“People ask me all the time, ‘How did you do it? Why didn’t you quit? How did you deal with all the death threats and the intimidation?’ And I always thought that it was kind of fun actually.”
In 1991, Willy T. Ribbs became the first Black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Nearly 30 years on, Willy is quick to point out that US motorsport, particularly the NTT IndyCar Series, is still miles behind Formula 1 when it comes to diversity.
Formula One Racing Ahead
This year F1 launched their ‘We Race As One’ initiative, as the sport took a united stand against racism. In the States, NASCAR and IndyCar have followed suit with a ‘Drive for Diversity’ program and a ‘Race for Equality & Change’ initiative respectively. Ribbs, the first Black man to drive an F1 car when he tested for Brabham back in 1986, thinks that US auto racing still has a long way to go despite these new initiatives.
“There is no comparison. Formula 1 is on another planet when it comes to diversity and the push to continue to broaden the sport. And that is what it is about. I mean for the sport to survive it is going to have to do that.”
Willy believes in the importance of six time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace in the fight for diversity. Both are currently the only Black drivers in their respective fields, and both have been vocal supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Hamilton moved up a gear this summer when he founded The Hamilton Commission, a research project in association with the Royal Academy of Engineering. The commission, which had its first of four meetings in September, hopes to identify the obstacles in the way of Black people entering motorsport and suggest possible solutions.
IndyCar Falling Behind
Individuals leading by example is a starting point, but there hasn’t been a Black driver in the Indy 500 since George Mack in 2002. IndyCar’s ‘Race for Equality & Change’ initiative will have $1 million in funding, and aims to recruit and develop a diverse workforce and invest in minority communities.
Ribbs, the first of only two Black drivers in the sport, criticises IndyCar’s attempts at diversity. He highlights the lack of a Hamilton or a Wallace in the Indy 500 as a reason for the sport falling behind its counterparts.
“IndyCar are still struggling to get it right. They are way behind. They have no diversity programme other than a bunch of go karts. A bunch of African-American kids driving go karts, that’s all they got. Lewis in Formula 1 is the leader and Bubba is handling NASCAR.”
Hamilton dominates the narrative when it comes to the fight against discrimination in motorsport. However, Willy is certain that the Brit wouldn’t have been able to get the same response if his career had been in the US. Ribbs started out his career in auto racing by travelling to the UK in 1976, and noticed a stark difference between his reception there and how he was received as a driver in the States.
“When I was in England, I was a racing driver, and I was treated like a racing driver and respected. It was the greatest experience and I’m glad I started my career in England, because there were no issues with the colour of my skin at all.”
One Step After Another
Another NASCAR driver at the heart of recent racial controversy is Kyle Larson. Suspended indefinitely back in April for a racial slur, Larson has just been cleared for the 2021 season. Willy counts himself among those who rallied around Larson in solidarity.
“I’m a big supporter of Kyle Larson. I know what happened, I know why he was suspended. You know a lot of young kids today, his age, they all want to sound hip with each other, and they want to sound cool…”
“I know what it’s like. When someone used that word on me I’d nail them, and that’s just how I dealt with it. He [Larson] is half Japanese, his mother is Japanese. I said to him, ‘You know what it’s like, I know you’ve heard racial slurs towards yourself.’”
NASCAR has far deeper issues surrounding race than one driver’s use of the n-word, and achieving inclusion requires the type of understanding and sensitivity that surrounds Larson’s return. Willy believes that Michael Jordan coming to NASCAR as a team owner in 2021, with Bubba Wallace as his driver, will bring positive change to the sport.
Meanwhile in F1, Hamilton has now broken Michael Schumacher’s record for race wins with his 92nd grand prix victory, and continues his push to break the barriers facing Black people participating in motorsport. Despite The Hamilton Commission being specific to the UK, Ribbs believes it will inspire further change in the US both on and off the race track.
“I think there has got to be a beginning. I mean you take one step before you take the next step. That [The Hamilton Commission] is just the beginning. I think as it progresses, and as they get stronger, structurally stronger, I think you’re going to see more people involved.”