Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 17, 2019
By comparison, Breaking speed barriers-at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were easy to accomplish. Other barriers had been as rigid as the old concrete walls at the Speedway. In 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the race. I’ll tell her story next week. The final barrier stood another 14 years.
It was a long road to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Willy T. Ribbs. Ribbs had driven most everything, from SCCA sports cars to NASCAR. Ribbs was the first black driver to drive a Formula 1 car in a test. He first entered the 500 in 1984, but did not appear. In 1985 he came to the track, but withdrew during rookie orientation.
Six years later he was back with Derrick Walker, a Buick powered car, and no sponsor. During the second week of practice leading up to the final qualifying weekend, the team lost four engines. Now, on Bump Day, Ribbs was still not in the field. Sunday got off to an ominous start. A turbocharger failed just before 1 o’clock. After a ninety minute repair the engine was fired again and began to smoke. The engine was blowing oil. The pump had taken on shrapnel from the turbocharger.
By the time Ribbs could get out for practice, it was 3:30. Finally at 5:15 Ribbs rolled off the line for a qualifying run. He posted the fastest time of the day, 217.358 and bumped 1983 race winner Tom Sneva from the field. The final barrier had been broken. Willy T. Ribbs was the first African American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.