Racing champion Willy T. Ribbs is a rarity in the world of auto racing as very few African-Americans have been embraced as race car drivers. Despite the odds, Ribbs made history not once, but twice, on the race track.
On this day in 1991, Ribbs became the first Black racecar driver to qualify for Indianapolis 500. Born William “Willy” Theodore Ribbs, Jr. on January 3, 1955 (though some sites write he was born in 1956 or 1959), Ribbs grew up loving the sport race of race car driving in San Jose, Calif.
At the age of 18, Ribbs headed to Europe to compete in the Formula Ford series. After winning a championship his first year, Ribbs’ returned to the United States to race on a larger stage. In 1983, Ribbs won five races at the Kansas-based Sports Car Club of America (SCAA) Trans-Am Series.
In fact, the New York Times says that Ribbs was at one time the overall top money earner in SCAA series history. Although Formula One cars were not Ribbs’ specialty, he landed in the history books by becoming the first African-American to test drive a Formula One car in 1986 though he wasn’t selected to compete in an F1 race.
After developing a friendship with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, whom he compared himself to, Ribbs continued to rally against the “good ol’ boy” network of major race car driving.
In 1990, Bill and Camille Cosby offered to partially fund a car that Ribbs raced in and he ended up with a series of top-10 finishes. In 1991, he qualified for the Indianapolis 500, which was a goal of his since the 1980s.
Sadly, Ribbs was unable to complete the Indy 500 event his initial year, but raced there again in 1993. In 1994, he failed to qualify. Ribbs went on to race in other series, amassing solid showings but never quite capturing the same amount of fame as his White counterparts.
NASCAR and other leagues didn’t flat out say it, but the world wasn’t ready to see a Black man excel in a sport where mostly Southern white men dominated.
Ribbs retired from professional racing in 1999, but reemerged in 2001 as a NASCAR World Truck Series driver.In 2011, he formed the Willie T. Ribbs Racing Company to support Black driver Chase Austin’s Firestone Indy Lights Series Freedom 100 auto race ahead of the Indy 500.
Photo: Dan Wildhirt