In his first year of competition, Ribbs won the Dunlop Championship. He went on to race Formula Atlantic cars, winning the pole in the Long Beach Formula Atlantic race in 1982. The following year, he won five races in the Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am Series, earning Pro Rookie of the Year honors. Ribbs is also credited as being the first African American to drive a Formula One car when he tested for the Brabham team in Portugal in 1986. Four years later, he joined the CART circuit in a car partially funded by African American racing executive Sam Belnavis and comedian Bill Cosby. Ribbs had two top 10 events that season, and, in 1991, he became the first African American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.