F1: Willy T. Ribbs broke down the barrier in motorsport

These are words carved from the experiences of a man who knows what it is like to be alone.

The black rider whose attempt to break through the motorsport has slowed down several obstacles and stereotypes throughout his career.

But for all combat conversations, his words are underestimated by a sense of what could, and perhaps should.

“I wanted to be like a great – I wanted to be a Formula One world champion. My mother always told me I was 25 years ahead of my time.”

It was a dream imagined in the California mountains.

A dream that will provoke politics, personalities and prejudices – but one that would ultimately trigger a series of blind moments and in turn create the original pioneer of motorcycle crossings.

“We don’t really want you here.”

From a speech from his ranch in Driftwood, Texas, the word “book of books” keeps popping up.

The “Toy Book” was Ribbs ’blueprint for success.

As a child, his father – an amateur sports car racer – planted the seeds of a motorcycle.

In adulthood Emerson Fittipaldi – who will become a two-time Formula 1 champion – gave him a way to flourish.
Like Fittipaldi, Ribbs ’early career took him to England to compete in the one-seater of the British Formula Ford Championship. He ran races like a duck on water – he won six of the eleven races and with them “Star of Tomorrow” title 1977

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

His driving talent first came to the fore when he competed in the 1977 British Formula Ford Championship (Courtesy: Chassy Media)

The following year he returned to the United States with a view to competing in IndyCar – however, the contrast of reception in the pitlane could not have been greater.

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

“All it took was the word N. When he addresses you by that name, you know what it’s all about,” he vividly recalls preparing for his run on Alabama International Highway in Talladega, Alabama.

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

Humpy Wheeler, who was president of Charlotte Motor High-Speed ​​Vehicles at the time, wanted to try to launch Ribbs at NASCAR later that year – his efforts, however, were in vain.

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Ribbs has been charged with a traffic offense in Charlotte – Wheeler had to release him from police custody. The next day Wheeler and Ribbs set out on their separate paths.

Death threats followed, Ribbs says.

“I wasn’t damned at all. I know one thing – you didn’t want to do that to my face. I found it very exciting. […] You have letters or a phone call. I would somehow call out to her, “Okay, start killing.”

NASCAR did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on the way Ribbs says he played sports.

One pioneer inspires another

It is this bullishness, courage and bravery captured in one word adorned on the front of Ribbs’ hat – “UPPITY” – the title for a recent Netflix documentary showing his remarkable life story.

Yet it is a word that represents much more – a racially charged term that often focuses on Ribbs to imply that he is acting above his cell.

“They just thought I should walk 10 steps behind them. That wasn’t happening.”

“(To me) It wasn’t about color. It was about being a racing driver. Race drivers don’t have color, you can’t turn it on or you can’t.”

He brags that Alija gave him a “book” to fight antagonism – not physically, but mentally and emotionally.

“He had a great principle, integrity and he was strong. He was a very tough man mentally [and] being around him, I learned to get rid of him. What I needed to do to achieve my goal. “

Muhammad Ali was an inspiring and talismanic character for Ribbs (courtesy: Chassy Media)

And to achieve that goal that he did.

Ribbs took over the Trans-Am Storm Series 1983-85, winning 17 times and establishing himself as the most handsome estate in sports car racing.

Agreeing that his victories were not crucial. Returning to the pitlan and going to Ali, he would perform “Ali Shuffle” – his feet moved quickly back and forth on the car’s howitzer and his arms raised high.

The break came in April 1985 when, aided by boxing promoter Don King, he first tried to qualify for the celebrity Indy 500.

Mechanical problems were ultimately doomed to his offer. But there was a significant landmark on the horizon – the one that was supposed to incorporate it into the folklore motto.

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‘He wanted me in Formula 1’

December 1985. Autódromo do Estoril, Portugal.

Ribbs became British businessman Bernie Ecclestone, who owned the Brabham team the first black driver to test drive a Formula 1 car.

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

It was also a symbolic but final moment – because he needed to go as far as he could go in F1.

The then main sponsor of Brabham was the Italian electronics manufacturer, Olivetti. Ribbs says the company wanted to install an Italian driver. There was no compromise – Italians Riccardo Patrese and Elio de Angelies were supposed to be the initiators of the 1986 Formula 1 season.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Ribbs says. “I wish I had a big multinational sponsor from the United States to support him, but it didn’t happen […] My goal was to be in Formula 1, but Bernie made a statement. “

The foundations have been laid, but it would take another 21 years for Black driver – Lewis Hamilton – officially Formula 1.

But Ribbs ’feat would serve to spur 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 would race five laps in a race before an engine failure knocked him out, but that’s undoubtedly a significant moment to break through the hurdle.

Two years later, his luck became full laps as he competed again and finished all 200 laps.

And he fondly remembers those owners who supported him in full – including Jim Trueman and Dan Gurney.

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

The struggle for equality

Yet, for almost 30 years, the landscape is almost the same as when Ribbs first broke through the country.

In 2020, NASCAR’s upper lap has only one all-black driver – Bubba Wallace.
The CNN interview comes amid the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and just a day later NASCAR has announced it will ban Confederate flags from its events following a vocal campaign led by Wallace.
Bubba Wallace has spoken out against displaying the Confederate flag in NASCAR events, which NASCAR banned in June 2020.

For some, the decision is long overdue. Ribbs, however, remains skeptical.

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“When NASCAR refuses to let Confederate flags fly into their fields: Is that honest? If George Floyd were alive now, those flags would still be flying. That’s why I say not much. They have a lot more to do.”

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

NASCAR is not the only place where the battle for equality and diversity continues.

Formula 1 sought to address its lack of representation and involvement in the sport by setting up task and foundation, next to her #WeRaceAsOne initiative.

Just as Ecclestone wanted Ribbs, so Ribbs boasted another “monumental” figure that gave Hamilton a chance at the sport – former McLaren CEO and founder, Ron Dennis.

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

“Ron has already given the book to everyone. Take it from Ron.

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

Lewis ‘band leader’

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

Yet pure talent was never enough. Running requires support and resources – and Ribbs has mostly never had that.

Six-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton is a vocal advocate of greater diversity in the sport

“(Lewis) is the leader of the band and is not afraid […] He spread the sport around the world to people of color [and] he will be anointed as the greatest of all time in the end, ”Ribbs proudly claims.

“There will always be that element (which) does not accept pure race […] Just like there are a lot of people who won’t accept Lewis just for the race. “

“They’re not just stupid. They’re scared. They’re cowards […] Don’t judge a man by his skin color. Don’t judge a man by his accent. He is a man or not a man. “

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