While it is generally accepted, if rarely talked about openly, that racing carries the inherent risk of death, the danger is usually perceived to be on the track. Few drivers receive death threats simply for the color of their skin.
Willy T. Ribbs Jr. did.
But, it didn’t stop him from racing. Renowned for being the first black driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500, Ribbs didn’t set out to break the color barrier in motorsports. He set out to win races. Just like every other driver.
“I didn’t become a race driver to break any color barriers,” he says. “The only color barrier I was interested in breaking was the checkered flag. I have no feeling at all about breaking the color barrier. I was trying to do what the other drivers were trying to do: win races.”
So, he did. A lot.
Ribbs considers himself a sports car and Indy car driver, but there isn’t much he hasn’t raced, including Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic, Trans Am, stock cars, dirt cars and trucks.
Southern California native Ribbs is the son of sport car racer William "Bunny" Ribbs, Sr. and grew up as a neighbor to motorcycle racer Joe Leonard.
“All I knew was racing,” he reflects. “I was around it all my life. It was about performance,” he explains. “My dad always said, ‘Go, blow or put a hole in the fence.’ There were no participation trophies in my day.”
After graduating from high school in 1975, Ribbs moved to Europe to race. Having won the Dunlop Championship in his first year of competition, he competed in Formula Ford in England in 1977, winning six of 11 races.
He returned to the U.S. the following year, where he competed in Formula Atlantic before Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler convinced him to drive a NASCAR Winston Cup car in May’s World 600. Track officials refused to let him race due to lack of stock car experience and the Dodge he was supposed to drive was given to someone else, but Wheeler brokered another deal in a Ford Torino. After missing practice sessions and a police incident, Ribbs was replaced by Dale Earnhardt.
He went back to Formula Atlantics in 1981-1982, switching to the SCCA Trans-Am Series the following year, where he drove Chevrolet Camaros with Budweiser sponsorship. Earning Rookie of the Year honors with five wins, Ribbs was teammate to the series champion, David Hobbs.
In 1984 he competed in Trans-Am for Roush Racing.
In 1985, Ribbs made an attempt to run at Indy, with a deal put together by his manager Don King that included Miller Brewing Company sponsorship in a March 85C with a second-hand Cosworth engine.
“I didn’t like the crew chief or the car, so I didn’t try to qualify,” Ribbs recalls.
Eager as he was to compete in the 500, Ribbs recognized that this was not his time. He called the car “sub-par” and said the windscreen that makes air go over the cockpit was not large enough. That meant that wind flew directly into his face, forcing him to shake his head to try to see. Reaching only 172.2 mph when other cars had speeds over 200 mph, Ribbs — and others — considered the car dangerous. He wisely withdrew before qualifying, disregarding a new nickname: Chicken and Ribbs.
“I knew it was going to be bad,” Ribbs recalls. “[Truesports team owner] Jim Trueman told me to bail.”
Before he did, he made history as the first black driver officially on the track.
He returned to NASCAR in 1986, the same year in which he became the first black driver to test a Formula One car (for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team at Portugal).
One year later, he signed for Dan Gurney’s IMSA GT Championship team, winning four races in a Toyota Celica. In total, he won 17 races for Gurney and Roush Fenway Racing.
The year 1990 saw Ribbs competing in the CART series. That gave him the experience, momentum and name recognition he needed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1991.
As Ribbs says about life and love, “timing is everything.” He learned a lot from the 1990 CART season that helped his 1991 effort at Indianapolis.
“Bill Cosby put up the money,” he states. Although he didn’t know Cosby personally, he says Cosby’s financial investment was crucial to the team’s success.
Also critical for success was the team itself.
“More than any other track, Indy is predicated by who is on the team – engineer, crew chief …” Ribbs observes.
Competing in the series taught him who was good.
“I was confident about my experience, about Tim Wardrop [the late racing engineer later associated with Arie Luyendyk’s record qualifying run in 1996]. He was calm and could dial me in fast.”
That was important because the Raynor Motorsports Lola blew a lot of Buick engines, leaving Ribbs with little track time to get up to speed.
Remaining calm was also important.
“Indy was very stressful,” Ribbs reflects. “Indy is a big deal, no matter who you are. It’s the biggest race on the planet. Apart from the Isle of Wight, Indy is the most dangerous place. It’s not forgiving; you have to manage your emotions.”
Already an emotional man, Ribbs faced an added element of pressure because the “non-racing media was in my face every moment,” he remembers. “They wanted to champion the historical part, but had no clue about the technical side. You could feel the pressure, the anticipation from people watching history.”
Stressful as the month of May was, Ribbs says that “when you do qualify, it’s probably the most satisfying event of your life. You’re in a select group of the 33 best in the world, and to be in that group, it’s like going to the Super Bowl for a football player.”
His race didn’t last long. Over-revving the engine on the grid bent a pushrod. His engine down on power, he completed 5 laps to finish 32nd for Walker Racing.
Ribbs made history in 1991 as a black man. He made history at Indy again as a race car driver when he competed in 1993 simply by being one of the 33 best to start the race.
In 1994, he once again competed in the CART series with Walker Racing, but failed to make the 500. His Indy car driving career ended with a lack of sponsorship after 1994, although he raced in a one-off IRL race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1999 before returning to Trans-Am in 2000 and then joining the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. He formed his own team in 2011 to run Chase Austin in the Firestone Indy Lights race at IMS.
However, mere statistics don’t reveal the whole story — a story of prejudice and penalties, of sabotage and struggles and of controversy and courage. Last year, the night before the 500, a documentary, Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story, premiered at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, chronicling Ribbs’ storied racing career and his struggles to compete at the highest levels in motorsports.
Directed by Adam Carolla and Nate Adams, this in-depth profile follows the unapologetically outspoken Ribbs through a career besmirched by blatant racism that he counter-punched with his characteristic bravado.
Despite his universally acknowledged talent and results on the track as one of the “winningest” drivers in Trans-Am, Ribbs endured setbacks because of his race, not his racing. When he made his NASCAR debut in Alabama, death threats were hurled at him, including the infamous: “If this n***** races in this race, he might not leave alive.”
Corporate sponsors were hard to come by. He believes that had as much to do with the fact that his confident attitude was mistaken for arrogance as it did with his color.
“You have to consider that I broke the stereotype glass that black men weren’t mentally capable of driving a race car, being a front-driving race car driver,” he explains. “To the opposition, it was about maintaining supremacy. They were scared of me because of my talent.”
Ribbs wasn’t scared of anybody. Not only was he accustomed to making money on bar fights to support himself while racing in England, he often traveled with some rather intimidating friends and relatives, including a Cincinnati Bengals player.
“We had a reputation; if they didn’t like to fight, we did.”
Fined and suspended for punching a couple of fellow drivers he thought played dirty on the track, Ribbs shot his mouth off as fluidly as this master shooter fired a gun.
“It’s hard to be outspoken and succeed, but because I was right, I got away with it,” he insists. “I did it; that pissed off the old school. They had to get used to it.”
His defiance wasn’t popular and may have cost him some opportunities, but he didn’t care.
“Some of the manufacturers, sponsors and racing clubs were hostile to me. I didn’t influence them to like me,” Ribbs says. “I enjoyed opposition. Opposition fueled me, not the cheerleading squad. It was the boo birds that got me turned on. I wanted to be a burr in their ass because it meant they kept thinking about me. I wanted them to dislike me more. I used their hatred as fuel. You want a reason not to like me? I’m going to give you one. They called me uppity, and I loved it.”
Two years after it went into production, Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story went public in a few select private showings, but the DVD release has been postponed because Showtime picked it up to create a series due out this year.
The documentary, which reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes action that the driver calls “really heavy duty,” is as bold and brazen as its star — and can make the viewer laugh uproariously or shake his head in disbelief in much the same way Ribbs can in person.
He says the upcoming Showtime series will feature even more, but he’s not concerned about it being too revealing.
“It’s not hard to have my personal story out there,” he says. “It’s a true story. It’s a fact of life.”
Although the subject of the film had no creative control over it, he was consulted about naming it.
“They asked me about the title,” Ribbs says. “I said only one word: Uppity. That’s what they called me.”
The movie was born out of a documentary about Paul Newman around 2014-2015 when the producers discovered the major role Newman played in Ribbs’ career.
“They came to the ranch for a day to interview me,” he recalls. “After the film came out, they contacted me about doing a film on me.”
The documentary allows Ribbs and his contemporaries to tell his story, his way.
“The ones who don’t like you create a narrative,” he states. “They spin the story.”
Newman was a mentor who taught Ribbs smoothness and who helped promote his early career. Another mentor imparted a very different lesson.
“[Mohammed] Ali taught me toughness, resolve. Don’t cry, don’t put your head down, don’t show you’re hurt. He taught me that they’ll try to get in your head and demoralize me, but I’m the demoralizer.”
Ribbs learned from others along the way, but ultimately, he knew he wasn’t like any other driver.
“Other drivers told me they didn’t know if they could have dealt with what I did.”
But, Ribbs says dealing with racial prejudice was easy.
“Black drivers come to me to ask how I handled it,” he says. “I handled it the old-fashioned way: step out of line, get your ass kicked.”
Not everyone was able to take the same approach. In 1977, when Janet Guthrie (who is the subject of a film out this year) became the first woman to earn a starting position in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 NASCAR Cup race, she endured a lot of public backlash from fans and drivers, just as did Ribbs.
“They didn’t take either one of us seriously, but Janet Guthrie couldn’t fight back the way I could,” Ribbs postulates. “They thought of her as weaker, but they thought of me as a bad SOB.”
One thing Ribbs believes helped him was that he was never in trouble with the law.
“You cannot be wrong. NASCAR did a background check on my whole family: where did I get the money to go racing in Europe? They couldn’t believe that we weren’t poor — that we were educated and successful. They didn’t think I should be there, so they tried to chip away at me. I’m not bitter,” he adds. “They were stupid.”
In addition to Newman and Ali, the aspiring driver had considerable support.
“I had a tremendous amount of support,” he says, calculating it at about 50/50 for and against him.
Today, the semi-retired driver is riding a wave of support and popularity, in demand everywhere he goes. He appears more relaxed and happier than at any time before. He credits his marriage last year with the return of calmness in his personal life. He’s also deriving pleasure from racing again.
The man who shattered the color barrier in open wheel and sports car racing through talent and determination is back. After a 10-year hiatus to support son Theo’s professional shooting career, Ribbs is putting on the driver’s suit once again to compete in the SVRA series — vintage racing.
“My main focus was Theo — getting his career going,” the proud father says. “We were flying all over the world. I traveled more with him than for racing for 10 years!”
Ribbs himself is a master class shooter and has a practice facility on his Texas ranch, but he sees “something special” in his son’s ability. “He’s the reason we left California. To become a good shooter, it’s important to be around other good shooters and target setters. They’re in Texas.”
Don’t be surprised to see the 5-foot 10-inch driver around the track. Now 64, he’s considering the possibility of team ownership, “but only if I could be competitive. That’s TBA,” he winks. “I don’t take vacations, I don’t do wine tastings – that’s not my thing.”
Racing is Willy T’s thing, and when the timing is right, expect to see him take a role — and possibly breaking another color barrier if he becomes the first black Indycar team owner.
*Wendell Scott became the first black NASCAR driver in the 1960s.