56-year-old Willy T. Ribbs returned from retirement at Baltimore to compete in the Firestone Indy Lights race and is providing a pre- and post-race blog to RACER.com.
HOLY S**T, WHAT IN THE HELL WAS I THINKING?
Do you remember watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins? I couldn't help but think of that show throughout the entire race, and really the entire weekend there in Baltimore. You see, when lions get to be a certain age, they find themselves inclined to lay around a bit more. The younger lions take on the role of the hunters, and while the old sage lion may get up from time to time to nab a gazelle, he is no longer in competition with the other young lions. Many times you'll spot the younger lions playfully biting the resting old sage's behind to let him know he's the old guy and that the lionesses belong to the younger guys. That was my image of the entire race on the streets of Baltimore.
It's so funny when I think back at it now, just being a few days removed from it, because all weekend I had A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Jr., Rick Mears and so many others come up and ask me, “What in the hell are you thinking?” And I would tell them, “Hey, why do we get up in the morning? To live – I still enjoy living!” And most of their responses back to me were, “Well that's fine, just don't kill your fool self doing this!”
But I'll tell you what, it was fantastic to be out on the field again. It was nothing like it used to be in my day. The lack of competitiveness on my part was frustrating. Although, being my age, I didn't expect to be competition to the younger lions. Knowing that right off the bat, I even sat out of Saturday's qualifying, which was run in the rain, to let the younger guys have a better shot. I was just worried I might make a mistake that would keep them from getting the full potential from their practice, especially on a new course. The last thing I want to do is interfere with these kids' potential to succeed. I don't want to steal any lionesses.
It was just so much fun to watch these young guys out there. I felt like more of a coach than anything; a man who had played the game before, knew the ins and outs and was now watching the next generation work hard to get to where I have been. There was a strong sense of pride I felt as I have watched a few races and practice sessions from the box earlier this year. These respectful, hard-working boys out there like Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly and my driver Chase Austin are the future of the sport and I hope I've been able to influence their lives and motorsports careers in some way.
When I hit the pavement on Sunday, it had been 17 years since my last professional road course circuit. The long absence from a racecar ultimately led to my early retirement from the race. It's different being an old guy. Endurance just isn't the same, especially when you're out of practice for so many years. When you get to my age (56), you find yourself being very cautious of the limit. The kids racing out there, they go right to the limit and even past it. I stay far from it; mostly because I really don't know what my limits are anymore.
Still, I got to within four laps of the checkered flag on the hardest track I've ever raced on. I'm a bit disappointed in one sense, because – had I been able to finish running at the end of the race – I would actually have pulled a top-10 finish out of my...well, you know where. But, honestly, the pride I feel for even trying, as well as having my son Theo there in Baltimore to see me race for the first time in 11 years, far outweighs any disappointment.
One thing that really blew me away about the Baltimore Grand Prix was the diversity factor. Having been working with my good friend Chris Miles and his company Starting Grid, Inc., it was definitely a welcome sight to see. It is really part of the reason I agreed to race in Baltimore in the first place, which was to bring more awareness to his diversity initiatives through the partnership he has forged with American Honda.
But, I'll tell you, never before in my entire racing career did I see as much diversity as I did at the Baltimore Grand Prix. There were upward of 30,000 African Americans there among the crowd of nearly 80,000. It looked like the stands of a real American sport, like an NBA or NFL game. That's what IndyCar has got to have.
After participating in the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, I really hope they can bring it back. I met so many people who were not only cheering me on, but also were so appreciative of having IndyCar and the American Le Mans Series come to their city. This is a championship-winning sports town, so they know what a good show is all about, but these people were blown away at the access they had to all of us drivers, and how friendly we were to get pictures and autographs.
Again, back in my day, that's what the race weekend was all about. It was about the fans! Us drivers did what we needed to do on the track during our on-track time, but after that it was about being with the fans. I truly hope that these young cats coming up through the ranks realize that that is how we need to grow IndyCar in order to get it back to its rightful place as the best racing on the planet.
The question that I was asked by Versus when I got out of the car, and everybody else during my walk back to the paddock was, “Will I race again in IndyCar?” My answer to that is, probably not. But over the past few months, Chris has had an uncanny way of being able to talk me into doing things – so I, along with you reading this, will have to wait and see.
Just know this: No matter what I do with my racing career in the future, this ol' sage lion has a whole pride of young lions in waiting at Willy T. Ribbs Racing.
Willy T. Ribbs is the owner of Willy T. Ribbs Racing. For more on Willy, visit www.WillyTRibbs.com or follow him on Twitter, http://www.twitter.com/WillyRibbs.