F1: Willy T. Ribbs shattered motorsport’s color barrier

These are words carved from the experiences of a man who knows what it’s like to be alone.

A black driver whose effort to get into motorsport has been hampered by several obstacles and stereotypes throughout his career.

But for all discussions of the fighting, his words are ransacked with an idea of ​​what could and should have been.

“I wanted to be like the grown-ups – I wanted to be a world champion in Formula 1. My mother always said that I was 25 years ahead of my time.”

It was a dream conceived in the Californian mountains.

A dream that would be challenged by politics, personalities and prejudice – but which would ultimately trigger a series of pioneering moments and in turn engender the original pioneer of motorsport.

Willy T. Ribbs was the first black driver to test a Formula 1 car and compete in the Indy 500 (Courtesy: Chassy Media)

“We don’t really want you here”

Speaking of his ranch in Driftwood, Texas, a recurring word emerges everywhere – “playbook”.

The playbook was Ribbs’ success model.

In his childhood, his father – an amateur sports car racer – planted the seed of motor racing.

As an adult, Emerson Fittipaldi – who would become a two-time Formula 1 champion – gave him a way to flourish.
Like Fittipaldi, Ribbs’ early career took him to England to compete in the British Formula Ford single-seater championship. He started running like a duck in the water – winning six of the eleven races and with him the title of “Star of Tomorrow” in 1977.

“They saw Willy T. as a fast driver and a winning racing driver,” recalls Ribbs fondly.

His driving talent first appeared when he competed in the British Formula Ford Championship in 1977 (courtesy Chassy Media)

The following year, he returned to the United States with his goal of participating in IndyCar – the reception contrast in the pit lane, however, could not have been greater.

But his reception in the pit lane during a NASCAR race was a shock.

“All it took was the word N. When you are called by that name, you know what it is,” he recalls his race preparation at Alabama International Motor. Speedway in Talladega, Alabama.

“They said clearly,” We really don’t want you here. Why do you come to our sport? Can’t play basketball or football? “

Humpy Wheeler, who was then president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, wanted to try to lead Ribbs in NASCAR later that year, but his efforts were unsuccessful.

Ribbs was charged with a traffic violation in Charlotte – Wheeler had to release him from police custody. The next day, Wheeler and Ribbs separated.

Death threats followed, said Ribbs.

“I don’t care at all. I know one thing – you weren’t going to do it in front. I found it very exciting […] You have received letters or a phone call. I would kind of invite him: “Okay, start killing.” “

NASCAR did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on how Ribbs said he had been treated by the sport.

One pioneer inspires another

It is this bullishness, this bravery and this bravery that are captured in a single word on the front of Ribbs’ hat – “UPPITY” – the title of a recent Netflix documentary retracing his remarkable life story.

And yet, it’s a word that represents much more – a racially charged term often used by Ribbs to imply that he was acting above his station.

“They just thought I should walk 10 steps behind them. It didn’t happen.”

“(To me) It was not a question of color. It was a question of being a racing driver. Racing drivers have no color, either you can wear it or you cannot. “

He praised the way Ali provided him with the “playbook” to combat antagonism – not physically but mentally and emotionally.

“He had a great principle, a great integrity and he was strong. Mentally, he was a very hard man [and] being around him, I learned resolution. What I had to do to reach my goal. “

Muhammad Ali was an inspiring and talismanic figure for Ribbs (Courtesy: Chassy Media)

And achieve that goal, he did it.

Ribbs stormed the Trans-Am series from 1983 to 1985, winning 17 times and establishing itself as the most popular property in sports car racing.

Rightly so, his victory celebrations were not discreet. Back in the pit lane and in an ode to Ali, he performed the “Ali Shuffle” – feet moving back and forth on the hood of his car and hands raised in the air.

His break came in April 1985 when, supported by boxing promoter Don King, he made his first attempt at qualifying for the famous Indy 500.

Mechanical problems finally condemned his offer. But an important landmark loomed on the horizon – the one who was to dedicate it to the folklore of motorsport.

“He wanted me in Formula 1”

December 1985. Autódromo do Estoril, Portugal.

Approached by British businessman Bernie Ecclestone, owner of the Brabham team, Ribbs became the first black driver to test a Formula 1.

“He wanted me in the car – He wanted me in Formula 1.”

It was both a symbolic and a finished moment – because it had to be as far as it would go in F1.

Brabham’s main sponsor at the time was the Italian electronics manufacturer Olivetti. Ribbs says the company wanted to install an Italian pilot. There was no compromise – Italians Riccardo Patrese and Elio de Angelies were to be the drivers of the 1986 Formula 1 season.

“I have no problem with that,” says Ribbs. “I would have liked to have a large multinational sponsor from the United States to support him but that did not happen […] My goal was to be in Formula 1 but Bernie made a statement. “

The foundations have been laid, but it will take another 21 years for a black driver – Lewis Hamilton – to officially gain access to Formula 1.

But Ribbs’ feat would serve to fuel another piece of history.

After several attempts, six years later in May 1991, he qualified for the Indy 500 – becoming the first African American pilot to do so.

He would do five laps before the engine failure forced him to exit, but it was undoubtedly an important moment to break the barrier.

Two years later, however, his luck ended when he competed again and completed the 200 laps.

And he wants to remember the owners who supported him throughout – including Jim Trueman and Dan Gurney.

The Walker Racing team successfully qualified Ribbs for the Indy 500 in 1991, making it the first black driver to participate in the race (Courtesy: Dan R Boyd)

Fight for equality

Yet, almost 30 years later, the landscape is much the same as when Ribbs took its first steps.

In 2020, the best NASCAR circuit has only one full-time black driver – Bubba Wallace.
The CNN interview comes in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and just a day after NASCAR announced it would ban Confederate flags from its events after a voice campaign led by Wallace.
Bubba Wallace spoke out against the display of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events, which NASCAR banned in June 2020.

For some, the decision is long overdue. Ribbs, however, remains skeptical.

“When NASCAR refuses to let the Confederate flags fly in their internal field: is it sincere? If George Floyd was alive at the time, these flags were still flying. This is why I say little. They still have a lot to do. . “

NASCAR did not respond to CNN’s request to comment on Ribbs’ assertion.

NASCAR is not the only place where the battle for equality and diversity continues to be fought.

Formula 1 has acted to remedy its lack of representation and inclusion in sport by creating a working group and a foundation, alongside its #WeRaceAsOne initiative.

Just as Ecclestone gave Ribbs a shot, Ribbs is full of praise for another “monumental” figure who gave Hamilton a chance in the sport – former McLaren CEO and founder Ron Dennis.

“(He) put Lewis Hamilton in the position he is today. He saw great talent, coached him and led Lewis to the top.”

“Ron has already given everyone the playbook. Get Ron’s playbook.

“If you can put a man in space, it’s cake. It’s not rocket science.”

Lewis “is the leader of the group”

In many ways, Ribbs presented Hamilton with his own “playbook” – he gave an overview of what could be done on and off the track.

Yet pure talent was never enough. The race requires donors and resources – And Ribbs hardly ever had that.

Hamilton, however, does – and he seizes the opportunity both as a dominant runner of his time and as an advocate for change.
Six-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has been a strong advocate for greater diversity in the sport.

“(Lewis) is the group leader and he is not afraid […] It has expanded sport around the world to people of color [and] will be anointed as the greatest of all time in the end, “Ribbs proudly says.

“There will always be this element (which) does not purely accept race […] Just like there are a lot of people who don’t accept Lewis for racing only. “

“They are not only stupid. They are afraid. They are cowards […] You don’t judge a man by his skin color. You don’t judge a man by his accent. It is a man or it is not a man. “

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