Racing While Black: How Willy T. Ribbs Battled Racism on the Racetrack

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Willy T. Ribbs isn’t a household name outside of racing circles. But he should be. During the 1980s, he was one of the fastest damn drivers around any racetrack, be it an oval, road course, or circuit. Ribbs had all the necessary items to become a world-renowned racer—except for the color of his skin.

After showing great promise at age 22 in becoming British Formula Ford “Star Of Tomorrow” champion, Ribbs found progress in American racing to be slow going. Despite sponsors turning their backs and some pit crews slow-walking mechanical improvements or slow-talking communication, Ribbs still found a way to win races and contend for championships in Trans-Am and IMSA series racing. His only shot at the big time was qualifying for the 1991 and 1993 Indianapolis 500—the latter of which he finished despite inferior machinery.

Known for a strong personality and not backing down from confrontation, Ribbs’ life story is the subject of the movie Uppity, which is now available for streaming on Netflix. He spoke with MotorTrend on June 16.

When you raced in NASCAR in the South, did it feel like you were just walking into what you knew was going to be racist? How often did you encounter racism or racial bias at the track, either from fans, mechanics, or other drivers?

I would say it depends on the time and the place and the day. I definitely had rivals, right? I had rivals, and I knew there was race involved. I have to tell you, I needed that. Bobby Unser told me, “There’s not a lot of drivers that could have done and handled what you do. I know, because I heard what people were saying.” That was fuel for me.

You could have allowed it to eat you up on the inside, allow it to affect your driving, and also your mental state. Somewhere inside, you had to be thinking, I’m the fastest guy out there. They should be concerned with how fast I am, not the color of my skin.

Well, I think it was intimidating. I think that there are a lot of people that hold on to their myth of themselves as supremacist. And that’s a dream that they don’t want to wake up from, and they were getting woken up. My No. 1 concern was whether I was on a level playing field mechanically. I didn’t give a damn what anybody thought about me. I knew they weren’t going to do anything physically ’cause they would’ve got their ass kicked. But the technical side, I was always concerned about that. Someone could be inside the team who’s turning the screws the wrong way.

When you were trying to qualify for Indy the first time, could you tell some mechanics were just slow-walking any possible improvements to your car?

That was in 1985; I wasn’t even qualifying. I was just practicing and testing to get myself prepared for qualifying. And I knew there were one or two good guys on the team. But the guy who was making the decisions, the crew chief, he never spoke one word to me. And if there’s any racetrack or any race on the planet where you have to have phenomenal communication with your team, your engineer, it’s Indy. ‘Cause it’s dangerous. If there’s any miscommunication and you don’t know what’s going on, you’re going to have a crash.

What were some of the additional difficulties you faced in terms of trying to get sponsors as a Black race-car driver? What were those meetings like?

There were really no meetings. If there was any No. 1 obstacle for Willy T. Ribbs in his racing career, it was corporate America turning their back. They didn’t even care if I could win or not, because I was winning. When I raced for Roush, I won. When I raced for Gurney, I won. But when it came to going to the very top sport, in Indy car, which I deserved to be in just like those other guys—Al (Unser) Jr., Michael Andretti, and Scott Pruett, who I had been competing against—I didn’t get that. And the sponsors knew I was a winning race driver, but they turned their back. And that was probably the most disappointing part of my career.

You also got a chance to test for Formula 1 (for the Olivetti team), but they wanted an Italian driver.

There was no racism involved in that. Bernie Ecclestone, then and now, we’re very good friends. Bernie wanted me in Formula 1. And when I went to test, that was at the end of 1985. I knew that unless Bernie had another sponsor on the line, I wasn’t going to get the deal, even though I was fast enough to be on the team. The sponsor was Italian. The drivers were Italian, and that’s what they wanted. And I understand that. That was pure nationality.

Obviously there were some champions of your talent, the 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 reflect well on the sport …

Well, Dan Gurney, probably No. 1. He was not the best team owner I’d ever raced for, but he was my biggest supporter as a team owner. And he went to Toyota and told them, “I want Willy T. He can win, but he also doesn’t back away from controversy. He doesn’t turn another cheek.” And that’s what they were concerned about. But they said OK. Nowadays it would be perfectly acceptable for me to step up and defend myself. Well, not then. But Gurney said, let me handle it, I got this under control. Dan made it so it was all business with him. He wanted me to go out and win for him, and he knew I could. And then we did. So he would be at the top.

Who else backed you?

I mean, of course Bernie Ecclestone was a big supporter, and Jim Trueman. If it wasn’t for Trueman, I would not have made it into the sport. Jim Trueman was numero uno at keeping me in the game. And then there was Paul Newman … so I always go back to Trueman, Newman, Bernie, and Bill Cosby. Those four guys. They made my career, despite what’s happened with Bill since then. If it wasn’t for BIll, I would’ve never been in Indy 500. I will never back down from that.

That’s a pretty stunning list of people backing you up. You would’ve thought that sponsors would’ve said, “Wow, look at these names of people who are vouching for Willy T. Ribbs. We really ought to be part of his team.”

Well, you know what’s sad is the many billions of dollars that people of color were putting into their bank. But it was a one-way street. They didn’t care. People of color were patronizing them and buying their automobiles and buying their beverages. And corporate America said, “Screw you, Willy T.” And it had nothing to do with controversy, because I had never been in trouble with the law. Ever. And to this day. Never have been. There’s a lot of drivers that have had problems with substance or whatever. And there was no embarrassment that I could have brought to them, other than standing up for myself. And I did, I stood up for myself, and I would do all over again. I would not do anything different.

So when you were in town for a race, outside of the track, you’re in town, did you ever encounter any sort of Driving While Black situations? You’re just cruising around, and you seem to get pulled over for no good reason.

Yeah, I did [get pulled over]. But I was going fast, so I deserved to be pulled over. If they stopped me, they had a reason to stop me. One time in Sebring, Florida, it was a little Southern cop. And I got into the parking lot and he came up behind me with his lights on. I got out, and he says, “Why are you driving so fast?” I said, “Are you kidding? That’s not that fast.”

He asks where I come from, and I said, “I drive race cars, and I’m Willy T. Ribbs.” And he says, “Oh, I know who you are.” I said, “If you write me up, I understand. I was going over the speed limit. But what are they going to say when you get back to the headquarters for writing up Willy T. Ribbs for going 65 in a 55? Come on. They’ll laugh at you.” So I said, “If I was going triple digits, OK. I can understand.”

And he didn’t write me up. I very seldom, to this day, get speeding tickets. Very seldom. And nearly every time it’s a great experience because I tell them stories. And I don’t want to be confrontational with those guys. I know there’s some that will stop with me for driving while Black. There’s some that are legitimately stopping me, but I’m not going to be mad at them. I get it.

So your celebrity has helped a bit.

In Texas, I’m going up to Lubbock, and a cop pulled me over and he was walking real slow up to the car. He says, “You were going 100 miles per hour.” I said, “Come on, man. That’s pit lane speed at Indy.” And he says, “Oh, you race 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 on the screen and did a background check. They can check you out, your whole life.

“I’m just going to warn you,” he says, “but be careful. Some of these other guys might not. They’ll write you a ticket.” And yeah, it was 100 miles per hour. But he was as cool as ice. But I was cool, too.

But in a lot of situations with Black drivers and law enforcement that we’re hearing about, the guy in the car is being cool and it still doesn’t seem to matter. It escalates. It goes bad.

I understand how to handle a gun very well. And the thought behind pulling the trigger. Nobody should be shot in the back, unarmed. Are you kidding me? I know there’s split-second decisions that are necessary when it comes to confrontation. However, a lot of those boys in law enforcement, they should not be allowed to handle a gun. My grandfather would say, “You don’t know what you’re doing, son. You need to get another occupation.”

I grew up from a kid shooting on the ranch. Shooting was my hobby, and competing with a shotgun was my hobby. My son Theo Ribbs is one of the top shooters in the world. Theo’s 28 years old, and he’s one of the best. He travels all over the world, to Dubai, to Italy, to England, competing with a shotgun. Theo took it to a professional level.

We have our own training facility here in Texas. We shoot every day, and it’s just for feel and being prepared to compete. And growing up on the ranch with my grandfather and learning from him how to be a competitive shooter … we’re wired totally different on the way a firearm should be used. Totally different. It’s not used to harm anyone.

I mean, the latitude that you give a person, depending on the act.—if the first instinct is to reach for the gun when you’re not being threatened, there’s something wrong with your head. Before it even happens … [as a policeman], when you go to work, what is going through your mind as you walk out the door? What are you actually thinking about? What is in your subconscious? If you’re looking for an opportunity to kill somebody, you’re in the wrong business.

Which gets back to how Black drivers are perceived, on and off the track. When you were testing for Formula 1 in 1985, that’s the same year Lewis Hamilton was born. Now you see Lewis and the success he has on the track, and he also stands up for himself, just like you. And I’m sure he causes some of his sponsors some grief. But he has sponsors. Do you ever think, “That could have been me?”

My mother always said to me, “William, you were born 25 years too soon.” I know Lewis, and he’s a friend, his father and I are friends. I’m his guest every year at Grand Prix here in COTA in Texas. And we sit down with each other and we talk about the different times I went through and the times he’s going through now. And in Europe it’s a lot different than the United States. I mean, he gets booed in Spain. They’re not real nice to him there. But a lot of that is because he’s competing against Fernando Alonso, who’s Spanish.

So I get that a little bit. But my message to Lewis every time I see him is, “You must stay tough. And you must be true to yourself if you are going to put yourself out there, if you’re going to take a stand.” He’s out front of all the race drivers on the planet right now; he is lead guy on Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd murder. He’s the lead guy worldwide.

When he moved, then the NASCAR drivers, Jimmy Johnson, all of them, then they jumped in. But he moved first. In every interview I’ve been doing from Europe, they ask me, “Well, what do you think of Lewis?” I say, “He’s a champion. And champions have to have an image. They have to have a message. They have to have substance.” And to be able to call out inequity, to be able to call out injustice, you must stand up for humanity. Muhammad Ali did it. And I said to Lewis, “I will have your back.” And I’ve told the international media, “I got Lewis’ back.” Because he’s right. He has every right to stand up and say, “This is wrong.”

What about advice you would give to aspiring Black race-car drivers? Say they’ve made it out of karts, they’re making it up through the ranks of SCCA or Formula Mazda, and they’re fast …

I do it all the time. I get messages from young Black kids in their teens and early 20s every day. And the question is, “How do I deal with what you dealt with? What words of advice can you give me about not just being competitive on the racetrack, but how do I sell myself?”

Growing up on the ranch with my grandpa, there was no gray area with him. It was right or wrong. When you’re wrong, you got nothing to stand on. When you’re right, you’re standing on top of the mountain. And I tell these kids. “You’ve got to stay clean. Don’t give anyone a reason to turn you down in the first place.”

If someone can turn you down, they’ll flip it and say, “Well, you got in trouble doing this,” instead of maybe the real reason they turned you down is because of your skin color. That’s what happened with Willy T. Ribbs. They would say, “Oh, he’s cocky. He’s outspoken. He’s controversial.” OK, that’s horseshit. Just tell the real truth, OK? I want a man to be a man. Just say that, “Well, [we’re] biased and we’d rather see somebody else.” Don’t use “cocky” or “controversial.” There’s nothing illegal about that. And I always point out, “Well, it was OK for A.J. Foyt, wasn’t it?” I mean, it was OK for Parnelli, it was OK for A.J., it was even OK for Uncle Bobby Unser, who I love to death. I love him. I love the ground Bobby walks on because how he treated me.

So I tell these kids, stay clean, stay professional, learn as much as you can from the technical side, because the technical side knows no color. So when you are talking to the crew chief, 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 right from the beginning, because that’s all my dad and his racing buddies talked about. The technical side. What the shocks are doing and how to set up the car for high-speed corners and low-speed corners and mid-corner technical setup.

So I say to these kids, “Learn. Don’t wish.” Wishing is for blowing out candles.

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