INDIANAPOLIS — Twenty years after he made history in 1991 by becoming the first African-American to compete in the Indianapolis 500, the personable, well-liked Willy T. Ribbs has returned to the scene of his greatest triumph.
Not as a driver, although Ribbs looks like he could still climb in a race car and hold his own with the youngsters, but rather as a car owner. An owner with a mission.
Ribbs has long wanted to help a young African-American driver, like comedian, Bill Cosby, helped him years ago.
Cosby was not a race fan, or had much interest in racing, but he was fascinated by Ribbs’ dream to rise to the top of his predominantly white sport. Cosby supported and encouraged Ribbs, and helped fund him in CART, where he competed in 46 championship races.
Partnering with Chris Miles, a New Albany, Indiana native and founder of Starting Grid, Inc, this year Ribbs formed, Willy T. Ribbs Racing, and took 21-year-old, Chase Austin under his wing.
From Eudora Kan., Austin took the typical Midwest route into racing, running various classes of midgets, before moving into dirt late models. At 15, he became the youngest driver ever in a NASCAR development program, when he inked a deal with Hendricks Motorsports.
He ran in the Nationwide Series with Rusty Wallace Racing in 2007, and has competed in the Nationwide, and in the Camping World Truck Series for the past two seasons.
Although he hasn’t ran an open wheel car since his midget, and dirt modified days, he’s no stranger to big, fast tracks, having run Daytona and Talladega with NASCAR. That helped him make the transition to the Indy Lights cars, and will help him in his first Indy Lights race on the big, intimidating oval at Indianapolis.
Austin, along with other Indy Light’s rookies, ran tests at Chicagoland Speedway May 9-10.
As far Austin’s next goal, competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Firestone Freedom 100 on May 27, he’s confident, excited, and awed that it will be during the Speedway’s centennial celebration, and on the 20th anniversary of Ribbs’ historic accomplishment.
“It is a tremendous honor,” states Austin. “I have to thank Chris, Willy and American Honda for believing in me and providing this incredible opportunity. This experience has been amazing so far, and I hope it will not end any time soon.”
Ribbs’ is as excited as his young driver, and his future plan for Austin, and his new team is to expand into the IndyCar Series.
“Making Indy in 1991,” emphasizes Ribbs, “is was without a doubt the greatest experience of my 23-year career. Without question, there is no bigger race on the planet; it is the biggest, most prestigious race in the world. To return in a team capacity, even for one event, is an honor and the direction I want to go long term.
“I’ve known about Chase for a long time,” continues Ribbs. “I could tell from the first time I spoke with him that he was very talented and that he was committed. To be successful in this business, ultimately, you must have commitment. Having Chase a part of IndyCar is great for the sport and our sponsors, and I’m honored to bring him into the fold. I’m really happy he’s doing it in IndyCar, which is where he will have an opportunity to succeed.”
After Ribbs retired from racing he became a world-class skeet shooter. A “hotshot.”
With Chase Austin, Ribbs might just have the next American “hotshot” in Indy car racing.