizing driver
and he tended to torque
some of the more delicate drivers.
Some guys didn't like it.
He had a hard time dealing with them.
Even if you are good,
you know, Jimmy Clark
was the best.
But he didn't make this known
at every breath he took.
Now I am one of the best drivers
in auto racing, period.
Black, white, oriental, or Hispanic.
Ray Charles can see that.
[Marshall] There are folks who either
love that kind of personality,
and there are those who don't.
Uh, A.J. Foyt,
four-time Indy 500 winner...
Punch you in the mouth
as quick as he'd say hello to you.
I don't hear folks
saying they hate him.
[Willy] It wasn't
about racing. It was about
you're not toeing to subservient line.
That was the attitude that
team manager John Dick gave me.
You're lucky to be here.
John Dick was Hobbs' boy.
It seemed as if John might
not have cared for Willy's
showmanship ways and I think
the fact that he was as fast as David
might've increased the friction.
[Willy] He wanted Hobbs to be
the absolute number one.
Well, that wasn't happening.
So, halfway through
the '83 season,
the team manager and I,
we didn't talk at all.
So this is just literally
a case of,
"you don't belong here."
I was called into the office and asked
if I thought Willy should be let go.
Second to the last race,
was Riverside, California.
Hobbs, if he won the race,
could clinch the championship.
Before the race started,
the owner asked me to finish
second to Hobbs. And I said no.
He says, "I would like you to finish
second to David Hobbs.
You're under orders."
And I said, "All right,
I'll do it. But you pay me
first place money."
He said, "No, I'm not going
to do that."
I said, "Well, then no, I'm not going
to finish second.
You guarantee me first place money,
and then I'll take a powder."
Right before I got ready
to put in gear to move off,
he said, "Okay."
Hobbs won the race,
clenched the championship.
The next race was Las Vegas,
and I left him.
[announcer] Ribbs coming out
of turn number one. Grabs the lead...
[Willy] It was cake.
[announcer] Memorize that
number and color 28,
red and white, Willy T. Ribbs.
But the checkered flag comes out
and it is Willy T. Ribbs winning
the Caesars Palace Grand Prix
for Trans-Am cars.
I won rookie of the year.
In the end I won the championship.
And he was not very happy.
And made it pretty known.
[Willy] When I left Las Vegas,
I knew
who the man was in Trans-Am.
I was looking forward to 1984.
I had championship on my mind.
We were not going to be with the Camaros,
we were transitioning
to the Corvette. It was a whole
different chassis, and
suspension geometry and
I was looking forward to it.
I came back as
David Hobbs' teammate,
but not number two.
And I made that clear.
Road Atlanta
was the first race of the year,
and I knew there was
a new driver
that was coming into
the series named
Bob Lobenberg. And I knew that
he was a bit of a pop off.
Sunday morning warm-up.
Went out on the track.
We had an issue. We were going down
into the dip, about 190 miles per hour.
He's right next to me,
and he forced me off the road.
When someone runs
someone else off the road,
it's kinda like pointing a gun
at him and pulling the trigger.
I ran down to his car.
And I yelled at him and
I hit him in the helmet.
If a driver was out there
driving and somebody cut them off,
at the end of the race
they fought it out.
[announcer] And there's a fight! Between
Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison.
[Bobby] Every night at the local track
we'd have a good fistfight after the race
or in between the races or something.
That was just part of
[Willy] Muhammad Ali told me,
you might have to take care of yourself.
He said, "Know how to fight."
So that's what I went and did.
I was in condition to go
toe to toe with anybody
in the racetrack.
Now the confrontation
I had with Lobenberg
was a Deacon Jones head slap.
Might hurt his feelings,
but it didn't hurt him.
[Hobbs] John Dick went down to
say, "Hey, hey, hey," and calmed it out.
Then Willy had an altercation
with our John Dick.
That provided the out
for the team to part ways.
I was fired.
What we had on the track,
that was between me and Lobenberg.
We're two men,
let us get it handled.
You people stay out of it.
And that's how it should
have been left.
If you want to be successful
you got to do what you're told
and Willy's just never been
that kind of person.
[Willy] Here we go again.
How long is it going to be
before I drive again.
The phone rang
and it was a German accent.
It was Michael Kranefuss,
the director of special vehicles
operation of Ford Motor Company.
[in German accent] "If you want,
we are very interested in
you to come to Detroit
because we would like to put you in a car.
I have Edsel Ford on the line."
And then Edsel came on
and he says,
"You can be Willy T. Ribbs.
We just want you to win"
Sunday night I was unemployed,
on Monday morning I was employed.
I was on an airplane
headed to Detroit
to Jack Roush's facility.
[Tommy] He's an interesting character.
He's a PhD mathematician.
Really strong opinion on how things
should be. For better and for worse.
[Marshall] Brilliant mind, he would
never be accused though
of having any social graces.
[Willy] He took me around.
Showed me his dynos
and told me that
you're going to have horse power.
He's got engines in there running
for 48 hours straight.
Almost psychotic,
with his focus on engine power.
I missed four races
because Roush
and Ford were building me
a brand new car.
Missing the first four
races has made
it impossible for me to win
the championship.
But it's not impossible
for me to win this race.
[announcer] Looks like
Willy T. Ribbs is followed by
Greg Pickett and David Hobbs
in the DeAtley Corvette.
There's the leader Willy T. Ribbs
in the number 64
Roush Protofab Mercury Capri.
It was effortless
to get in that car and go fast.
It had massive power.
Great handling characteristics
that were better than DeAtley had.
[announcer] And we have a winner
of the Texas Challenge Trans-Am.
[reporter] There was a lot of talk about
the track conditions.
How was the track for you?
Fantastic, I mean it was
better than my bed at home.
As we were going
to the press room,
I walked by the DeAtley pit.
I looked at my old mechanics
Pat McFall and Jeff Schwarz
and they smiled.
They were happy,
because they knew what went on.
One of my professional regrets
was not following Willy to Roush.
Because you want to hitch your wagon
to an exceptional talent.
And Willy was an exceptional talent.
[announcer] Even though Willy
has only competed
in three races this year,
he is sixth in the point standings.
He finished second in Detroit
and has won the last two races.
[Willy] After my third victory,
I thought, "I gotta do
something special."
Helio Castroneves climbs the fence.
[spectators cheering]
Alex Zanardi did the donuts.
Before them,
Willy T. got on top of his roof
and did the Ali shuffle.
[Al] I loved Willy T.'s attitude.
I loved it when
he won the race and got
on the roof,
did the Ali shuffle.
That was Willy.
[Willy] I was doing it for
the fans.
Now, if you don't want me
to do that,
then beat me.
[announcer] Our leader once again
Willy T. Ribbs out in front.
10,000 people on one mound, 10,000
on the other. 15,000 in the bleachers.
All to come see if the big talking driver
Willy T. could win again.
There weren't really many
people that were used
to drivers that would talk trash
and get out there and
get in front of the cameras.
A lot of people weren't
used to that .
[Phillip] Willy says,
"Press is press,
bad press is still press."
At the time all this was happening,
it was almost impossible
for most racers not to have
a racial aspect to it.
You know, a white guy wouldn't do that.
[Willy] Who's this
black son of a bitch
think he is?
[Phillip] People talk behind our backs.
About you know, "What are
these N people here for?"
You know,
"They don't belong here."
[Chris] He's throwing
it in our face.
He's Uppity.
[Willy] You guys, what do you
expect me to do?
Do you expect me to be
a second-class citizen to you?
You are not entitled over me.
And that was the reason
they called me Uppity.
Uppity Nigger.
And I loved it.
'Cause that's what you're
going to be dealing with.
[engine roaring]
[Marshall] This one team that
I worked for,
we weren't even in the series
Willy was racing in.
I'm just sitting there,
listening to this guy that
I work with use the N word like
it's Willy's first name.
[Willy] The old guards, the old mechanics
in the sport. That was my name.
It wasn't Willy T. It was nigger.
I used to go into the bathroom stalls.
I used to see it all the time.
Willy T. Nigger Ribbs.
I thought that was funny.
Okay, I'm going to give you
an opportunity to write
it even more when the race is over.
[engine roars]
You wanna be mad?
I'll give you more reasons to be mad.
I won four out of eight races
that I competed in in 1984.
Final race of the year was Las Vegas.
After the race, a guy
comes up to me
and says "Don King would
like to meet you."
Don King was regarded
as one of the sports
biggest scum bags.
But he was also at
the height of his power.
So when Don King calls
you take it, because this is a person
who could make you a star.
"Willy T., Willy T., sit down."
And he went right to it.
"You're the Muhammad Ali
of auto racing.
I'll make you a superstar."
My ultimate goal was IndyCar.
I knew Don King could
help me get there.
His lawyer, Charles Lomax
was his name.
Sent a contract, and it was the most
bizarre contract I've ever seen.
The options were all in his favor.
The percentages were insane.
He had an open-ended
expense account.
It took over six weeks
just to get the contract reasonable.
We were exing out full pages.
We flew back down there.
Don Kings' lawyer,
looked at my lawyer and says,
"Fuck these niggers."
My lawyer, he couldn't say anything.
He didn't wanna get into
N word conflict.
But I went angry Ribbs on him.
"Look, you Jheri curled idiot.
These fighters that you guys signed
can't read and write, and they're honored
to be in the company
of Don King.
I'm honored to do business.
But I'm not honored
to be in your company."
Lomex, he says, "Don, we don't
need these sons of bitches. Fuck 'em.
I don't want you to sign it.
But if you want to sign it, you sign it."
I looked at Don. I said,
"No guts, no glory, Don."
He signed it.
Don announced that he was
representing Willy T. Ribbs.
And Don went to work right on.
He had a connection
at Miller Brewing Company.
He called them. He says, "I need
you guys to put Willy T. Ribbs
in the Indy 500."
I went to Indy.
It was like being on a date
with the hottest girl on the planet.
Your tail was wagging, baby.
My tail was like a goddamn bird dog.
[announcer] Gentlemen...
your engines.
Oh they went side by side.
Whoa, look at this!
He just passes him.
He just drove past him!
Checkered flag for Rick Mears.
He's won the Indianapolis 500
with a hand in the air.
I became a fan
of Willy T.'s immediately.
As an African-American you didn't have
a lot of options as
it relates to seeing somebody
who looks like yourself on the racetrack.
In the maintenance crew
you probably had 25 African-Americans.
So the time that we found out
that Willy was coming, uh...
There was a huge buzz,
and, uh, he told me, he said,
"If it could be done,
that he was going to do it."
Well, Willy T. is at Indy.
Is that your slogan for this year?
Come on in here, young man.
Congratulations, your moment
has finally arrived at Indianapolis.
Thank you, well, I'm happy to be here
and it's a big moment for me.
Hopefully uh,
we'll be in shape to do the job.
Before every Indy 500,
every team goes to Phoenix
a month before, and they practice
and they test.
I got none of that.
You gotta practice with it,
and test with it.
That means you can physically
go try to make your race car good.
And that's what he didn't have.
[Willy] It was rushed together.
Show up at the racetrack.
[announcer] The new team owned by
Sherman Armstrong in Winchester, Indiana
was not put together until
about 48 hours ago.
And the new March chassis
was not ready for testing.
[Marshall] Don King brought
Miller Beer to the party
for Willy T.'s first
Indy 500 attempt.
Unfortunately partnered with
Sherman Armstrong's team.
You could not have brought
that money to a team that
cared less about putting a black man
in the Indy 500.
Paul Leffler was the chief mechanic.
And the guy wouldn't talk to me.
I got no information. I got no
technical information.
[engine roars]
[Robby] People don't realize
first gear in Indianapolis is
over 90 miles an hour.
You're driving at over 220 miles per hour
down the front straight away
at Indianapolis.
When you're looking
into turn one down there
you look like you're driving
into a dead end street.
Can't see around it.
You can't see on the other side.
It looks like a dark problem.
You had a big risk
of getting hurt.
[Willy] Paul didn't say,
"All right this is the stage
I want you to do,"
and "This is what you
should feel." It was
"Get in the car and
just drive around."
And I did not understand
what I was doing.
All he needed was a good car
and somebody to work with him.
And like teach him like at Indianapolis,
there's four corners,
but they're all different.
Willy T. indicated that there
was somebody on the team
that would prefer not
to have had him around.
If you're not getting along
with the engineer
its real easy for him
to make you look bad.
[Robby] Engineer is going to
prove that he's right
and you're wrong. It doesn't matter
and he's gonna--
I mean you're done.
[Willy] It felt eerie dealing
with the guy.
Like he was an executioner.
Driving on a road course
is one thing.
But driving around
Indy, is totally different.
Has nothing to do with
how much balls you got.
It's got everything to do with
how much brains you have.
Indy is so fast. The dangers are so great.
[indistinct commentary]
If you make a minor mistake
you could be in the wall.
And you could take off
half the side of the car.
A lot of guys got killed
in a race car.
Sometimes two in one night.
Sometimes two in one wreck!
You gotta have brains at Indy.
The ones with balls
are dead.
They fitted me into the car.
I was up too high.
And it wasn't explained to me
that the air going over the top
of a round surface causes lift.
[Marshall] Windscreens made
out of plastic doesn't
sound like much, but depending
on how high it is or how
low it is really affects
the buffeting on a driver's helmet.
You've got this
200 mile an hour wind that's
throwing your head around.
[Wally] When you get in a car
that's probably not handling really good
and all of a sudden you're asked
to go through turn one
flat out or almost flat
at 220 miles per hour.
You start thinking about
your well-being a little bit.
That thing was a bucket
that I wouldn't have sat in.
I don't care who got in that car.
It would've scared the shit out of them.
There was a lot of guys on that team at
the time that Willy was driving for that
did not want to see
Willy in that race car.
They were basically forced
to prepare that car for Willy to show up.
They didn't want to be there.
For whatever reason.
[Marshall] This stupid little
windscreen put on the car
intentionally low. It's there.
There's no question
that it's there. But you really
have to be an insider.
Very discerning person,
to know that it is too low.
And as you're coming up to turn one,
a corner that has killed far
too many people. Imagine getting there
at 200 miles an hour.
Your head moving around.
And you can't actually focus your eyes
on the corner to turn
and hit that apex.
[Willy] My mechanics,
they were good people.
But they take orders
from Paul Leffler.
I knew he was the most
racist individual I had met so far.
He'd never seen anybody
like Willy T. Ribbs.
I felt helpless.
I called Jim Trueman, I said,
"Jim, what do you think?"
He says, "Get out of there."
And so I left.
And by noon on Saturday,
Willy T. packed up and
had gone home.
Thing about it is, you know,
you can get hurt here
and you gotta do things right.
If it doesn't feel right then
you don't run here.
And the press crucified me.
The drivers knew that
Willy T. Ribbs wasn't chicken.
I never thought for a second
that he was afraid of the speed.
Willy as a driver was certainly
capable of driving anything
that IndyCar could've thrown at him.
Even though we knew
the circumstances,
Willy was basically thrown
into the fire on that deal.
And it was a no-win
situation for him.
People were waiting for him to fail.
They were waiting for him to fail.
All they're looking for is
confirmation of their beliefs.
That you don't belong.
Chicken and ribs.
That was on the menu for the
1985 Indy 500.
That was the first time
really you know
in Willy's career that
he got laughed at.
[Phillip] Got a lot of criticism
for walking away from that.
But he wasn't about
to kill himself.
With Willy's first attempt
to make the Indy 500
ending in a sad and honestly
somewhat embarrassing fashion.
He went back to a place that he knew
where he was comfortable. It was Trans-Am.
The teams, they asked me,
"Well, who would you like as your teammate
in 1985, do you want to stay
with Pickett or do you want Wally?"
So I said Wally.
I just liked him. He was a clean
race driver. And I knew he was fast.
[Wally] In the first couple
races of the '85 season,
we were there to kick everybody's asses.
[Marshall] First five races
Willy and Wally take three wins
and they move into
the sixth race at Portland.
The points standings
coming into Portland,
you had Willy in first
and you had Wally in second.
It was a pretty epic battle
between Willy and I.
And I knew if I made one mistake,
he was going to pounce.
[muffled speech on loudspeaker]
[Phillip] Wally, he did
beat him in Portland
and Willy finished second,
which kinda woke Willy up
a little bit.
And that's really
when things changed
between Willy and I.
I think Willy just said,
"You know what?
I might have to deal
with this guy."
I don't believe we said
two words to each other
the rest of the season.
Halfway through the '85 season,
Wally and I were really
competitive with each other.
We were racing each other
in practice.
One particular race,
we were coming out of the hotel
at the same time
to go to the race that morning.
And we were both in rental cars.
I know Days of Thunder
took that scene from us.
[Wally] We kinda looked
at each other, and that was it.
We tore those rental cars up.
We were in the median.
We were in the grass.
We were banging off of each other.
[Willy] We were actually
going down the opposite lane.
My oncoming car
came by me on my right.
If we ever got caught doing what
we were doing on that road
from the hotel to the racetrack,
we would have been thrown
in jail forever.
After two miles of that,
pulled in, brakes were smoking.
We got out of the cars
at the same time
and it was just kinda like,
in all the races, in all the years
I've raced against Willy,
that was the best race
that we ever had.
[rock music playing]
In Detroit, the Trans-Am race
ran with the Formula One race,
right around the Ford building.
Bernie Ecclestone
was over because of the Formula One.
I didn't want to be in Trans-Am
for the rest of my life.
I wanted to move on
to my ultimate goal.
Don King flies into Detroit.
Don says, "I want to see
Bernie Ecclestone."
And you should've seen
the look on the face of Roush.
[Marshall] It wouldn't be
too strange to assume that
that rubbed Jack Roush
the wrong way.
We go up to Bernie's room,
Bernie looks at Don and says,
"What are we going to do
with our boy Willy here?"
He's going to be the world champion.
Formula One world champion.
"Ah, good," I said.
"That's handy, that's nice."
[Willy] It was planned when
the Trans-Am season was over,
I was going to go and test
his Formula One car in Portugal.
[Marshall] Jack Roush
was always known to be
a very possessive person.
Someone who, if you drove
for him, you were his.
If someone like Jack finds out
that Willy T. has aspirations
to be somewhere
other than his car,
that could definitely set
some bad things in motion.
[Willy] There was some components
that were put in Wally's car.
I could not understand why
I wasn't getting off the corners.
And before the race,
there was a gear
that was put into my car.
A second gear, that was so tall,
the thing stumbled
coming off the corners.
No one knows how it happened,
but it happened.
[Phillip] Willy became very,
very upset about it.
All of a sudden,
one car will go down
the straightaway
and just pull away.
Identical cars,
that one has like,
20 or more horse power.
[Ian] If he had an engine that
had 2000 miles on it--
This thing's gonna pitch any time,
they'd put it in Willy's car.
Jack Roush was intentionally
not helping him.
[Willy] It wasn't long into the race
that the engine detonated.
Ribbs is all over the road.
He's obviously in bad trouble.
When Jack Roush saw Don King
come into the picture,
that was it. They knew that
I wanted to go somewhere
after '85.
My relationship with Roush
was starting to fail.
[Wally] Not everybody loved Willy.
And there's plenty
of rednecks working on race cars
and they had a problem
with the color of his skin,
and I'm sure the way he was acting.
But I never remember
anybody saying, "Oh, well,
we're going to put the screws
to Willy this weekend."
All I knew is, Willy T. Ribbs
was a damn good racecar driver
that I had to beat.
[Marshall] When you have
a driver drop off out of nowhere,
you're going to start to ask why.
Is it the equipment?
It's rarely the driver,
I can tell you that.
[Ian] Willy's attitude was,
you give me a car
and I'm gonna take it up front.
[metal music playing]
It was either feast or famine.
Either you won...
Or you had a mechanical issue.
I won eight races.
51% of the laps, I led.
Wally won the championship.
And Willy finished second.
[Willy] I had
four mechanical failures that,
that shouldn't have happened
in the engine.
There was a motor sports journalist
that wasn't a Willy T. Ribbs fan.
And he said to Ian Brown,
"Did you really think they were
going to let that nigger
win a championship?"
From his standpoint,
it probably felt like,
"It's me against the world."
I knew I was
not gonna be with Roush
after 1985 and I just
got to the point where
I'm not going to go
nose to nose with this guy.
I'm just gonna let it go.
[instrumental music playing]
December of 1985,
I fly to Portugal.
It was a full-blown
Formula One test.
[Marshall] The first black man
to test a Formula One car.
It's lighter than an Indy car.
Power could almost be double.
At that point in time,
I can't think of any other
vehicle on the planet earth
that would have been
more violent or demanding
than a Formula One car.
Obviously the right thing
to do is to see
if he's quick or not quick,
or if he can, whatever it is.
So we had a test session
set up for him,
put him in the car
to see how he performed.
I'd never been in a Formula One car.
Bernie's team manager, he says,
"I want you to run this time."
I kept running
and I kept getting down,
down, down in the time.
Until he says, "All right,
I'm gonna put on a set of tires
and I want you to go out
and put this time down."
[intense music playing]
I went a second under
the time that
they wanted me to do.
I came in, he says,
"Great job."
He says, "You can get out.
This is all we wanted to see."
And I was to find out later,
he bet Bernie that
I would not get under the time
that they, they had for me.
[Bernie] And we were quite surprised,
and happily surprised as well.
And I thought this is somebody
we can get on with,
and make it all happen.
So after I came back
from Portugal,
I got a call.
"We can't put you in the team."
I'd have loved to have had
a black world champion
in our team.
It would have been, for me,
quite magic.
The sponsor was Olivetti,
which was Italian,
and they wanted Italian drivers.
Here we go again.
I got a call from Bill Gardner
who owned DiGard racing,
a NASCAR team.
And he said, "I'd like to
have you come race for us."
Miller Brewing Company
was full blown sponsor of DiGard.
And when I got there,
Miller Brewing Company left.
Willy heads back to NASCAR
and you know what he finds?
Absolutely nothing has changed.
[Willy] Once again,
Jim Trueman from Red Roof Inn,
gave us some money
to do selected races.
My first stock car race
was North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
Klan Country.
And they announced
the driver line up.
When they announced my name,
I was booed.
[crowd booing]
Blood curling boos.
Dale Earnhardt looked like
he was embarrassed
that they were booing.
I can't imagine
there was many people
that were
going to be pulling for Willy T.
They were gonna be pulling
for him to wind up in the wall.
The old adage is...
"The Civil War is dead,
but still smoldering."
Welcome to NASCAR.
[announcer] Willy T. Ribbs
has won another--
[announcer speaking indistinctly]
Before the race, I was told
Jim Trueman was sick.
And he was fighting and he had cancer.
Bobby Ray Hall
won the Indy 500.
Jim Trueman was very weak,
he could barely stand up.
But he was there at the race.
It was a tough race.
And all I said when we were out
was win this one for me.
And he did it.
Not long afterward, he passed away.
That was, uh, hard,
'cause he was the guy
that got me...
out of the dark.
He got me out of the dark.
After the first race,
we did two more races.
The final dagger
was Watkins Glen.
It was a road course,
and that was a race
that I could win.
The engines that we had
from Robert Yates,
every one of them
blew in three to four laps.
This was just testing only.
He ran into probably
a lot more opposition
as people would rather
not have him around.
[Willy] They knew in Watkins Glen,
Willy T. Ribbs
was going to be a threat
and Willy T. Ribbs would probably win.
NASCAR knew it.
Bill Gardner knew that
this was my best opportunity
to win a race
which would help us
get a major sponsor.
Never in my life
have I ever heard a team
blowing up that many engines.
and having that big a failure
without the engine builder
flying to the track and finding
out what's going on.
Especially after the second engine.
Why didn't he come up there?
Right after that,
the engine builder, Robert Yates
became a team owner.
I wonder what kind of deal
was made.
Bill Gardner got put out
of business in two days.
Two days, he was out of business.
We had no more engines left.
And that was the end
of my NASCAR career.
[announcer] We are underway
in the Watkins Glen 300,
and look at Willy T. Ribbs.
Willy T. will be on the inside,
a good car length advantage
over Denis Aase in turn one.
[Willy] Chuck Looper, who
I was very close to at Roush
was working for
a private tier owner,
who had a car in IMSA.
Then they had
an awesome engine builder.
Ryan Falconer.
And Roush was in IMSA.
And Falconer says,
"I wanna kick the shit
out of Roush.
Roush can't outbuild me."
I said,
"You're going to get your wish."
[announcer] Well, look at this.
Aase and Willy T. are kinda
pulling away right now.
[Marshall] In IMSA,
an endurance race.
Something where you tend
to have co-drivers
in most instances,
it's gonna be two hours, four, six.
That's a new chapter for Willy.
[announcer] The checkered flag
for Denis Aase.
He's won the Watkins Glen 300,
Ribbs comes in second
and down in the pits,
you can bet there's a big smile
on Dan Gurney's face.
[Willy] Dan Gurney's Toyotas
ended up beating me.
I finished second.
Dan Gurney, he's spraying
champagne all over me
and I grabbed him by the arm
as we were walking off the podium
and I said,
"I wanna race for you in '87."
The beginning of 1987,
my childhood hero,
I was his driver.
What a grand performance.
Willy T. Ribbs is giving
what Dan Gurney
has learned about
how to put a car together.
In auto racing,
there's always rivals.
Roush was in IMSA,
and he was looking for a guy
that was going to compete
against Willy T. Ribbs.
I raced a full season
with Roush Racing.
[announcer] Here is Bruce Jenner
in the Ford Mustang.
All these Toyota guys
and the Chevy guys
all were Ford drivers.
And I've heard of this kid, Scott Pruett.
I'm looking at this kid
as a winner.
So I said to him, "I would love
to have you drive with me."
I just started this relationship
with Ford Motor Company.
And they really liked him.
[Willy] Scott Pruett was
Roush's new fair-haired boy.
He had orders.
Beat Willy T.
Drag race to the start
won by Willy T. Ribbs
in the '99 car.
I thought Pruett with
that big Mustang
would have the horse power
to get to turn one in first.
Roush said to his pilot,
"Make sure Ribbs doesn't win
that race up in Portland."
[announcer] Jack Roush says,
"No bones about it,
Scott is the best driver
I've ever had."
Willy takes that
as a personal insult.
[Jack] Scott is here to put
the pressure on the Toyota.
We are willing to see his car
not finish if we have to
in order to keep him under
the maximum amount of pressure.
Roush says, in the last fuel stop,
"Go after Willy, you know,
he was in the lead."
[announcer] Scott Pruett,
who is one or two laps down
right behind Willy T. Ribbs.
[Willy] Pruett was behind me.
Ran into the back of me,
spun me out.
[announcer] Oh, here's
a little action in turn nine.
It's Willy T. Ribbs,
and Scott Pruett.
Looks like they might have
gotten together there.
Gave me a flat tire.
Cost me winning the race.
[announcer] That spin
was very, very costly,
especially for Willy T. Ribbs.
[Wally] The guy's raced you
clean the whole race
and you're taking him out
for the victory.
That's bullshit.
I pulled in,
Dan's talking to me, he says,
"Hey, don't go down,
don't say anything,
don't run down there."
Which I didn't.
As I'm walking down
the parking lot pathway,
here comes Bruce Jenner
and Scott Pruett.
And then all of a sudden, I look up.
And what's on our windshield
and on the front of the car,
so we can't move forward?
Willy T. Ribbs.
I stood right in front of their car.
And I grabbed Pruett and I nailed him.
Bam, bam on Pruett.
He jumps out of the window.
And I look at him
in the rearview mirror,
and there he is, standing there,
just like ready to go.
Jenner gets out of the car
and comes at me.
I told Jenner, I said, "Look,
you threw the spear
in the Olympics."
I said, "I'll take
the same spear
and put it up
your ass sideways."
I said, "Just get back
in the car."
And, uh, me, I'm like,
I can't believe this.
I've never been in a fight
in my life.
God gave me fast feet
so I can get out of trouble.
I was like, zoom,
I was gone, you know.
There was a girl that
was sitting in the center.
Pruett uses her as a shield.
They went to the press room
and said,
I hit the girl.
I hit Pruett.
But they said,
"Oh, you hit her
as you were trying to hit Pruett."
And since he was still
on the racetrack grounds,
they suspended Willy.
[Willy] I was suspended
without any due process.
Never had a driver
been suspended from IMSA.
The IMSA officials,
Jack Roush, Dan Gurney,
we all got in one room
and Gurney stuck his finger
into Roush's face and said,
"Let Ribbs and Pruett
handle it.
And stay out of it."
That was the end
of the on-track battles.
I didn't want to beat Scott Pruett.
I wanted to beat Jack Roush.
He cost me a championship.
And I hadn't forgotten.
Dan Gurney's objective
was to win
the Manufacturers Championship.
Toyota wanted
that Manufacturers Championship
and they wanted to beat Ford.
And I wanted to beat Roush.
We've been through 16 races.
And we're two points apart.
So really, the whole season,
as far as the manufacturers
point championship
has boiled down to one race,
here in Del Mar.
This is for all the marbles.
This couldn't be any bigger
if it was
a Larry Holmes-Mike Tyson fight.
450 horsepower Willy T. Ribbs.
600 horsepower Scott Pruett.
The green flag waves.
Give it to Pruett as they
head down to the corner.
Now you're back with the leader,
Scott Pruett, in the number 11 car.
[Marshall] Now these were two people
that were equally matched.
[announcer] Willy T. Ribbs' car
as he tries to close up on Scott Pruett.
These are guys who have shaved
so much body work
off of each other.
By fighting and pounding.
[announcer] Great move
by Willy. And he did it.
Whoa, Willy has muscled by.
Scott Pruett, he is going to hold
his ground and he makes it work.
Great piece of driving.
Just over two seconds
separate Pruett from Ribbs.
Laps quickly running down.
Here we go,
down the front straight.
This is the best shot
he's had right now.
The checkered flag has come out
just as Scott Pruett
made his thrust.
But Willy T. holds him off
till the line.
Tremendous! I think that
has to be the best GTO race
we've seen this year.
Nobody celebrates victory like
Mr. Excitement Willy T. Ribbs.
[Al] Willy did a fantastic job.
He had the desire.
He wanted to win
and become a champion.
[Willy] We won
the Manufacturers Championship.
I was IMSA driver of the year.
[Marshall] Imagine winning
the Manufacturers Championship for Toyota.
Winning it for Dan.
Winning for your idol.
This was fairy tale stuff
at this point of Willy's career.
[Willy] I was starting to feel,
I've done everything
I need to do.
I need to start working
on my ultimate goal.
Very few drivers had rides
'cause they were just good
and they got paid.
You had to find money.
You had to find the sponsors.
You gotta have a rich daddy.
Or you gotta be a good salesman.
[Pat] You need a patron,
someone who's willing
to pay the bills.
Because it's so frickin' expensive.
I get a phone call from my dad.
He said,
"Bill Cosby called for you."
[Bill Cosby] I saw Willy drive
and I think that Willy
should be playing
with the big fellas.
[Marshall] He's the most
famous man in America.
America's father at that time.
The Cosby Show had been
the number one show for years.
[The Cosby Show theme playing]
Remember this was over 20 years
before anyone learned
of the crimes
Cosby kept all to himself.
[Willy] Two days later,
I was in Vegas.
He answered the door,
and he lit a cigar,
and he sat down on the couch.
"What do you want to do?"
I said, "I wanna go to Indy
and I want to race
in the IndyCar championship."
He said to me, "How much is it
gonna cost me upfront?"
I said, "Half a million dollars."
[Marshall] Cosby said,
"I'll help seed this project
to get it started, and I believe
through my name, my stardom,
I can attract sponsors
who will then really start
to fill in
the big sponsorship gaps."
He is a fine driver
and he should be given
an opportunity
and he should have one
and it's very, very strange that
he doesn't have that.
[Phillip] Cosby was
the spokesperson for Coca-Cola.
Coke is it!
[Phillip] Cosby goes
down there personally,
met with him, met with him,
they aren't interested
in racing, blah, blah, blah.
In reality, they're not interested
in sponsoring Willy T. in racing.
[announcer] 100 miles
in the Coca Cola 600.
He had Coca-Cola,
he had Jell-O.
He had Kodak.
It took a few years.
We got no support, nothing.
[Robby] Willy always
worked hard at his career.
He worked hard
to hustle his money.
He worked hard to meet people
and try to build his packages.
To bring people in.
[Willy] Corporate America
turned their back.
There was a guy
by the name of Derrick Walker.
He had ran a factory Porsche
IndyCar team.
That deal was over.
[Marshall] Color blind,
someone who is
looking for the best possible driver
he can work with.
I must have been crazy
to think that
I could just go
and start a race team.
But that's what I did.
Somebody told me Willy T. Ribbs
has got some money
and he wants to go
to the Indy 500.
I bumped into him
and mentioned, "Shall we talk?"
So I called Bill Cosby
and I said,
"Derrick Walker is available.
He knows how to put
a winning team together."
I said, "Let's get him."
Bingo! We had a program.
We didn't have a lot of money
but we had a start.
And that's all it took.
Derrick Walker was assembling
a team right away
for the 1991 Indy 500.
If you're looking
to run an Indy car,
you're looking for millions.
And with Cosby being willing
to contribute $350,000,
you would not want to go
any lower than that.
[reporter] It's no secret that
to be competitive
in today's IndyCar racing
requires a tremendous amount of money.
Just consider, today's going rate
for a 1991 chassis is $305,000.
Engines are close to $100,000 each.
Tires cost about $900 a set.
And at Indianapolis,
you'll need 20 sets.
When you were
at Walker Racing in 1991,
a brand new race team,
you had hand-me-down equipment
from other teams.
Engines that weren't necessarily
brand new.
You were at a disadvantage
from the moment
you rolled that car
on the racetrack.
If you were with a smaller team
like Walker Racing,
if you could buy
half of a hot dog for lunch,
and save money, you would.
We went there with just enough
money to get there basically,
and as you know, the whole month
is high pressure, high money
and a lot of work
and a lot of pieces you need.
The disparity in budgets
between the big and small teams
is rather huge.
I had less of a budget
to go to Indy in 1991
than I did in 1985.
I had Miller Brewing Company
in 1985.
I had just Bill Cosby's money
for that one race.
With the $350,000,
Derrick Walker found
a used 1990 Lola.
It was in sad shape.
We had to rebuild
the car as well as,
you know, put the engine in
and all that stuff.
So that was our only means,
we couldn't afford anything else.
It was, "That's the only choice
we've got."
Derrick Walker
and his marketing guy
wanted to change the color.
They wanted to have it bright
and chartreuse and you could
see it 20 miles away.
Why? I don't know.
The color was,
on a bright day, you needed
glasses to look at it.
Race cars are supposed
to be Ferrari red.
Supposed to have some sort of
macho-racy look.
This thing didn't look macho
at all.
[Doug] He's got this car
that he thinks is ugly
but everyone in the grandstands
thinks it's beautiful
because you can see
this yellow and red car
from all over the place.
But you knew it wasn't the best
equipment in the world.
At Indy, just like
any other form of racing,
you've got to have
the right car.
And if you don't have
the right sponsorship
and the right car,
you just can't shine.
[Wally] So if you're going
in there with half the money
that some of these
other teams have,
you can just
pretty much figure that
you're not going to be
as fast as them.
Unless you have the money,
and the resources and the people
as good as the guys
you're trying to beat,
you're not gonna do it.
I had a group though.
I knew we were,
we were going to be strong.
Tim Wardrop was our engineer.
[Willy] The communication
difference between
Leffler and Wardrop
was night and day.
He had won Indy three times
as an engineer.
His intelligence was unreal
when it came to setting up
an Indy car.
Before a driver climbs
into the car,
straps in and drives off,
you have an engineer.
Tim Wardrop is going
to make sure the car
has the best suspension
settings possible,
make sure that the car
has enough air
pushing the car to the ground.
Those wings both
in front and back.
They're like
inverted airplane wings.
And when that wind hits it,
it sucks the car to the ground.
Those are all decisions made
by the race engineer.
He was getting my thoughts
on how I like a car.
And then at the same time,
he was telling me
what I would feel.
This is what you wanna
look for in the car.
That was invaluable.
[Derrick] Willy saw Tim Wardrop
as right up his alley.
He was, for us
as a startup team,
a godsend because
we didn't have an army
of engineers, we had one guy.
He clicked with Willy.
[broadcaster] Meet Willy Ribbs.
Willy hopes to be
the first black driver
in the history of a race.
When we found out
Willy T. was coming back
to try to qualify,
everybody was excited again.
The buzz was back.
Our guy was back.
There was a lot of hype
around Derrick Walker,
Walker Racing coming here
and coming with Willy Ribbs.
Bill Cosby's involved.
There's all this craziness.
How much has Cos
had as far as input?
He hasn't been here physically,
but do you talk to him?
Well, we've been getting Jell-O
-sent to us every day.
-[interviewer laughs]
[Al] Willy had been waiting
for that good ride
that we all strive to get.
It wasn't coming around for him.
He loved the sport enough
that he goes, "Look, I'm going
to take a gamble here
and go with a car that I don't
think is quite up to par."
The first day of time trials.
The run for the pole
and in many ways,
the second most important day
of the racing year.
So, qualifying for Indianapolis
is called a month of May.
While you're at Indy
for a month,
you run every day.
[Willy] And every day,
you're showing up
at the racetrack
and you're trying to find speed.
So they practice and see
how fast they can go
and then they qualify.
There's four days.
You qualify the first day,
that's up front.
Second day,
it's going to be behind
the first day qualifiers.
Third day behind second day
and the fourth day, so on.
[Phillip] The third weekend
of the month
finishes out the field
and the top 33 cars make it
and everybody else goes home.
[Willy] Most races,
they take your fastest lap
and they take
your qualifying speed.
At Indy, four laps.
You have to run.
Or ten miles
And in that ten miles,
they take your average speed
against all the other drivers'
average speed
and that's how you qualify.
That's where the testicles
come in.
Ten miles, anything can happen
in ten miles, anything.
[intense music playing]
[Marshall] At Indy,
you've got three chances
to qualify with each car.
For the bigger teams,
they are going to have multiple cars.
They're multiplying their chances.
If you were not
one of the wealthy teams,
which was
the Walker experience,
you've got one car.
You've got three chances.
You loose any
of those three chances,
temperature starts rising
and the odds of you making it
in the show goes down drastically.
[announcer] The track is open
for qualifications.
[Willy] We purposely
didn't qualify on pole day,
because Derrick wanted
to get more track time.
Tim Wardrop wanted
to get more track time.
And so, we went to the following
weekend to qualify.
At that time, the rules
allowed you to go with
a Buick turbocharged engine
and it had more power.
And Derrick thought
and Wardrop thought,
"Look, let's get some
horse power out of this thing."
So we went to the Buick engine.
Buick is a bigger engine, it's heavier.
That took a few days to get done.
So I was losing track of time
because we had to totally
change the car.
Came out the second week,
started running.
Up to speed, two laps, get her
up to speed and get it going.
If it don't feel right,
just get on the radio
or put your hand up,
we'll wave it off.
You know, three attempts,
so no rush.
[Willy] Okay, well--
-Right on the ballpark.
-All right.
Listen for that valve in case
that valve blows off,
just bag it back a bit
if it does come up.
-But you'll be all right.
Nice and consistent.
[Derrick] The engine had lots
of power when it was going.
But it never went too long.
It was like
a ticking time bomb.
[commentator] Looks like
we have a blown engine.
Yeah, looks like Willy T. Ribbs.
Buick engines in this era
were six cylinder
turbocharged fireworks.
This was a bad, bad situation.
People were actually
feeling really sorry for us
'cause they look up,
then here goes Willy again.
Big cloud of smoke.
[Willy] That's the only race I found.
Since I've been racing that
there's camaraderie
amongst the drivers.
There, you almost have sympathy,
and empathy for each other.
They look at each other
with total respect
and total understanding
because of the nature
of the beast.
One of the most
important people that
came to see me was Joie Ray.
Awesome race driver,
who happened to be African-American.
The generation before me
who never got the opportunity.
Joie Ray was a badass.
On ovals...
Joie Ray was awesome.
He came to my pit
and he was standing
behind the rope.
I walked out immediately
and I said,
"Why are you standing here?
Come in."
"Oh, I didn't want to bother you."
Every day that you come, you come
straight into the garage.
He gave me a lot of confidence.
Just his energy.
I was so honored
to have him there.
Every day, he would come
and every day,
he was in my pit.
During the month of May,
you meet a lot of people.
A lot of people that
you've never met before.
[Phillip] Rick Mears is
a four-time Indy champion.
Willy went over and talked
to Rick during his qualifying
trying to get the car to settle down.
Rick Mears had noticed
that I was making my entry
to the corner too soon.
He said to me,
"You're diamonding the corner.
I want you to bowl the corner.
I want you to get to the corner
and wait till the last second.
Don't turn down early."
[man] Rick Mears became
a school teacher said Willy.
"You need to do this,
this, this and this."
[Willy] Just with that
one little move,
I picked up five miles
per hour, [snaps fingers] just like that.
[announcer] Unfortunately,
the reliability of the car
has not been as good
as Willy's speed has been.
We wanted to go out and find out
if there was any problems
and you know, we have a little bit
of a clutch problem right now.
So we want to get that sorted out.
[Marshall] When you start Indy
with $350,000,
your money is already spent
by the time you show up
on a used car, used engine,
used everything.
As you crash
or you blow an engine,
things really start to get stressed.
So what happens, blows one motor.
Another engine blows.
We're talking three motors
in total are blown.
We were out of engines.
I think there was a sense of pity,
that this wasn't deserved.
I don't know how they kept going.
[announcer] Derrick Walker,
his team manager and team owner
who actually owns the car
told me last night,
"Derek, I'm out of business."
Do you think he'll get in?
Just a gut feel.
Are they gonna make it or not?
It's so hard.
We were out of money
and out of everything.
And not knowing what to do
coming down to the wire.
And Buick really tried to help
all of its teams
that ran its engine.
Scott Brayton's team,
it was a Buick team.
They had an engine there
which was owned by Buick.
Through a lot of phone calls,
a lot of pleading
on Derrick Walker's end,
and others lobbying
Buick to step in.
"Hey, is there something
you can do?
We've got nothing left.
We don't have money to buy
ourselves out of this problem.
Can you intervene to help us?"
The Buick Motor Sports representative
did not want to give us another engine.
He said no.
And there was some, some squeezing,
some, some nut squeezing on Sunday.
Somebody got their balls
squeezed real hard
and how bad
it was gonna look if Buick
didn't have an engine for me.
[intense dramatic music playing]
And we had an engine.
And then it's bump day.
This is your one last day
to get into the Indy 500.
More than 33 cars showed up.
The fastest 33 take the start,
everyone else goes home.
End of story.
It was a nerve-racking experience.
Because you always had more cars
than you had positions.
So we were really worried
at not being fast enough
and not getting a chance.
[Phillip] We had a problem
early in the morning
with this new motor.
Oh, my God, we broke
another motor yet again.
All right, just smoking.
We're dead meat,
we are gonna go home.
No, no, it's not your fault.
We told them
it was laying down on us so...
The thing was just
laboring the whole time.
And then when I went out
this time, the thing just died.
Did you just lose power
or did it feel mechanical?
-Just lost power.
-And no boost?
Uh, no boost.
So it maybe in the turbo.
When the turbo blows,
it's not just replacing
a single part.
It's concerns about,
did metal shavings
and other things
get into the oil system?
So rather than just unbolting
the broken piece
and putting a fresh one in,
the team also has to do
a forensic investigation
and lose more time.
The point is that at six o'clock
this afternoon Indy time,
it's all over, there are no more
chances to make the show.
Probably the wildest
roller coaster ride
of the month in terms
of emotions has been experienced
by Willy Ribbs,
attempting to become
the first black driver
ever to make the race.
Getting into the race
is gonna require an average speed
of about 217 miles an hour.
He hadn't been over 210.
Might not sound like much.
It is night and day difference.
[Derrick] We were searching
for the speed
and it wasn't coming easily
and Willy was getting
very frustrated, quite dejected
that, "We can't do it, man,
we can't do it. It's just no way."
[Willy] How many spots are left?
The field is full.
Okay, who hasn't run yet?
[Tim] Didier.
We've got Didier, you, Randy.
[Willy] Randy's not running.
-[Derrick] Huh?
-[Willy] Randy's not running.
[Derrick] They're putting
another motor in it.
-Are they?
-I heard.
[Willy] Fuck...
It took a lot of resolve.
I had to really look
inside myself,
and say, "All right,
you gotta deal with all this.
But you got to keep going
and you gotta keep your edge.
You gotta keep that toughness
that you were taught
by your grandpa."
Tim Wardrop showed Willy
a set of tires
and basically said,
these are special.
The tires that
he called "Magic tires."
He says, "I've been saving them
and I've kept them wrapped up
in a closet."
He didn't want anyone
in the team to know
where they were until
that final day.
[Doug] Willy thought,
"Wow, he's got special tires.
He's done something to those tires
to make them really fast."
If you ask any driver,
if you tell them
"special," they all want special.
To a driver this is
the magic set of tires.
These are gonna do it.
When you think that,
it makes a difference.
You will go out and go faster.
Honest to God, it happens.
Oftentimes your brain
and what you think
will stop you.
Good engineers know this
about drivers.
We're all that way.
We are going to be limited
to what we think is our limit.
It's a brilliant move.
It's a dangerous move.
[Willy] He said, "I want you
to go out and in,
make sure they're balanced,
all the wheel rates feel fine."
They were like glue.
They were like glue.
This morning, we were
struggling around 210-211,
and we're scratching our heads,
we haven't changed a thing
and then we found out
we just had a bad set of tires.
And as soon as we strapped
the tires on,
we got going straight away 215.
Truth be known,
there probably were two
or three sets of magic tires.
At the end of the day,
he just made the stagger
a little differently.
[Marshall] The fact that Tim was able
to tell Willy for once,
this month we have
a secret advantage for you
that is going to help
get you into the show.
That's the one thing Willy never had.
We pushed that car down
to put it in line for qualifying.
Willy had made
two incomplete attempts
so he was down
to the final strike.
Tim Wardrop says,
"You ready to go?"
I said, "Yeah."
He says, "Strong like bull,
cool like cucumber,
let's go do it."
He had tears in his eyes.
He had tears in his eyes.
So I said, "Don't worry,
everything is going to be fine.
It's going to be fine."
The pressure that Willy Ribbs
had to have felt
in that qualifying effort
has to be more
than any other driver
in the history of the speedway.
If I did not get it done
with this last run,
I might never make it
back to Indy ever.
There was this huge buzz
in the air
as he went out
to make his final attempt.
Fifteen minutes to go
before six o'clock.
I went out.
Going down the pit lane,
to enter onto the racetrack.
All the USAC,
turn workers
and marshals there.
They all salute you.
One black worker there,
an older gentlemen.
He was crying.
He was crying as I went by him.
And I turned away and I said,
"Shit, I can't look at him.
He's gonna make me cry."
[announcer] Without a doubt,
it's certainly
his lifelong goal
that is on the line here
in the next four laps.
The time he must beat
is 213.189.
I fucking drove that
son of a bitch into turn one
on the opening lap.
And I pegged it.
[announcer] Willy Ribbs
on the front straightaway
at Indianapolis takes
the green flag
in this historic effort
to become the first black man
ever to drive the Indy 500
above the speed
you saw, 213.189.
[Willy] I said to myself,
"This is it.
Do or die, Ribbs."
Do or die.
[commentator] Back stretch, 219.
I'd like to see that
a little bit faster.
But the speed he comes off
at the turn,
that depends on what his
straight line speed will be.
Turn three, 216.
This could be a good lap.
You run that motherfucker flat out.
The first lap at 217.8
and the crowd goes crazy.
They love that announcement,
they are really pulling for this guy.
As a matter of fact,
I put my left foot
on top of my right foot.
I said that's just the way
it's going to be.
[commentator] My word,
everybody in the front stretch
here cheering Willy T. Ribbs on.
217, faster than he has ever
gone here at the speedway.
And if I crash this motherfucker,
this is how they are going
to find my fucking feet.
[commentator] 217.997.
Ribbs is flying.
The white flag falls.
He is two and one half miles
from history.
I'm either in the race
or you peel me off the cement.
He's almost there.
Two more corners,
turn three and turn four.
Willy T. Ribbs looks
as if he's in the fields.
Ribbs down, nothing
can go wrong now.
He can coast
into Indy 500 history.
The checkered flag falls.
Ribbs has made it.
I looked up and I saw
all these arms.
[indistinct announcement]
And that's when I realized,
"You did it."
[announcer] Incredible,
long and difficult month
and here you see them
back-slapping, hand-shaking,
they have certainly earned
this moment of history.
It was a madhouse.
People on the bleachers,
people all over the track.
It was, it was a celebration.
When I was going down
the back straight, I felt like a king.
I felt on top of the world.
Those folks who qualify last
are some amazing, amazing drivers.
They took out some equipment
that some of the top guys
would not even dare set foot in.
And then something happened that
you never see at the speedway.
Everybody in pit lane, the mechanics,
the crew members,
other drivers, officials
walk out to greet Willy
as he's coming down pit lane.
[crowd cheering]
One of those magical moments
in the 100-year history
of this speedway.
[Willy] And I'm coming down
and I see all these people
waving their arms.
And mechanics from
the other teams
were giving me a salute.
And all these arms
from other teams
and I could tell...
That they appreciated it.
They were a part of the celebration.
They were a part of the moment
because it was historical.
It was something
that never happened
in the Indy 500 history.
It was something that never happened
in the sport of auto racing.
[commentator] Willy Ribbs
has made history
in Indianapolis, and America
stands to honor him
as he climbs out of the cockpit.
It is truly a memorable moment
here in Indianapolis.
[Chris] I never saw
Jackie Robinson
break the color barrier.
I never saw a lot of blacks do
a lot of historic things.
But I got to witness my hero
qualify for the Indy 500.
A sport that I loved.
A sport that I wanted
to be associated with.
I got to see Willy T. Ribbs
become the first
African-American to qualify
for the greatest race in motorsports.
I got to witness that with my own eyes.
I was there.
I'll never forget it.
I'll never forget it.
[Willy] Joie Ray was in the pit.
And he had tears in his eyes.
And he said, "You did it."
And I said, "No, we did it.
We did it."
[Willy] The team never gave up
and that was tremendous.
They never gave up
and I wasn't gonna give up.
[female announcer]
Gentlemen, start your engines.
Emerson Fittipaldi.
A.J. Foyt.
Willy T. Ribbs staring into history.
And the 75th Indy 500 is underway.
And there is an accident coming
off of the fourth turn.
Coming off of one,
there has been an accident.
And Willy T. Ribbs
comes into the pits.
[Willy] I went out in 1991
with mechanical failure.
I made it back in 1993,
and I finished all 500 miles.
Those 500 miles meant everything.
I wanted to show the racing world,
the color of my skin did not matter.
I won.
I won.
I didn't win the 500.
I won...
against all the obstacles
and the odds
that were against me.
Willy T. Ribbs is crashing.
Willy T. Ribbs spinning.
[Willy] Everything that
I was dealing with,
I was saying, "I won."
I broke down
barriers that were
not supposed to be broken down.
All the trials and tribulations.
The setback in 1985.
From a bunch of guys that
didn't want me to be there for one reason.
And I knew the reason why.
It all came to me.
You didn't give up, Ribbs.
It was worth it.
[rock music playing]
There is no sport
more exciting than racing.
This is it.
This is the next best thing to heaven.