Willy T. Ribbs became the first black man to race in the Indianapolis 500, one of the biggest auto races in the world, in 1993. This feat was so huge at the time, a documentary on Ribbs’ life and career was recently filmed as a Netflix Documentary. Uppity was released in February for Black History month and talks about Ribbs’ struggle to break barriers and stand out in order to accomplish his lifelong goal, which was to compete in the Indy 500.
When Ribbs was young, he used to take his grandfather’s car around the countryside. Because his family owned a farm, the countryside was the most accessible for him. His family disapproved of this initially, but Ribbs made a way going overseas to race in Europe. Ribbs proved himself, winning races and championships, even when driving in cars that were not as upgraded and fast as his teammates’ cars. He was so good that when he came back to America to race, his owners would give him orders to let his teammates win and would rig his cars to have failures. This happened throughout Ribbs’ career, whether he was racing in NASCAR, Formula 1 or in the Trans-AM racing Series.
Ribbs had to overcome a huge amount of racism and he talks about his experiences with it. When he attempted to run a NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, one of the most racist states in America at the time, his owner received threatening phone calls. They referred to Ribbs as the N-word and threatened to kill both him and his owner if he allowed Ribbs to drive his car that day. Ultimately, Ribbs did not compete in that race. Their safety came first.
Years later, Ribbs elected to run another NASCAR race. During driver introductions, Ribbs was booed by the crowd. Now deceased NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt, was embarrassed and shook Ribbs’ hand in the midst of this, to indicate Ribbs was in fact welcomed by his competitors. Ribbs then went on to attempt the Indianapolis 500 for the second time after a failed attempt at it years prior. In 1993, Bill Cosby funded his startup entry in the biggest race of the year and left it up to Ribbs to secure the sponsor. Ribbs had little luck, but he still showed up to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with his little team. They had used equipment, which put them at a major disadvantage to the rest of the field. Several of his cars had bad engines, causing them to have to go over their budget and lose money. However, Ribbs was ready to take on the challenge of qualifying. He ran a lap fast enough to ultimately make it in the race and became the first African-American to race in the Indianapolis 50