Willy T Ribbs Ahead Of His Time

Willy T. Ribbs, became the first African American racing driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 when he started the race in 1991. Ribbs made history and has been a pioneer for motor racing both in the United States and worldwide.

The Californian has been instrumental in helping push for equality in motor racing and in a recent interview he said that he has been impressed with the work that NASCAR has done in relation to diversity with African American driver Darryl Bubba Wallace competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Ribbs is full of admiration for newly crowned seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton who he says has been extremely good for promoting diversity in motorsport.

Hamilton become the first driver of colour to enter Formula One when he made his debut with McLaren in 2007.

Ribbs says he is delighted to see NBA legend Michael Jordan entering the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as a team owner. It was announced earlier this year that Jordan along with NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin have set a team called XI23 Racing and will field Bubba Wallace.

Michael is coming out of a sport that gets a lot of money to do and is going into a sport where you need to spend a lot of money to be competitive”

Ribbs believes that Michael Jordan would have been better served at entering Formula One as it is on a global stage and he believes that when it comes to equality and diversity that what Formula One is doing with the ‘We Race as One’ diversity programme that as a sport it is streets ahead of NASCAR and IndyCar in America.

In 1985, Ribbs became the first African American racing driver to drive a Formula One car when then Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone gave him the chance to test the car with a view to Ribbs competing for the team in Formula One in 1986 however it wasn’t meant to be as the team’s sponsors were Italian and wanted an Italian driver in the car which Ribbs understood.

The test took place at the Estoril circuit in Portugal in December 1985 and in the documentary, Uppity, The Willy T. Ribbs Story, Ribbs recounts flying to the circuit and being told to set certain lap times by the team engineer. Ribbs did the test and went a second under the time that the team had set out for him.

Bernie Ecclestone who would go on to run Formula One from 1978-2017 said that he would have loved to have had Ribbs as the first driver of colour to win the Formula One world champion however, Brabham’s sponsor at the time, Italian electronics company Olivetti wanted Italian drivers in the car so sadly for Ribbs, the door to Formula One was closed.

Ribbs also spoke about the controversy surrounding NASCAR driver Kyle Larson who was fired earlier this year by his team for using a racial slur during an on-line video game. Larson was suspended by NASCAR and was ordered to participate in sensitivity training and has since been re-instated by NASCAR.

Ribbs believes that the powers that be used Larson as a scapegoat to cover up the fact that there is still systemic racism in the sport.

In Uppity – The Willy T Ribbs story, a documentary that is currently streaming on Netflix, Ribbs says that his grandfather told him:

“You must be better, you must be not good, not average, you must be better than the best”

Ribbs spoke about the being the first driver of colour saying that he has frequently been asked to describe what a lap of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is like and he says if you want to know how tough it is just ask Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has competed in two Indianapolis 500’s since 2017 and Ribbs says that the you may be in the best shape physically and be mentally prepared for the race but if you turn up to the track on race day and the car isn’t performing it doesn’t matter what you do.

There is a famous saying within IndyCar which says that each year the track picks the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

When it comes to racial equality in top level motorsport, Ribbs believes that while NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar are working to diversify their sports more work needs to be done.

NASCAR introduced the Drive for Diversity Programme which “Is a developmental programme designed to provide training and opportunities for women and minorities, in the driver’s seat and on pit crews within the NASCAR industry”. (NASCAR, 2020 – NASCAR Diversity and Inclusion Available at Accessed: 24 November 2020).

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Programme helped Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary become the first female tyre changers to work on the same team as tyre changers for Rick Ware Racing at the 2019 Daytona 500.

On July 4 2020, IndyCar announced plans to introduce their own campaign called ‘Race for Equality and Change’ providing $1 million in funding to help diversify the sport.

On October 3, 2020, IndyCar provided an update on their progress with their diversity programme with their parent company, Penske Entertainment Corporation appointing Jimmie McMillian to the position of Chief Diversity Officer. McMillian is responsible for the implementation of the IndyCar Race for Diversity and Change Campaign. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 2020 – Penske Entertainment Corp provides race for equality and change update Available at

Ribbs believes that Formula One are at the forefront of diversity in motorsport as in June 2020 ahead of the start of the new season, the sport introduced the We Race as One campaign which given was introduced to help spread the word of equality by bringing communities together particularly at a time when people may feel alone due to the COVID 19 global pandemic. (Formula One We Race as One Available at –

Reflection –

In writing this piece, I found it to be extremely interesting in terms of the subject matter particularly in the times we live with a lot of racial tension and inequality still been seen today not just in motor racing but also in wider society.

Lewis Hamilton, Bubba Wallace and indeed Michael Jordan during his time in the NBA showed that the colour of your skin doesn’t matter that you can reach the top level of your chosen profession if you work hard enough for it.

Motorsport is no longer regarded as a male only sport with women coming through the different categories of junior series of racing. For example, the W Series, the all-female racing series which launched in 2019 has helped promoting female racing drivers who have already succeeded against the male counterparts.