WELCOME HOME

It was November, 1954 and the instructions were simple. The hostage exchange would take place at 32 degrees North by 108 degrees West. In the most south western corner of New Mexico, AFOSI agent Gilbert would travel from his home base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to this desolate corner of New Mexico to meet for a pre-arranged swap.   Being in the military, vehicles were not the utmost of performance caliper. Gilbert’s prize for his trip was a 1954 Plymouth Savoy 4-door sedan, painted in Air Force blue and stripped bare.

The high desert is cold and unforgiving. Across the landscape out crops of sagebrush and yucca struggled against the continuous harsh winds whipping out of the North. Gilbert had driven 600 miles to this spot and then, per the instructions, had taken a right off of where the compass would nail down his exact location and travel a ¼ mile down to an abandoned grange.   He parked the Plymouth, stepped outside and paused. The sun was a dull nickel like disc hidden behind a dense fog.

New Mexico. Land of Enchantment. That is the state’s motto, and as the wind howled past him he took it all in.
Rolling hills, painted deserts. Mountains carved by wind, water and time.

No wonder this was where the exchange was to take place.

Gilbert walked into the old building. Paused, pulled a Pall Mall out of the pack and lit up. He took a hard drag and was looking for a place to sit when a voice from his right snapped his senses.

“Well done. Your penchant for timeliness is what I had hoped for. It makes all of this so much easier.”

Dressed in black suit he stepped from the shadows. “You were here all along I take it?” Gilbert asked. He was tense, Gilbert’s left hand had stolen into his jacket pocket and his pistol was in his hand. Hidden behind sunglasses (who wears sunglasses inside? wondered Gilbert), the contact took a hesitant step back. “Easy now, I am unarmed. Per the agreement, this is a peaceful exchange. Remember?”

Gilbert nodded. He removed his hands from his coat and slowly raised them palms out showing he had no weapons. The contact relaxed and his thin lips spread into a smile revealing a large smile with too many teeth for just an instant, and then gone. Gilbert narrowed his gaze. Outside the sky had gone grey. The windows of the old building had lost the glimmer of sunshine and now were succumbing to the tendrils of condensation brought on by low hanging clouds and a fog-like condition.

“I have been told that you have brought with you today the bodies of those who had perished here in an unexpected tragedy. That by those who have sent me, to retrieve them, that all knowledge and the official knowledge of what had happened on that day 4th July, 1947, shall and will be eradicated from the official record in return for those who had been deemed missing since day 2, July 1937.” The contact in the dark suit spoke fluidly.

Gilbert nodded. “Let’s proceed, then.” The pair approached the door and Gilbert slid it open. Where once a sky that was so blue it hurt his eyes, had been now replaced by a dense fog.  The dark stranger walked past and from out of the fog his mode of transportation was there.  Gilbert paused.  His contact walked to something from out of a dream.

Long. Low.  Blacker than lust. Sleek. It just sat there looking as if it was going 200 m.p.h while at idle. Out front were a quartet of headlights and a hood long low and smooth. The windshield arced back at an impossible angle.  The top was radically thin and flowed back as if sculpted by wind.  The trunk was smooth and large and rising from the quarter panels were two razor sharp fins with an angled red tail light lens in each. Gilbert gathered his thoughts and asked, “What the Hell is that?”

The contact that was walking toward the trunk paused. He turned and spoke, “Wait 6 years. Beyond that this car will rattle imaginations for almost a century.”

Gilbert followed and as the contact approached the trunk Gilbert asked, “How many bodies ya think can fit in there?”
The contact paused. Gilbert would later state he saw a flash of green from behind the dark glasses. The contact replied, “Enough to solve a problem.”

The pair walked to the Savoy. Gilbert opened the trunk and as they as a pair unloaded the cargo, Gilbert noticed the contact wince and shudder. The contact was saddened and horrified.   There five total. Only two were complete bodies. Two had been almost obliterated by the crash and one had been partially examined. The contact snapped his head toward Gilbert. “We do not disassemble bodies. Never have. What kind of species are you?”

“I don’t know at times actually,” was all that Gilbert could reply.

The contact walked back to his vehicle, opened the trunk. Gilbert assisted as the bodies were placed inside. Then, the contact walked to the passenger’s side door and opened it up.

A man and a woman from out of a distant memory exited from the dark beauty. Dazed, the pair looked around. A wind had started to rise and the fog was starting to lift. The contact looked at Gilbert and took a step toward him. They shook hands and the contact walked around to the driver’s side, opened the door and with a soft hum, the dark ride began to rise. Slowly upward. When it had risen to about 10 feet, the pods in the rear bumper lit up in a blue and orange flame and with a soft whoosh, the finned dark ride rapidly chased the sky and disappeared.

Gilbert walked to the pair who had stepped out of the mysterious machine.

The sky had once again returned to that incredible blue. Fred Noonan took in his surroundings, then fell to the ground and sobbed. His hands caressed the soft earth. The pilot turned to Gilbert and he said, “Welcome home Miss Earhart.”

The Greatest Spectacle in (dirt track) Racing

Brady Bacon wins the inaugural BC39 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A certain amount of skepticism comes with the first of anything new—even for an establishment as old and renowned as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track itself began construction in 1909, the first Indianapolis 500 came in 1911. It was decades before another series turned laps on the hallowed grounds.

A dirt track has been whispered about around ims for years, but different logistical problems prevented it from coming to fruition. President of the Speedway, Doug Boles teamed up with a local dirt track promoter and the Clauson family to make the dream become a reality. Thus created a tight 1/4 mile dirt track in turn three of Indy the Driven2SaveLives BC39 event was born.

Bryan Clauson (aka “BC”) was a phenomenal Hoosier dirt track racer that climbed the ranks to national recognition. He has many accolades in the racing world, top marks include the 2014 Chili Bowl winner and three Indianapolis 500 starts. In 2016 Bryan lost his life due to complications from a midget accident and the racing community was shaken.
Only a year prior, we lost IndyCar driver Justin Wilson in a racing incident as well. Wilson’s brother Stefan teamed up with the Indiana Donor’s Network to create a new campaign called “Driven2SaveLives.” Both Justin and Bryan were registered organ donors and each were able to save five lives. To honor Bryan’s legacy, Driven2SaveLives came on board to support the BC39 race, gain awareness and “race to end the wait” for life-saving organ donation.

The stage was set and it was an emotional evening from the start. An unprecedented 115 cars were ready to rumble on Wednesday night, September 5th. They came from all over the country to participate in the first eve, many of which ran with Bryan at one point in his career. The star-studded roster included 24 usac midget feature winners and series champions including Dave Darland, Christopher Bell, Tracy Hines, J.J. Yeley and more. nascar drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Landon Cassill both fielded entries and Conor Daly carried the flag for the IndyCar series.

Tim and Diana Clauson-Bryan’s parents, fielded a couple of cars in their late son’s honor and in a tearful twist of fate, both were in Victory Lane by the end of the qualifier night. Tyler “Sunshine” Courtney from right here in Indianapolis won the first heat race of the night and later on, 15-year-old Zeb Wise of Angola, IN had a daring win in the Stoops pursuit race. Inches off the wall for laps on end, it was easy to identify why Wise was Clauson’s protégé.

“I figured I couldn’t follow everybody around the bottom or I’d lose spots,” said Wise. “I tried the top side. I was patient with it, figured it out and came through the field.” Win in hand; Wise became the youngest usac feature winner in history — poetically beating his mentor, Clauson, in the process.

On Thursday, mother nature did not cooperate. After weeks of torrid heat, the skies opened up and poured for hours leading up to the green flag. Fans, drivers and crew waited skeptically for the track to dry. After a delay in action, USAC announced that the surface has been prepped and ready. Although the first couple of mud packing sessions were… tough, the track worked in quickly and racing resumed.

The storm did not scare the fans away. The following morning, the Indy Star reported that over 13,000 people were in attendance and the grandstands were completely sold out. By the time the A main squared up and the 4-wide salute laps were completed, everyone was on their feet.

39 laps for Bryan’s car number, each more exciting than the last. Cullman, AL native Kevin Thomas Jr. led early on, with Courtney hot on the trail. Two grooves distinctly started to develop. Cars piled up on the 14th lap and all were able to restart.

Shortly after getting back to action, Broken Arrow, OK native Brady Bacon’s light knock came to a pounding on the door as he took jabs for the lead. He tried low, but couldn’t make it stick, pulling the front two wheels off of the racing surface.

Once the leaders caught up to traffic, Bacon got to cooking. A beautifully executed slide job through turn 4 earned him the lead and that was all she wrote. Chad Boat slid into second in the closing laps, Thomas clinched third, Courtney fourth and Christopher Bell clawed his way from 17th to finish 5th.

“This is definitely extra special…” said the ‘Macho Man’ in Victory Circle “It is obviously very special that (Clauson) opened a lot of doors to make a lot of things happen that would have never happened without him… He has done a lot of things for a lot of causes even since he had been gone and that shows the impact of his personality on the whole world.”

The stroke of midnight ended the festivities and race fans both familiar with this genre of racing and not went home content. From the start, Bryan was smiling down on this event. He would have loved to race a midget at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

All morning and day leading up to the first heat race, we were skeptical that the weather would allow such an event. Lightning, thunder, and rain threatened at a distance but just before the big drops fell, a striking double rainbow appeared over the oval.

In a choked voice over the track’s loudspeaker rang the words we were all thinking. “And there he is, Thank you Bryan.”

2018 SALEM SHOW AND SHINE CAR SHOW

I have been to and entered a lot of car shows over the years. I always ask where does the entry fee and all the proceeds go? Some of the answers I get are we have not determined yet, a charity, or a good cause. This show was for a great cause. Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Oregon chapter. From what I saw the veterans did a lot of the work. Everything from registration to coffee and doughnuts, to help parking the cars.

One thing I really appreciated was the respect shown. When the Color Guard presented the flags and the national anthem began everyone stood at attention, removed their hats and showed their respect. It was really great.

Now on with the show. You name it and it was there. I have not seen a DeLorean in a long time. When I saw it I thought where do you get the fuel for the flux capacitor? Just a reference to the movie “Back to the Future.” When was the last time you saw a ‘67 Rambler American. It looked bone stock on the outside with a beautiful orange/gold paint job. But the killer is it has a 401 V8 engine with 2 Holley 4bbl carbs. There was a beautiful ‘84 Chevy Monte Carlo, custom paint, lots of chrome and hydraulic suspension.

Three other cars that caught my eye were a Porsche, a Cadillac and a Corvette. The 1955 bright red Porsche 356 Speedster was flawless. Looked all original and I think it would be a kick in the rear to drive. Also in the line of vintage vehicles there was a 1951 Cadillac four door, all original, grey in color with a back seat big enough that I could crawl in there and take a nap. Now on the other end of the spectrum was a 2006 Corvette. This car is the best of both worlds. A great looking show car, but the driver Larry Holt races it also. The Silver State Classic Challenge is a timed open road race for 90 miles in Nevada. In 2017 Larry averaged 124.996 mph with the highest speed up to 165 mph. I asked Larry, “What it was like out on the open road?” One of the things he said was, “don’t forget to breath.” I’m breathless just thinking about it. With three WWII airplanes flying overhead in the clear sky and knowing that we are helping our veterans, it was a great day.

Indycar Returns to PDX

The trouble with old adages is that they contradict each other- that or they are just flat wrong. Consider “Nice guys finish last” or “Slow and steady wins the race”. How about “What you don’t know, can’t hurt you…” Really?

On September 2nd Japanese driver Takuma Sato won the resurrected Grand Prix of Portland and he accomplished that by driving “fast and steady”. He also attributed the victory to a perfect set up, great teamwork, a successful fuel strategy and luck. In other words, he had a perfect day…that’s what it takes to win in Indycar anymore. Floridian Ryan Hunter-Reay’s team miscalculated on their fuel usage and it likely cost them the victory. Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais’s team overcame what seemed like insurmountable adversity to place third.

Twenty five entries qualified within the same second, each averaging over 121 mph on the twelve turn course. Roger Penske’s entries were fastest and captured the front row. Andretti Autosport pilots came next with Championship contender Alexander Rossi and Hunter-Reay split by Bourdais. 2017 Indy 500 winner Sato advanced from the twentieth berth.

There was a stack up on the first lap that eliminated three cars but resulted in no injuries. Seventh starting James Hinchcliffe initiated the accident which gathered up point leader Scott Dixon in the melee. Amazingly Dixon never lost power and was able to drive away from the incident. Pole sitter Will Power faltered immediately and was never a factor in the race. Instead defending series Champion Josef Newgarden of Tennessee carried the banner for Penske and was challenged from the drop of the green flag by the Californian Rossi.

Throughout the contest Newgarden, Rossi and Hunter-Reay were the dominate cars with each taking turns at the point. Meanwhile astute railbirds were keeping an eye on entrants like Sato, Spencer Pigot (also from Florida) and Dixon whom were forging their way through the field. And there was the snake-bitten Bourdais whom had had more than his share of drama previous to the initial start. The four time series Champion (and winner of the last Portland race in 2007) set the fastest lap in Saturday’s final practice session then promptly slid off course, severely damaging his racecar. Owner Dale Coyne quickly rallied his troops and assigned three teams of technicians the task of preparing a backup car for their number one driver. Mission accomplished, Bourdais took the untested mount and stuck it in the fourth starting slot. Though he avoided the first lap dust up on Sunday, incidental contact with another car did crumple the nose of his pink and white racer. He was forced to make a pit stop for a replacement nose and rejoined the race at the rear.

The race proceeded without another major incident and one after another driver made scheduled stops for fuel and fresh rubber. When rookie driver Santino Farrucci (Woodbury, Connecticut) ran out of ethanol and stopped on the course, a local yellow was thrown and both Rossi’s and Newgarden’s crew chiefs decided to bring their drivers in.
Hunter-Reay’s team left him out, determining that he had enough fuel to finish the race if he would only conserve. This late race turn of events allowed a group of contestants (some of which had already made their last stops) to close up on the leaders for the final sprint to the finish.

Englishman Max Chilton found himself in the lead for the restart but his final stop still lie ahead. That was not the case for Takuma Sato however, who had made his pit stops on schedule and had steadily been advancing his position all afternoon.

With three laps to go, Hunter-Reay was radioed that he no longer had to conserve and he responded by closing right up on the leader’s tail. But it was too little too late, it was Sato’s day and he flashed across the finish line first. Ironman Bourdais brought his cobbled together back up racer home third. Pigot (who had started seventeenth and was on nobody’s radar) placed fourth. And the point’s leader, the guy that drove away from the first lap pileup and rejoined the race in last, had motored through the field to finish fifth. One race remains on the schedule.

On the victory podium, the diminutive Sato beamed, making no effort to contain his enthusiasm. Fast and steady had won this race. And on this day, a nice guy had finished first.

The Shape of Speed

Did you miss it? I would have, had it not been for my neighbor Darlene Hardie. Darlene is a member of the Portland Art Museum. Several months ago she received a copy of their publication “Portal” announcing the opening of a new exhibit showcasing streamlining in automotive design. Seventeen cars and two motorcycles were put display, all having been created between the years of 1930 and 1942.

A Chrysler Airflow Coupe I expected to see, its styling was considered ground breaking when it appeared in showrooms in 1934 but it wasn’t a big seller. Contrast the cranberry colored 1938 Talbot Lago… considered by some to be the most beautiful automobile ever built. Other manufacturers represented were: Mercedes-Benz, Bugatti, BMW, Alfa Romeo, Delahaye and Cord. The motorcycles were built by BMW and Henderson. Included in the display were several “one offs” — the Scarab, arguably the first minivan and whimsical fish tailed Airomobile were two crowd pleasers.

A tip of the hat to guest curator Ken Gross, thanks for pulling together such a compelling show. A more eclectic collection of vehicles I’ve never seen. And thank you Darlene for bringing this significant exhibit to my attention.

MetalWorks Attends The MSRA’s 45th Annual “Back to the 50s” Car Show

Take a 320 acre State Fairgrounds and fill it to capacity with 12,000 pre-1965 show cars, 450 vendors, car auctions, live bands, a massive swap meet, and more greasy food than you can shake a stick at…and what do you have? The answer… the Minnesota Street Rod Associations incredible “Back to the 50s” car show.

Born and raised in the Midwest the BTT50s show had always been a local event for me, and one of the highlights of my summer. Now that I have moved a couple thousand miles away to the Pacific Northwest the event is anything but local, but it’s one I will continue to attend as there is nothing else like it. The mature State Fairgrounds in St. Paul, MN are the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and once you fill them with 12,000 show cars it become an amazing spectacle. Cars line both sides of the streets winding through the grounds, but the middle of the lanes are left for cruising, and that is exactly what people do non-stop for 3 days. The fact that people cruise brings the show to life verses just having cars on static display…you get to hear, feel, and even smell the cars. The best part is when you get tired of walking you can grab some cheese curds and a milk shake, sit under a shade tree, and let the car come to you…it’s amazing.

If you have a bucket list of car shows to attend, make sure the MSRA’s “Back to the 50s” show is on there. I’d suggest putting it on top as it is truly as good as it gets…hope to see you there next year!!

Grand Prix of Portland 2018

They say you can never go home again. That is not always true. You can go home, only things have changed. Home for me is Portland International Raceway. For 23 years I was involved with the Indy Car races at PIR. In 1984 I volunteered as a technical inspector. My job was to help weigh and measure the race cars. Another part of the job was to keep track of the pop off valves for the turbochargers of the car I was assigned to. As an observer I had the privilege of going just about anywhere. This included the paddock area, the pit box and even the race team tent and trailers.

During the race I was in the pit box, off to one side, out of everybody’s way, observing the pit crew in action. During the pit stops, I would be checking the number of crew over the wall, number of tires that were being changed, fuel and several other things, for instance if the race car runs over the air hoses.

I had a great time over 23 years meeting crew members and owners and drivers. The only thing I regret is the rule I was not allowed to have a camera, so no photos.

Fast forward to 2018. I am at home again at PIR this time with a camera. I am here as reporter and photographer for Roddin’ and Racin’ NW Newspaper. As a photographer, I had just about the same privileges as before. I could not go into the race teams trailer and tent area without permission from the team. That also goes for the pit box. However, I could go anywhere else. The main rule was not to take any photos of the race cars if certain body parts were off the car, unless you get permission from the team.

My plan was to do a follow up story about Alexander Rossi, the NAPA driver. I did a story earlier this year when Alexander visited the World of Speed Museum in Wilsonville. Alexander was, of course, much busier preparing for the race than he was at the museum. So I concentrated on his pit crew.

It was great watching these guys in action. Just like true athletes they would stretch and limber up before pit stop practice and before the race. I asked nicely and got permission to be in the pit box. Here I am 11 years later, standing in the corner of the pit box at the pit wall. It felt great, just like old times. As I stood there I watched them remove a coil over shock, take it apart and change the spring in less than a minute. Amazing!

During the times of hot pit practice, Alexander would bring the car in at full pit speed, just like during a race. The pit crew jumped over the wall, changed 4 tires, got a full tank of fuel and then off he would go. It was like watching a ballet, the smooth fast motion, every crew member on their toes doing their jobs precisely. As Alexander took off out of the pits, it reminded me of how Little Al would leave the pits in a cloud of tire smoke.

In the time leading up to Sunday’s race I have never seen such a large crowd in the paddock area. It was very much a family event. Parents and their children were looking at the race cars and talking to crews and drivers. I even saw one of the drivers kneeling down to talk to a little guy on his level, face to face, and autograph the hero card. It was great.
While going through the paddock area I talked to one crew member about the body part that covered the front shocks. The cover was made of carbon fiber and the vinyl decal weighed just as little as the body part, they are that light.

Sunday, I was invited to the NAPA hospitality chalet. I took photos of Napa guests with Alexander. As he was leaving, I had a moment to ask a few questions. Simple questions, such as how do you like Oregon?

“I love it.”

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

“I don’t know.”

Who is your favorite driver?

“Lewis Hamilton and Kyle Bush.”

Now that is two different ends of the spectrum: Nascar and Formula 1.

As I watched the race from the chalet I thought you can go back home. The view from the chalet was great, but not as exciting as being in the pit box as the cars come in for a pit stop as I did 11 years ago. I want to thank the guys from NAPA and Alexanders pit crew for a great weekend. Alexander weekend was not so good. He finished eighth after leading the race. Yellow flags did not help him. Takuma Sato was the winner of the race this time.

Oh yes, you can go home again, as long as you expect things to be different.

ENDLESS SUMMER

He came into this world as many do. Bright red and screams. Clenched fists and trembling with anger as the revelation that life begins now. As she slipped from this world, his mother told us his name was to be Tide. Tide?

His mother was a SoCal beach girl, had spent days wandering the shores, and would just disappear as she watched the incoming tides. Tide. I nodded. It was perfect.

But Tide’s dad had only stayed in California because of the girl. His hometown was a Pacific Northwest blue-collar town far from the sun and sand where Tide had been born, and that was where he returned as a widower and new father at only 26. I uprooted and moved myself there, too, to help my son-in-law raise the starry-eyed child.

I noticed it right from the first time we took Tide to the coast. The coast. Funny, on the Eastern seaboard, they call it going to the shore. Anyway, Tide was enthralled. He walked down to the crashing waves and sat down. The waves crept in, washed over his bare feet, and he was in awe. He waded out a bit, bent, and touched the sea. Righting himself, he gazed out across the vast horizon.  Slowly, he raised his arms and stood still, bathing in the salt air and endless sky.
Tide’s dad turned to me, “This is something new. He’s so damned quiet. He doesnt say much at home or react to much of anything. This…well…”

I looked at Tide. The surf rushed in, and the boy reveled in it. I nodded knowingly. “Clem, the boy has found his own. The sea rushed through his mother’s veins, and so it does in him.”

Clem turned to me, and we locked eyes. He knew it as plainly as I did. Clem took Tide to their home in Longview and I returned to Big Sir.

And so it was, as the years washed away, that Tide became a student of science and embraced that was all of the oceans. Ya see, I was a surfer bum. Since my return from ‘Nam in ’69, I spent those days on Venice beach surfing and doing what a 22 year old man would do. And, well, that is how I became a father. I stopped the surfing and hot rodding and became a Dad. Hidden away, I had stashed an old ’49 Merc woody. She was a rock solid car and well, too good to sell.

My intentions were to someday upgrade the drive train, keep the wood as is and well, drive her. And then, well, Tide began to show his own in school. His grades were top tier. One day he told me “Grandad, well, I love the sea. I am going to attend the Western Washington University. I want to be a marine biologist.” Clem smirked. “Boy, you need grades.” Tide looked at me and his eye were like razors. Clem had lived a hard life. He had never taken anything from anyone, he had said, yet. Yet. The bastard had shook any tree, begged borrowed, and had stole to keep his sorry head above water. My gaze narrowed. I looked at Clem and said, “Let the kid dream. This may happen.” Clem and I stood across from one another. Eyes locked. I tilted my head and that was when he cast his gaze to the side. Ya see, anyone can speak and spout words. But a man will stand behind what he says. Clem looked downward and walked out of the room. Tide, well, the kid knocked down any wall the system through in front of him.

As a senior, his grades placed him in top tier in the nation. Clem shook his head. Always one who hated himself, he condemned his only son. “Yeah, like that will happen.”

Tide graduated in the top of his class and was awarded a full scholarship to the school of his choice. I missed his graduation, ’cause I had a plan up my sleeve.

Tide was resting in the sun outside his home that he and Clem shared. It was August and soon September would be here. I saw him and from a side street, I fired up the old Merc and trolled slowly toward him. His eyes narrowed. The ol’ girl growled. The new crate 347 ci Roush mill barked. Varnished wood and painted a deep burgundy. Wide whites and chromed reversed. Two long boards strapped atop. Tide stood up and his jaw just dropped. The license plates read NDLSSMR.

I rolled up and parked the Merc. “Ya know, she is even better than when I found her in ’69! Take care of her, she will serve ya well at school.”

Tide stood beside the Merc. His lower jaw hitched and I could see the tears.
“I love ya grandad.”

I paused. “Love ya too son.”

It doesn’t end here. My years fade here, but the years roll on. Tide drives the Merc everyday, still, and is now a doctor.

Personality with a side of Ribbs

Big personalities are nothing new to racing. From the very beginning, motorsports has attracted some extremely colorful characters. Since I have been working in racing, everyone pales in comparison to Willy T. Ribbs. His presence is instantly recognized in a room, and it always has been that way throughout his career. From the very beginning, Ribbs idolized Muhammad Ali, and modeled his physique and attitude after the iconic boxer. Pair that with an intense gaze and larger-than-life stories, Ribbs always stood out. That, and he was the only African American driver around.

A second-generation racer, Willy can thank his father, Bunny, for putting motorsports on his radar. Growing up in San Jose, CA famous motorcycle and IndyCar driver, Joe Leonard lived next door to the Ribbs family and was an influence as well. “I wasn’t a problem child, but my thing was driving fast” explains Ribbs, “By the time I got out of high school- I knew where I wanted to go… you look at all the drivers that came from around the world and they were racing the British championship.”

Ribbs made a name for himself in Europe through Formula Ford before coming back to America and competing in the Formula Atlantic series. He fell through IndyCar, Champ car and NASCAR, tried his hand at Trans-Am thanks to Paul Newman, and raced in IMSA for the late Dan Gurney.

Ribbs credits a handful of highly-recognized friends that have helped him through his career. “If I were to have been a grin’n shugglin’ idiot- it wouldn’t have changed anything… I also knew that for me to continue to go up the ladder of the sport, I had to have a name. I could not be like the other guys. It was that personality that got Bill Cosby’s attention.”

Though recent issues have been brought to light about Cosby’s life off-camera, Ribbs admits that his career would not have been the same without the help of the famous comedian. “I didn’t call him, he called me!” Ribbs says that Cosby was not the slightest bit interested in racing. In fact, though Cosby helped funnel a significant amount of money into Ribbs’ career, he did not come to the track. It was purely a business transaction. Cosby had the funds and the name recognition in a time when there were few African American men in the spotlight. This was an investment in Ribbs as a promising athlete and man of color.

Another influential figure in Ribbs’ Rolodex was famous boxing promoter, Don King. “Don knew me through my relationship with Ali. He said that he wanted to represent me,” says Ribbs, “Bernie (Eccelstone) knew that Don was representing me and wanted to meet.” Ribbs recounts how the eccentric boxing promoter came face-to-face with his motorsports counterpart “If you ask Bernie Ecclestone about this, he will still remember Don walking into the hotel room eating an ice cream cone. It was fascinating to watch the two engage.” It was King that helped orchestrate Ribbs’ first entry in the Indy500, but the relationship was fleeting. “I just think that Don thought that there was going to be more money in racing, at that time boxing was all cash.”

Willy T. Ribbs is a recognizable name in racing, but not necessarily for the results that he earned. Controversy has followed Ribbs through his career. Strangely enough, Ribbs was an extremely proficient driver. He has, to this day,a fire in his eyes. For whatever reason- and there are a few theories- Ribbs never reached his full racing potential. Some attribute Ribbs’ attitude and sometimes prickly, outspoken nature and to that he says “BULLSH*T. I didn’t talk myself out of anything.” His response points directly to the obvious. “Be honest with what the truth is. Be man enough to admit that ‘we didn’t want him because he was black.’” Realistically, it is a combination of many factors. Sadly, the result is a driver who had the gumption, bravery and talent to get the job done, but will be remembered more for superficial reasons than capability.

In fact, Ribbs has talked frequently about how he was treated in different series, and he found that the European mindset was more welcoming to him. “It was a night and day difference. When I went over there to race, it was like going to another planet in terms of acceptability. Those guys saw me as a race driver- and that is what it was all about. You know? When I got back here, I was a black race driver.”

Like being the ‘first’ of anything on an emerging front, Ribbs was faced with unfair added pressure to set a precedent. It was Dan Gurney who pointed out to Ribbs that his responsibilities as a racing driver ended with himself, his family and team- just like any other racer.

Bottom line is, Willy T. Ribbs pushed the envelope. His uniqueness steps outside his race- Willy truly is a vivacious, bold and an unapologetically fierce person. If there is an opportunity to hear him speak at an engagement, it is not to be missed. Look past the controversies, look past influences, and you will find one of the most colorful voices in racing with stories that will make your jaw drop. He is, at his core, personality with a side of Ribbs.

A Toy Car Story

My mom got me started with the Matchbox cars. She always loved miniatures and getting her to pony up for a new addition to my collection was easy. I can still remember the yellow, stair-stepped, countertop displays (later “spinner” racks) showing all the models available. How cool were those?! I still dream about them occasionally.

I had cars, trucks, tractors, trailers, all of ‘em but my favorites were the sports and racing cars. I loved the LeMans winning D-type Jaguar, the Maserati grand prix car and the Ford GT in particular. And the E-type Jaguar (XKE) with its tiny spoked wheels and metallic red paint has to rate as one of the coolest die casts ever.

All of my collection saw action outdoors in the dirt and sand but mostly I enjoyed racing them on smooth surfaces. A cement patio or low pile carpet was ideal. I’d get down on my belly, eye level, line them up in a long column of two and turn them loose! I tried to be fair, giving them shoves of equal strength and letting them roll. Generally my favorites made it to the front. The latest acquisition was always a pretty safe bet but sometimes an old standby (like the XKE) would pull off an upset. Hey, auto racing is a dangerous an unpredictable game! Eventually almost every vehicle in my fleet was assigned a number and raced. Even the Snow Trac traded his treads for a set of rubber tires borrowed from a Tyco slot car. “Gregory” next door very likely introduced me to 3 in 1 oil and once applied, all entries performed remarkably better. Then in 1968 Mattel introduced Hot Wheels…Holy crap! This was a toy that answered my prepubescent dreams!

My gripe with  Matchbox was that they weren’t releasing any hip new cars. They’d produced a bunch of weird English models like the Ford Zodiac and Ford Zephyr — cars I’d never seen in person. When Chevrolet introduced the Camaro in 1967 it rocked my world and I wanted a toy version. I had to “pretend’ my Matchbox Opel Diplomat was a Camaro. It was vaguely the right shape (a four door with a trailer hitch!) and at least had a snappy gold paint job. An Opel Diplomat? WTF! I STILL haven’t seen one in real life!

So when Hot Wheels hit the street (their first model being a ’68 Camaro) it was all over for Matchbox. I acquired one as soon as possible and with its revolutionary piano wire suspension; it promptly outclassed my starting field. I ended up trading that car for a classmate’s purple Barracuda and a red Mustang Fastback and lime gold second Camaro joined my roster soon after. The Hot Wheels lacked some of the detail of the early Matchbox series but the overall performance of the toys coupled with their eye popping candy paint jobs, more than compensated for that. From the first series on wild customs like the Beatnik Bandit, the Python and Silhouette were part of the offering but the models based on actual street cars and racers, were my preference. In 1969 when Hot Wheels released replicas of the two most popular cars in the Can Am series – the McLaren M6A and the Chaparral 2G, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d been fortunate enough to see the real cars compete at Laguna Seca and the fact that I could now add them to my collection was mind boggling.

Again, my races took place on large flat road courses that I laid out myself. I never owned one of the plastic orange tracks so that was never part of my Hot Wheels experience. Did I miss out? I’m not sure.

I did however get to race on one of the plastic drag sets once. A fellow collector and classmate of mine invited me over one afternoon for some friendly competition. As his parents worked graveyard and were day sleepers, we were forced to set up in their front yard. We borrowed a ladder from the garage and mounted our starting gates about six feet off the ground! The orange strip extended down his sloping yard and emptied out on the sidewalk.

It was all fun and games until a girl I had a crush on came strolling up the block! We were miles from where she lived- Turns out she and her girl friend were having a “play date” as well. What were the odds? Anyhow I was caught “playing cars” and I remember feeling embarrassed. What was she giggling about? She wore a pair of floral bell-bottoms that had actual bells sewn on them! I guess we forgave each other… many years later I took her to the Senior Ball. By then I was playing with real cars.