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Bill Cosby Plays Key Supporting Role : Indy 500: Comedian's backing helps get Willy T. Ribbs back on track.


INDIANAPOLIS — The way Willy T. Ribbs looks at it, sitting out a year worked wonders for Arie Luyendyk and Raul Boesel. They're on the front row for Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

Ribbs will be back in the 10th row to start his second Indy 500, but the fact that he is even in the race is remarkable considering what he has gone through this month. As late as an hour before he qualified last weekend, his best speed was more than 5 m.p.h. less than what he needed.

"I couldn't get above 210.5 m.p.h. Friday, so the crew gambled on a major change in the chassis for Saturday, but the way things turned out, I had no chance to test it," Ribbs said. "I felt I needed to have my head examined if I went out with an untried change as big as that one, but I went out anyway and it worked. It gave the car grip it had never had."

Ribbs, whose fastest lap all month had been 213.462, put together a remarkably consistent four laps at 217.711 to easily make the field. It was a shade faster than the 217.358 he ran to qualify in 1990.

"Coming in here is like going to war, on the front lines," he said. "You've got to be on the watch for booby traps, snipers, heavy artillery, everything that could harm you. You never know what's going to come your way."

One thing that has come Ribbs' way is a major sponsorship from Service Merchandise, a Nashville-based catalogue store retailer--courtesy of Bill Cosby and the William Morris Agency of Beverly Hills.

The deal is worth $50 million over two years, with Service Merchandise holding a two-year option.

"We have represented Bill Cosby for 29 years, and when he came to us and said he wanted to do something for Willy T., we decided to market him like an entertainment product," said Richard Hersh, senior vice president for the agency. "It's a complex deal that calls for Cosby to do commercials for the sponsor, for William Morris to find additional sponsorship, for Walker Motorsports to provide first-class equipment and for Willy T. to drive it."

Cosby, who is appearing in Las Vegas, will fly in Sunday for the race and return that evening.

"If I win, I'll stand on my head in Victory Lane," Ribbs said. "Maybe Bill will join me."

The deal was put together so late that Ribbs is driving a year-old Lola-Ford Cosworth that team owner Derrick Walker purchased from the Newman-Haas team. It was used as a backup car primarily by Mario Andretti last year, but it never ran at the Speedway until Ribbs drove it.

"We have a new Lola on order and expect it in time for the Detroit Grand Prix," Ribbs said.

Raymond Zimmerman, president of Service Merchandise, has never been involved with racing before, which may account for his unusual comment:

"I want Willy T. to go real slow, so everybody can see the name on the car," he said, laughing. Cosby, not laughing, retorted: "I want him to go as fast as he can."

Ribbs, after a checkered career that saw him drive Formula Fords, Formula Atlantics, Trans-Am sedans, Winston Cup stock cars and IMSA sports cars, finally made it to the Indy 500 in 1991 in a car sponsored by Cosby and McDonald's. He qualified 29th barely 45 minutes before the track closed. In the race, he lasted only five laps before the engine gave out.

"I have some good memories from 1991," he said. "I went to the rookie's meeting and heard all the veterans tell us how we'd feel like Hurricane Andrew hit us going into the first turn, that the turbulence would blow our minds.

"Well, it never felt that way to me. I had a great feeling. It was like driving through a great rainbow, all those colorful cars all around me, and all the colors in the crowd. It was a big moment for me, but nothing like what happened when I signed the deal I have now.

"I know there are a lot of players involved--the William Morris Agency, Sam Belnavis, a marketing guy who has a part of the team with Walker, and Mr. Zimmerman, the Service Merchandise president--but make no mistake about it, it's Bill Cosby's deal."

Ribbs drove only one race last season, at Laguna Seca, and none this year before Indy, but he looks on his absence with a positive note.

"Luyendyk didn't drive but two races last year, and Boesel didn't drive an Indy car at all in 1991," he said. "They held out for something worthwhile, and that's what I did. Or, rather I should say Bill Cosby held out. He wouldn't let me take any minor league offers. He said good things were going to happen, and they did."

Ribbs first attracted Cosby's attention when the entertainer was watching a Trans-Am race from Sears Point on television and he saw Ribbs, who is black, dancing on top of his car.

"I was just lucky Bill caught my act," Ribbs said. "He called me the next day and said he'd watched me and asked me about my career. We got to be good friends, and the next thing you know he was helping put together an Indy car team for me."

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