Willy T. Ribbs
To reach a dream it takes blood, sweat, and tears. The determination and drive necessary to make it as a professional race car driver is no easy feat. Willy T. Ribbs made his dream come true but, not without facing many up-hill battles. As the first African American to race in the Indianapolis 500, Ribbs faced racism and encountered enemies on and off the track as well as within his own crew. Despite being given equipment that was deemed dangerous by many in the industry, and facing mechanical and communication issues, Ribbs continued to fight for his dream of racing in the Indy 500.
Born in the 1950’s, Willy T. Ribbs grew up with a love for racing that began with his father, who at the time, was an amateur sports car racer. At the young age of 12, Willy would come home from school and take his family’s two-door car out to race the winding roads of the California mountains. Upon graduating from high school in 1975, Ribbs moved to Europe to compete in the Formula Ford Series. During his time in Europe, he won the Dunlop Championship earning himself the nickname “Star of Tomorrow” while outperforming most of the country’s promising young drivers.
In 1978, Ribbs made his return to the North American racing scene by debuting at the Long Beach Grand Prix for his 12th professional race, finishing 10th overall. This same year Charlotte Motor Speedway President and race promotor, Humpy Wheeler, entered Ribbs to drive a NASCAR Winston Cup car in the World 600 to attract more black fans. Unfortunately, Ribbs was initially rejected by track officials for his lack of stock car experience. After missing multiple racing practices and an incident involving a high-speed chase, Willy T Ribbs was officially removed from the race and replaced by Dale Earnhardt.
Following this mishap Willy returned to the Formula Atlantic Series and won the pole in the Long Beach Formula Atlantic Race in 1982. Shortly after competing in the Formula Atlantic Series, Ribbs made the switch to the SCCA Trans-AM Series in 1983 winning five races, and was honored as Pro Rookie of the year.
Ribbs made his first attempt at the Indy 500 in 1985. During testing Ribbs kept coming up short on speed which led to his withdrawal from the race altogether. The inability to reach the speeds of his competitors hurt his chances with other teams for the 1986 season, and he had to settle for driving with a privately sponsored team on the NASCAR Winston Cup Circuit. At this time Ribbs was the only black driver on this circuit.
Ribbs was able to accomplish his dream of racing at the Indy 500 when Bill Cosby offered to partially fund a car that Ribbs used in 1991 to qualify. Although he was unable to compete the initial year, he went on to race there again in 1993.
Willy T. Ribbs retired from racing in 1999 with one more encore in 2001 at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
In 2011 Ribbs announced the creation of the Willy T. Ribbs Racing Company which coincided with the 20th anniversary of him breaking the colour barrier at the Indy 500.
For more information on the life of Willy T. Ribbs, the documentary “Uppity” is available now on Netflix.