Racing While Black: How Willy T. Ribbs Battled Racism on the Racetrack
Willy T. Ribbs is not a household name outside of racing circles. But it should be. During the 1980s, he was one of the damn fastest drivers on any circuit, be it an oval, a road course or a circuit. Ribbs had everything needed to become a world-class runner, except for the color of his skin.
After showing great promise at the age of 22 in becoming a British Formula Ford “Star Of Tomorrow” champion, Ribbs found that progress in American racing was slow. Despite sponsors turning their backs and some pit crews, slow-running mechanical improvements or slow communication, Ribbs still found a way to win races and compete in the Trans-Am and IMSA series races . His only shot at a time was to qualify for the 1991 and 1993 Indianapolis 500 – the latter of which he finished despite inferior machines.
Known for her strong personality and not shrinking from confrontation, Ribbs’ life is the subject of the film. Uppity, which is now available for streaming on Netflix. He spoke with MotorTrend June 16.
When you raced NASCAR in the South, did you feel like you were entering what you knew was racist? How often have you encountered racism or racial prejudice on the track, whether from fans, mechanics or other drivers?
I would say it depends on the time, place and day. I definitely had rivals, right? I had rivals and I knew that racing was the cause. I must tell you that I needed it. Bobby Unser said to me, “There aren’t many drivers who could have done and managed what you do. I know, because I heard what people were saying. It was fuel for me.
You could have allowed him to devour you inside, allow him to affect your conduct, as well as your mental state. Somewhere inside, you must be thinking, I’m the fastest guy out there. They should be concerned with the speed at which I am, not the color of my skin.
Well, I think it was intimidating. I think there are a lot of people who keep their myth of themselves as supremacists. And it’s a dream they don’t want to wake up from, and they woke up. My number one concern was whether I was on an equal footing mechanically. I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. I knew they weren’t going to do anything physically because they would have been kicked in the ass. But on the technical side, I was still concerned about that. Someone could be on the team and turn the screws the wrong way.
When you were trying to qualify for Indy for the first time, could you say that some mechanics were just slowing down possible improvements to your car?
It was in 1985; I didn’t even qualify. I was just training and testing myself to prepare for the qualifications. And I knew there were one or two good guys on the team. But the guy who made the decisions, the team leader, he never said a word to me. And if there’s a circuit or race on the planet where you need to have phenomenal communication with your team, your engineer, it’s Indy. Because it is dangerous. If there is a communication problem and you don’t know what’s going on, you’re going to have a crash.
What were the additional challenges you encountered in trying to get sponsors as a black racing car driver? What were these meetings like?
There really weren’t any meetings. If there was one obstacle for Willy T. Ribbs in his racing career, it was corporate America that turned its back on them. They even laughed at whether I could win or not, because I won. When I ran for Roush, I won. When I ran for Gurney, I won. But when it comes to top level sport, in the Indy car I deserved to be in, just like these other guys – Al (Unser) Jr., Michael Andretti and Scott Pruett, who I had competed against – I did not understand. And the sponsors knew I was a winning race driver, but they turned their backs. And it was probably the most disappointing part of my career.
You also had the chance to test Formula 1 (for the Olivetti team), but they wanted an Italian driver.
There was no racism involved in this. Bernie Ecclestone, yesterday and today, we are very good friends. Bernie wanted me in Formula 1. And when I went to test, it was at the end of 1985. I knew that unless Bernie had another sponsor on the line, I was not going to get the agreement, even if I was fast enough to be part of the team. The godfather was Italian. The drivers were Italian, and that’s what they wanted. And I understand that. It was pure nationality.
Obviously, there were champions of your talent, guys who didn’t care about skin color, just that you were fast and you were going to win races and you were going to think well about the sport…
Well, Dan Gurney, probably # 1. He wasn’t the best team owner I had ever raced for, but he was my biggest supporter as a team owner. And he went to Toyota and said, “I want Willy T. He can win, but he doesn’t back down from controversy either. He doesn’t turn another cheek. “And that’s what worried them. But they said OK. Nowadays, it would be perfectly acceptable for me to intervene and defend myself. Well no. But Gurney said, let me take care of it “I controlled everything. Dan made it all work for him. He wanted me to go out and win for him, and he knew I could. And then we did. So he would at the top.
Who else supported you?
I mean, of course, Bernie Ecclestone was a big fan and Jim Trueman. Without Trueman, I would not have entered sport. Jim Trueman was a number zero to keep me in the game. And then there was Paul Newman… so I always come back to Trueman, Newman, Bernie and Bill Cosby. These four guys. They made my career, despite what has happened with Bill since then. If it weren’t for BIll, I would never have been on the Indy 500. I will never back down.
It’s a pretty impressive list of people who support you. You would have thought the sponsors would have said, “Wow, look at these names of people who vouch for Willy T. Ribbs. We really have to be part of his team. ”
Well, you know what’s sad is the billions of dollars that people of color have put in their bank. But it was a one-way street. They didn’t care. People of color frequented them and bought their cars and bought their drinks. And American companies said, “Fuck you, Willy T.” And that had nothing to do with controversy, because I had never had a problem with the law. Already. And to this day. I have never been. There are many drivers who have had substance or other problems. And there was no embarrassment I could have brought them, except to defend myself. And I did, I got up and I would do it again. I would not do anything different.
So, when you were in town for a race, off the track, you are in town, have you ever encountered driving situations in black? You’re just driving and you seem to be stopped for no good reason.
Yeah i did [get pulled over]. But I was going fast, so I deserved to be arrested. If they stopped me, they had a reason to stop me. Once in Sebring, Florida, he was a little cop from the South. And I entered the parking lot and he came behind me with his lights on. I went out and he said, “Why are you driving so fast?” I said, “Are you kidding? It is not that fast. “
He asked me where I came from and I said, “I drive race cars and my name is Willy T. Ribbs.” And he says, “Oh, I know who you are.” I said, “If you write to me, I understand. I was exceeding the speed limit. But what will they say when you come back to headquarters for writing Willy T. Ribbs for being 65 in a 55? Let’s go. They will make fun of you. “So I said,” If I was going to three digits, OK. I can understand. “
And he didn’t write to me. To date, I very rarely receive speeding tickets. Very rarely. And almost every time, it’s a great experience because I tell them stories. And I don’t want to be confronting with these guys. I know some will stop with me for driving while Black. There are some who legitimately stop me, but I will not be sorry. I get it.
Your celebrity has therefore helped a little.
In Texas, I’m going to Lubbock, and a cop stopped me and he was walking very slowly to the car. He said, “You were going 100 miles an hour.” I said, “Come on, man. It is the speed of the pit lane at Indy. “And he said,” Oh, are you running Indy? “I said,” Yes, sir. “
So he goes back to his car, and about five minutes later he comes back. He says, “Mr. Ribbs, I had no idea. He went to the screen and checked the background. They can consult you all your life.
“I’m just going to warn you,” he said, “but be careful. Some of these other guys might not. They will write you a ticket.” And yes, it was 100 miles per hour. But it was as cool as ice. But I was cool too.
But in many situations with black drivers and law enforcement we hear about, the guy in the car is cool and it still doesn’t seem to matter. It degenerates. It’s bad.
I can handle a pistol very well. And the thought behind the button. No one should be shot in the back without arms. I hope you are joking? I know that decisions in a fraction of a second are necessary in matters of confrontation. However, many of these law enforcement boys should not be allowed to handle a firearm. My grandfather said, “You don’t know what you’re doing, son. You have to get another job.”
I grew up from a child who was shooting on the ranch. Shooting was my hobby, and competing with a shotgun was my hobby. My son Theo Ribbs is one of the best shooters in the world. Theo is 28 years old and one of the best. He travels all over the world, in Dubai, in Italy, in England, in competition with a shotgun. Theo took him to a professional level.
We have our own training center here in Texas. We shoot every day, and it’s just to feel and be ready to compete. And growing up on the ranch with my grandpa and learning from him how to be a competitive shooter … we are wired in a completely different way on how a gun should be used. Totally different. It is not used to harm anyone.
I mean, the latitude you give a person, depending on the act. – if the first instinct is to reach the pistol when you are not threatened, there is something wrong with your head. Before it even happens… [as a policeman], when you go to work, what goes through your mind when you go out? What are you really thinking about? What’s in your subconscious? If you are looking for an opportunity to kill someone, you are in the wrong business.
This comes down to the perception of black pilots, on and off track. When you tested Formula 1 in 1985, it was the same year that Lewis Hamilton was born. Now you see Lewis and his success on the track, and he defends himself, just like you. And I’m sure he’s causing grief to some of his sponsors. But he has sponsors. Have you ever thought, “Could it have been me?”
My mom always said to me, “William, you were born 25 years too early.” I know Lewis and he is a friend, his father and I are friends. I am his guest every year at the Grand Prix here at COTA in Texas. And we sit with each other and we talk about the different times that I went through and the moments he is going through now. And in Europe, it’s very different from the United States. I mean, he gets booed in Spain. They are not really nice to him there. But this is largely due to the fact that he faces Fernando Alonso, who is Spanish.
So I understand a little. But my message to Lewis every time I see him is, “You have to stay firm. And you have to be true to yourself if you want to stand out, if you want to take a stand. “He’s ahead of every racing driver on the planet right now; he’s the main guy in the Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. He’s the world leader.
When he moved, then the NASCAR pilots, Jimmy Johnson, all, then they jumped. But he moved first. In every interview I do from Europe, they ask me, “Well, what do you think of Lewis?” I say, “He’s a champion. And champions must have a picture. They must have a message. They must have content.” And to be able to speak out against injustice, to speak out against injustice, you have to stand up for humanity. Muhammad Ali did it. And I said to Lewis, “I will support you.” And I said to the international media, “I got Lewis back.” Because he’s right. He’s perfectly the right to stand up and say, “This is wrong.”
How about the advice you would give to aspiring drivers of black race cars? Let’s say they’re out of the go-karts, they’re moving up in the ranks of the SCCA or Formula Mazda, and they’re fast…
I do it all the time. I receive messages from young black children in their teens and early twenties every day. And the question is, “How can I manage what you have processed?” What advice can you give me to not only be competitive on the circuit, but how can I sell myself? “
Having grown up on the ranch with my grandfather, there was no gray area with him. It was good or bad. When you get it wrong, you have nothing to stick to. When you are right, you stand at the top of the mountain. And I tell these children. “You have to stay clean. Don’t give anyone a reason to refuse you in the first place.”
If someone can refuse you, they will return it and say, “Well, you had problems doing it”, instead of the real reason why they refused you, it’s because of the color of your skin. This is what happened with Willy T. Ribbs. They would say, “Oh, he’s arrogant. He is honest. It is controversial. “OK, that’s shit. Just tell the real truth, OK? I want a man to be a man. Just say,” Well, [we’re] biased and we prefer to see someone else. “Don’t use” arrogant “or” controversial “. There’s nothing illegal about it. And I always emphasize,” Well, it was OK for AJ Foyt, right? ” I mean, it was OK for Parnelli, it was OK for AJ, it was even OK for Uncle Bobby Unser, whom I love to death. I love it. I love the floor Bobby walks on because he treated me.
So I say to these children, stay clean, stay professional, learn as much as possible from the technical side, because the technical side knows no color. So when you talk to the team leader, people realize, “Wow, he knows the game. He knows what he’s talking about. “
And I grew up in it. It was easy for me from the start, because that’s all my dad and his racing buddies talked about. The technical side. What the shock absorbers do and how to configure the car for high-speed and low-speed turns and the technical configuration of mid-turns.
So I say to these children, “Learn. I do not want. “The wish is to blow out candles.
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