INDIANAPOLIS — Willy T. Ribbs wants to be the first black driver in the Indianapolis 500, but he's not the first to try to break into what historically has been one of the least integrated sports.
Ribbs, a 29-year-old Californian, was named last Wednesday to drive for longtime Indy-car owner Sherman Armstrong and boxing promoter Don King, who co-own two 1985 March race cars entered for the May 26 race.
At least 11 other rookie drivers will battle some three dozen or more veterans for spots in the 33-car starting field.
"If I'm there, it's going to be colossal. It would be one of the biggest happenings as far as sports history is concerned," Ribbs said last year, when a reported deal to drive at Indy fell through.
This time, Ribbs signed a two-race Indy-car deal sponsored by Miller Brewing Co. His crew chief will be George Bignotti, who has been the chief mechanic for seven Indy 500 winners.
"Putting George and me together like this is like Angelo Dundee working with the young Cassius Clay. I'm very excited," Ribbs said Wednesday in Chicago, where the announcement was made.
The deal also includes a ride for the U.S. Grand Prix at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., on June 30, a Miller spokesman said.
No black drivers have ever competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which opened in 1909 as a race course for automobiles, motorcycles and balloons. One of the first blacks to try to get into racing was Mel Leighton, who got the bug while, as a child, he watched Barney Oldfield and Leon Duray at the Iowa State Fair in 1915.
Leighton moved from his native Des Moines to Los Angeles and for 10 years was treasurer of the Southern California Timing Association, which ran drag races on dry lake beds.
But he couldn't get a ride in a race car, so he bought one--a sprinter he wrecked at Southern Ascot and again at Oakland in 1940. He decided then he would let somebody else do the driving, and his pilots included such noted white drivers as Johnnie Parsons, Bob Sweikert, Dempsey Wilson, Jack McGrath, Mel Hanson and Jimmy Davies, all of whom drove at Indianapolis.
Rex Mays, two-time national driving champion and four-time pole position starter at Indianapolis, was among the sponsors who in 1948 got Leighton a license in the American Automobile Association--then the auto racing sanctioning body. There was no written rule against blacks in AAA competition, but it was almost impossible for them to register as drivers or car owners.
"The main things," Leighton said in a 1966 interview, were "lack of money and lack of associations with race car mechanics. You have to grow up with this sport.
"I used to walk along in front of the garages and peek in the windows. If a white boy kept pushing his nose against the glass day after day, somebody finally would invite him in to look at the car. But not a colored boy," he said.
The greatest black driver in the two decades after Leighton was Wendell Scott, who finished sixth in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing standings in 1966 and was among the NASCAR top 10 each of the next three years. But Scott did it with his own car and acted as his own mechanic.
Scott wrote to Leighton early in 1966 that "I just can't get a good ride . . . You wear out race cars faster than you can pay for them."
Leighton tried to find backing for Scott without much success.
Most of Ribbs' experience is in road racing. He was graduated from the Jim Russell school of driving in England when he was 21, then borrowed $1,000 from his mother to race in Europe. His father, William T. Ribbs, a plumbing contractor, was a former sports car racer.
The younger Ribbs was named "star of tomorrow" on the Formula Ford circuit at the end of his first season in 1977. He then returned to the United States and drove in Formula Atlantic and stock car races before landing a ride in 1982 with the Neil Deatley Trans-Am team.
In 1983, Ribbs won five Trans-Am races and finished second in the final series standings to David Hobbs.
Ribbs won the 1985 Trans-Am series opener in Phoenix, Ariz., last week, his 10th victory in 25 starts.