As IndyCar Rolls Into Austin, The First Black Driver Reflects On Roadblocks Then And Now
Outside of Austin, past the Hays County line in Driftwood, lives one of U.S. racing’s biggest pioneers. And he moved here for one of the more Texas-y of reasons.
“I love Texas … because I love shooting,” said Willy T. Ribbs, a former race car driver who made history.
Ribbs is the son of a sports car racer in Southern California. And, as he grew, he became a pretty good driver too. He rose through the ranks to become the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He has raced in NASCAR, sports cars, trucks and dirt tracks, but he knows which one matters most.
“Indy is a big deal, no matter who you are,” said Ribbs. "It’s the biggest race on the planet and it’s a very dangerous place on top of it. … You’re there for a month and when you do qualify, it’s probably the most satisfying event of your life.”
It was 1991. The Indy 500 had run 74 races without any black drivers participating. That changed for the 75th running.
“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,” said Ribbs.
Ribbs qualified again in 1993, but that would be his last year in the race. Since then, one other African-American, George Mack, qualified for it in 2002. This Memorial Day will be the 103rd running of the Indy 500. There have been more than 3,300 participants. And only three black entries.
It has not all been bad. Ribbs received a lot of support from some of the biggest names in the sport. Paul Newman was well-known as an actor, but also was an IndyCar owner and saw Ribbs’ talent early. Bill Cosby sponsored a Raynor Motorsports car in 1990 to allow Ribbs a shot in Indy. Ribbs says he did not know Cosby personally, but he says without Cosby’s investment, he wouldn’t have made it to the Indy 500.
From the manufacturers in the sport, from the sponsors in the sport, they have been hostile. And they still are — some of the racing clubs in the sport are still hostile to [me].
“The sport in some ways has been good to me, but then the sport has not been kind to Willy T. Ribbs,” he said. "From the manufacturers in the sport, from the sponsors in the sport, they have been hostile. And they still are — some of the racing clubs in the sport are still hostile to [me]."
Ribbs is known in the sport as someone who does not mince words or pull punches. His Indy career ended with a lack of sponsorship after 1994.
Historically, IndyCar was slow to open its starting grid to women, as well.
We might take for granted now that there are women racers, but that was a novelty not that long ago. It wasn’t until 1977 that Janet Guthrie became the first woman to earn a starting position in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 NASCAR Cup race.
Guthrie endured a lot of public backlash from fans and drivers when she tried to move up the ranks of pro racing. The pressure from her peers cooled after they saw her on the track.
“The drivers learned that I was who I said I was, a racing driver who happened to be a woman,” said Guthrie. "I mean if your initial position [is]: 'This driver is a woman, therefore this driver is no good.' Then the no-good driver blows your doors off, you have to reorient your thinking a little.”
However, it did not reshape the thinking among corporate sponsors and just like Ribbs, a lack of funding cut her career short.
Why does money appear to mean more than talent when it comes to racing? It’s because money means everything when building and running a top team. The best IndyCars can cost more than $3 million, a fraction of what it costs to run a Formula One team, but still expensive. And that doesn’t even include replacement parts, labor and travel costs for your team. So are the financial barriers too high to overcome?
Racing legend Mario Andretti takes an old school approach to the question.
Andretti's career began after fleeing with his family from refugee camps in post-war Italy. They arrived in America without much more than the bags in their hands. He went on to become the only person to have won the Indianapolis 500, an F-1 World Championship and NASCAR’s Daytona 500. He has faith that somehow a good racer will get noticed.
“I’ve never seen real talent go wasted,” said Andretti. "So, there are ways to start. When you start, you can enroll in a driving school where they have competition programs, be evaluated, and you go on and you’re recommended. People will always, always notice exceptional talent.”
But those driving schools Andretti mentions aren’t cheap either. At some of the bigger ones, you can pay close to $5,000 for three days. At a local track, just the intro one-day class is more than $500. And of course it takes more than a few days of training to make a race car driver.
“Racing is a very expensive sport,” said Guthrie. "Access to it is limited for everyone. There are a lot of extremely good male drivers that have never gotten a chance at the top levels. Money talks for sure.”
“No matter who you are, it takes a lot of money,” said Ribbs. "In some cases it’s harder for others. It was harder for me.”
Stephen Starks is the vice president of promoter and media partner relations with IndyCar. In short, he helps negotiate contracts for race tracks, promoters like COTA and TV deals, like the one Indy has with NBC.
He says Indy is working toward improving equity.
“Obviously, you know, and anyone can see it, that there’s work to be done," said Starks. "But that is true for a lot of industries and motorsports is no different. So, hopefully all the stakeholders in our sport find it important to be diverse."
And Indy is doing what it can to be inclusive. It is only the sanctioning body for the race series. It does not own the teams or have a hand in who they might hire in any aspect of their team. Starks says IndyCar is making strides, with more hiring of women and minorities at executive levels within the holding company that owns IndyCar, Hulman & Company.
But Ribbs says Indy could do more.
“If the sport wanted it to happen it could happen,” he said. “Period.”
Despite his relationship with racing, Ribbs has not left the sport entirely. He has partnered with ex-racer Al Unser Jr. on a series Vintage Stock Car races.
In an odd coincidence, the careers of Ribbs, Guthrie and Andretti are the subjects of three documentaries out later this year. Andretti’s will air on NBC in May. Guthrie’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Qualified, premiered at SXSW last week. The one about Ribbs, Uppity, will be released digitally by Chassy Media later this year.