F1: Willy T. Ribbs has cut the motorsport color barrier

F1: Willy T. Ribbs has cut the motorsport color barrier

They are words sculpted from the experiences of a man who knows how to be alone.

A Black man whose effort to escape into motorsport was diminished by many obstacles and stereotypes throughout his career.

But for all combat speeches his words are underlined with a sense of what he could and perhaps should be.

“I wanted to be like the greats – I wanted to be Formula 1 world champion. My mom always said she was 25 years ahead of my time.”

It was a dream come true in the California mountains.

A dream that would be challenged by politics, personalities and prejudices – but one that could in the end make disappear a series of moments of traceability and to re-emerge the original pioneer of motorsport.

“We don’t want it here”

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

The “playbook” was Ribbs ’model for success.

As a child, his father – a sports car enthusiast – planted car seeds.

In adulthood, Emerson Fittipaldi – who will pass two Formula 1 champions in two stages – provided a path for him that could flourish.
Like Fittipaldi, Ribbs ’first career took him to England to compete in the one-night British Formula One Ford Championship. She ran like a duck in the water – winning six of eleven races and with it “Tomorrow’s Star” title in 1977.

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

His driving talent came in first competition at the 1977 British Formula One Championship (Courtesy: Chassy Media)

The following year, he returned to the United States with his views set on competing in IndyCar – the contrast of receiving in the pitlane, however, could not have been greater.

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

“All it took was the word N. When you approach it by this name you know what it’s about,” he vividly recalls of his preparation for the race at the International Autostame Highway in Talladega, Alabama.

“They’re clear,‘ We don’t really want that here. Why come to our sport? Can’t you play basketball or football? “

Humpy Wheeler, who was currently president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, wanted to try to escape Ribbs in NASCAR later that year – his effort, however, was in vain.

Ribbs has been charged with a traffic violation in Charlotte – Wheeler his assault outside police custody. The next day, Wheeler and Ribbs went their separate ways.

After the death threat, Ribbs says.

“I didn’t hurt anything. So one thing – You don’t have to do it for my face. I found it very exciting.” […] You will receive letters or a phone call. It would be kind of inviting him: ‘Okay, start killing’. “

NASCAR did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on the way Ribbs says he was treated by the sport.

One pioneer inspires another

It is this bullishness, bravery and bravery that is understood in one word emblazoned in front of Ribbs ’hat -“ UPPITY ”- the title for a recent Netflix documentary maps his remarkable life story.

Yet it’s a word that represents much more – a racially charged term often referred to Ribbs to imply that she was acting above her station.

“They were just thinking of walking 10 steps behind them. That hadn’t happened.”

“(For me) It wasn’t about color. It was about being a race driver. Race drivers have no color or you can’t catch it or you can’t.”

He praises how Ali provided him with the “playbook” to fight antagonism – not physically but mentally and emotionally.

“He had a great principle, integrity, and he was strong. Mentally, he was a very tough man [and] being around him, I learned to solve it. What I needed to do to fulfill my goal. ”

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

And he accomplished that goal he did.

Ribbs took the Trans-Am series by storm from 1983-85, winning it 17 times and establishing it as the hottest property in sports cars.

Still good that the celebrations of his victory were not key enough. Returning to the pitlane and in an ode to Ali, he would make the “Ali Shuffle” – his feet moving back and forth in quick succession over the hood of his car and his hands raised high.

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

Mechanical problems eventually condemned his offer. But a significant breakthrough was on the horizon – that which was to be embodied in motor sport folklore.

‘I wanted to go to Formula 1’

December 1985. Autodrome of the Estoril, Portugal.

Approached by British businessman Bernie Ecclestone, who owns the Brabham team, Ribbs has become the first Black Driver to try to drive a Formula 1 car.

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

It was then both a symbolic but finite moment – it was to be however I went in F1.

Brabham’s main sponsor at the time was the Italian electronics producer, Olivetti. Ribbs says the company wanted to install an Italian driver. There was no compromise – Italians Riccardo Patrese and Elio de Angelies were the drivers for the 1986 Formula One season.

“I have no problems with that,” Ribbs says. “I would have liked to have had a major US multinational sponsor to support it but it didn’t happen. […] My goal was to be in Formula 1 but Bernie had made a statement. ”

Planting work has been arranged, but it will take 21 years for a Black conductor – Lewis Hamilton – to officially Formula 1.

But the fact of Ribbs would serve to feed another piece of history.

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

He completed five laps of the race before crashing the engine forcing it out but it was undoubtedly a significant moment of barrier breaking.

Two years later, however, his fate came in full circle of competition and he finished all 200 laps.

And it’s hard to remember those owners who supported him in everything – including Jim Trueman and Dan Gurney.

The Walker Racing team successfully qualified Ribbs to the Indy 500 in 1991 making him the first Black driver to compete in the race (Courtesy: Dan R Boyd)

Fight for equality

Yet for almost 30 years, the landscape has been very similar to when Ribbs first roamed.

In 2020, NASCAR’s top circuit has only one full-time Black driver – Bubba Wallace.
CNN’s interview follows George Floyd’s police killing in Minneapolis and just a day later NASCAR has announced it will ban Confederate flags from its events following 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. Ribbs, however, remains skeptical.

“When NASCAR refuses to let Confederate flags fly in its field: is it sincere? If George Floyd was alive now, these flags will still be flying. That’s why I say not much. They had a lot more to do. .. “

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

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

Formula 1 has acted to address its lack of representation and inclusion in sport since its inception task force is foundation, long so #WeRaceAsOne initiative.

As Ecclestone gave Ribbs his portrait, Ribbs was quick to praise another “monumental” figure who gave Hamilton his opportunity in sports – former McLaren CEO and founder Ron Dennis.

“(He) put Lewis Hamilton in the position to be where he is today. He saw great talent, mentored him and took Lewis to the top.”

“Ron has already given it to all the playbooks. Take the playbook from Ron.

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

Lewis ‘the bandleader’

In many ways, Ribbs gave Hamilton his own “playbook” – he offered an insight into what could be achieved both on and off the track.

Yet pure talent was never enough. The race needs supporters and resources – And Ribbs for the most part never had it.

Six-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has been a vocal advocate for greater diversity in the sport.

“(Lewis) is the bandleader and he’s not afraid […] He extended the sport all over the world to people of color [and] will be anointed as the greatest of all time in the end, ”Ribbs says proudly.

“There will always be that element (that) doesn’t accept race purely […] Like, there are a lot of people who won’t accept Lewis just for the sake of it. ”

“I’m not just stupid. I’m scared. They’re cowards […] Don’t judge a man by his skin color. Don’t judge a man on his accent. He’s a man or he’s not a man. ”

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