Willy T. Ribbs is one of those names fans of Black trailblazers in sports should know. He was the first African American man to test a Formula One car in 1986. He was the first African American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1991. Ribbs faced racism — which he learned to have some fun with — and criticism as, from the perspective of insiders, he invaded a white man’s sport and didn’t behave as a Black subordinate should.
This outsider status made Ribbs resilient, and he hasn’t stopped racing yet. He’ll be one of 20 drivers to compete in a Vintage Race of Champions Charity Pro-Am race Aug. 3-4 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational will benefit the Morgan Adams Foundation, which supports pediatric cancer research.
Ribbs, whose father raced as a hobby, grew up in California in a middle-class family that could afford to let him chase his dreams. He moved to Europe in the mid-‘70s and won the Dunlop Championship in his first year racing. In 1977 he competed in the Formula Ford Series in England and won six races in 11 starts.
In Europe, Ribbs said, he never had a problem. “The people were wonderful,” he said.
It wasn’t until he began racing competitively back in the United States in 1978 that Ribbs said he started getting some “pushback” from the industry. Ribbs said the message was clear: Racing isn’t for Black people. As is the case today, though to a lesser extent, racing was seen as a good-ol’-boy sport, replete with Confederate flags and the idea that white men alone were meant to drive fast.
Still, Ribbs said he fed off of that.
“I sort of liked the pushback and liked them calling me the N-word,” he said. “They wouldn’t do it to my face because they’d be drinking out of a straw for dinner for a couple of weeks.”
Ribbs raced in NASCAR, IndyCar and Champ Car. He was named the TransAm Series rookie of the year in 1983.
It wasn’t always overt racism that Ribbs faced. He was accused of being too outspoken and confrontational. He didn’t have a problem saying what was on his mind and got physical with drivers occasionally, which isn’t unusual in the sport. The answer seems obvious, but the question had to be asked anyway: Why did people attack his character like that?
“You know what it is just like I do,” he said. “That is the nature of this sport. The reason they called me uppity is because I would not take a back seat. I wouldn’t accept second class.”
“Uppity” is the title of a documentary about Ribbs that’s coming out this fall. The documentary shows the obstacles Ribbs faced as a Black professional driver. (Ribbs recommends anyone who sees it brings tissues because “you’re gonna be wiping your eyes.”)
Ribbs said his perspective on racist attacks against him as a man and driver hasn’t changed over the years. He’s 64 now, still racing and thinks some drivers resent him to this day because he didn’t “grin and shuffle.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed is his competitiveness. Even now as he gets ready for a charity race two years before he can start collecting full social security benefits, Ribbs’ goal is to win — because racing is racing, he said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
BRICKYARD VINTAGE RACING INVITATIONAL
Hundreds of historic racecars will compete on the 2 1/2-mile oval track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For a full schedule, visit indianapolismotorspeedway.com.
• When: Aug. 3-4
• Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 4790 W. 16th St.
• Tickets: $20-$45 at indianapolismotorspeedway.com. Children 15 and under get in free with a paid adult