Outracing History, Twice Over [Culturelicious]

By Guest Contributor Gabrial Canada

The Indianapolis 500 is the largest single day sporting event in the world, held in a venue – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – large enough to fit the Vatican and Churchill Downs at the same time. This unique facility is even more remarkable considering it was built in 1909 in an era before the World Cup or Super Bowl.

But though it can seat more than 400,000 people, the only diversity on the famed Speedway track was in the countries represented in the field. It would not be until 1991 that a black driver, Willy T. Ribbs, qualified for the world’s signature racing event.

For Ribbs, there was never any doubt that Indy is where he wanted to be. The fact that there had been no black driver to previously run in the race was never a factor for him.

“The historical side of my competing in the Indianapolis 500 had no relevance to me at the time,” Ribbs said. “My whole purpose in being in the Indianapolis 500 was, this is the greatest race in the world and that is where you want to be. As a young kid playing football you want to be in the Super Bowl as a young kid playing baseball its the world series and for a young kid growing up in racing I wanted to be in the Indianapolis 500. Its the greatest race in the world. That’s all that mattered to me.”

It’s important to point out that Ribbs was not racing’s first black star. That would be Charlie Wiggins, an accomplished driver in his own right, but made his name as the chief mechanic behind Wild Bill Cummings’ 1934 win at Indianapolis. Wiggins had been denied the option of competing in the race as a driver because of strict racial employment restrictions. Instead, he swept floors during the day and worked solely at night to convince officials his role at the track was that of the team janitor. He did so at considerable risk to himself. While working in a similar position at a race in Louisville spectators jumped into the pits in an attempt to lynch him.

While Ribbs didn’t face that level of threat in attempting to qualify, he was still, quite literally, risking his life: he spent the better part of a month in Indianapolis dealing with mechanical failures.

“We weren’t getting much track time,” Ribbs recalls. “Once we got a good engine in there and we got onto the Speedway to qualify for the final day. It was one of those moments when you look inside yourself and you’re going to see who you are now. When I drove out of that pit lane onto turn one to qualify I told myself it doesn’t matter now. Your life means nothing now. If your not in this race you’re going to want to die. This is your life now. The whole idea was to put everything on the line to get into this race.”

There was no pause for relief just a disconnect from reality when he finally made it into the starting line for the 500. Times taken during the process don’t reflect a driver’s fastest lap, so Ribbs had to go as fast as possible for four laps. He described the process as entering another world: “It’s like you’re traveling through a tunnel.”

The journey through that tunnel started at an early age for Ribbs. His father, he says, raced cars as a hobby. But by the time he was nine years old, young Willy was ready to make it a career, and his parents, he says, supported his dream.

“I had role models like Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Bobby Unser,” he says. “I had drivers like that I focused on. Like any young kid I had those lights out there. It was my parents that got me racing. Sending me off to race in Europe and now I’m here.”

While every driver learns to work with sponsors during their career, Ribbs forged a unique relationship with someone not commonly associated with the racing world: comedian Bill Cosby, who is named on Ribbs’ website as “The Big Man.” Ribbs said the two first connected in the late 1980s.

“He knew who I was,” Ribbs says. “I had won a few races had success in a few series at this point when he called me up he said I don’t like racing but I like what your doing tell me which way we need to go. I told him I want to race at Indy and in the Indy Car Championship. He said meet me in two days in Vegas and teach me what we need to do. It was really that simple.”

Their arrangement was simple and precise: Ribbs dealt with Cosby directly, bypassing the usual lawyers or managers connected to one of the world’s best-known celebrities. For his part, Ribbs only had to a) tell Cosby how much sponsorship money he needed and b) use that sum wisely.

With two top 10 finishes his rookie year, on top of his historic arrival and Top 20 finish at Indy, Cosby’s money had been invested wisely. But, Ribbs says, he still faced an uphill battle: teams like Penske, Ganassi or Newman Haas, he says, had two-thirds more of a budget than his own. This disparity is at the heart of Ribbs’ only regret from his Indy Car years.

When asked where that reticence came from, despite his successes and history-making appearance, Ribbs is at a loss: “I have no answer for that,” he says. “Its something they would have to answer.”

Twenty years after that first tense qualifying run, and a second Indy appearance in 1993, Ribbs returned to the Speedway, but this time he’s in another role: as a team owner in the Indy Lights Series circuit, Ribbs is helping a new generation of drivers prepare to go through that same tunnel. He says that coming back to Indy as an owner was something he was thinking of the first time he made it to Indy.

“Once you retire from the sport a lot of drivers head out to pasture,” Ribbs says. “Well I wasn’t ready to start grazing yet. The new goal is to go to Indy. To be in the Indy Championship Series.”

Ribbs’ driver, Chase Austin, is making history in his own right: he was both the first biracial driver to make his start on a NASCAR Bush series race, and the first in the Indy Lights Series’ short history.

Ribbs has known Austin, a 21-year-old Kansas native, for the past five years, when Austin’s family approached the veteran for advice on their son’s driving career. Ribbs says the goal, at this point, is to lead Austin along “his first rodeo,” but not to pressure him – especially on this kind of track.

“Indy is difficult no matter what,” Ribbs says. “You could run a golf cart around here and it would still be difficult. It is the toughest racetrack in the world. There isn’t even a close or distant second. The fact of the matter is its very dangerous and this place has killed more race drivers than anywhere else on the planet. But the prestige is worth it. The event speaks for itself.”

  • Anonymous

    It’s interesting to read this now;  just the other day I was listening to a Stuff You Missed in History podcast that focused on black Kentucky Derby jockeys, and specifically Jimmy Winkfield. I hadn’t realized before that since the Kentucky Derby started during Reconstruction in the South, many of the early jockeys were black, but as the race became more elite that changed. (I don’t really follow the Kentucky Derby so I can’t say if that’s common knowledge among people who do.) Obviously the Indy 500 started ~50 years later and further north, but I wonder if those are the only factors that gave it such a different history.

  • ch555x

    interesting…