I had the honor of talking to one of my heroes in racing, Willy T. Ribbs, and not only did he inspire me to charge harder after my dreams, but he also encouraged me to watch an excellent movie I had overlooked until I spoke with him.
“I wanted to show the racing world the color of my skin did not matter, and I won. I broke down barriers that were not supposed to be broken down. There is no sport more exciting than racing. This is the next best thing to Heaven, I am the Lewis and Clark of racing, all by myself,” Ribbs told me.
Talking about how the sport of Indy car racing needs to make some changes, Ribbs told me that he believes that the changes have to come from corporate America. “They have to make the changes necessary to expand the sport. Without the Corporations on board, nothing will change,” Ribbs told me.
EXPANDING THE SPORT TO REFLECT AMERICA
“I have been a fan of Roger’s since I was a kid, I think he is doing a good job so far with the IMS,” Ribbs said about Racing guru Roger Penske and current owner of the Indianapolis Speedway. Penske started a new all-Black Racing team called Indy Force that I covered.
I share some things with Ribbs. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a race car driver. I wanted to know what it was like to get on that track and go fast. The IMS is located on property that, in part, at one time belonged to my Great Grandfather. My Grandfather and Dad grew up a short distance from the track; my Dad dragged me along to races when I was a kid, and I was hooked in. The IMS gets into your blood and spills out on the tracks of Watkins Glen, Laguna Secca, Michigan International Speedway, to name a few.
I attended several races where Ribbs was competing over the years. I kept my eye on him, along with my other favorites Paul Tracey, Rick Mears, AL Unser Jr.
I remember watching when Ribbs qualified for the 1991 Indy 500; I recall that bump day in a race with deep family ties for me, one I had attended for most of my life. There are times in racing when you feel like a unified family with the fans, and the teams all focused on one thing. Ribb’s qualifying day was one of those moments of pure connectivity.
I love racing, and I am still moved by the story behind his qualification that year. Little did I know the movie “Uppity” would take me back to many of my favorite moments in racing, and it took Mr. Willy T. Ribbs himself to get me to watch it.
“Have you seen the movie Uppity on Netflix?” Ribbs asked me after talking for a while about corporate America.
No, I hadn’t watched it. First, the name is offensive to me- because I don’t want to call people “Uppity,” being accused of having a strong personality myself. I don’t understand why anyone would use that word. Besides that, I wondered if the movie would exploit a real racing champion and his victories and make me feel sorry for him? Because I really did not want to feel sorry for Willy T. Ribbs, who I saw as a champ and the star of one of my favorite moments in racing. Remember, this is a childhood hero of mine; I don’t need to lose another hero right now.
I also don’t like movies.
I was really afraid of being confronted with anger and frustration over injustices between ethnic races that I accept are real but that I personally can’t fix. I want to get along, celebrate America, and do great things. In my mind, I dug my heels in; I wasn’t going to watch it.
“Oh sure, I’ll watch it,” I said, sort of lying, in a nice way.
“Watch it and then text when you are done,” he said.
Wow, so now I had to save face and watch it because, after talking to Ribbs in person, who doesn’t want to interact with him again, if they have a chance?
I always loved Ribb’s style. His self-confidence, his focus on winning, his bravery. There is also something so authentic about him, the way he shares his story and draws you into his struggles without making you feel sorry for him or frustrated about the things you can’t change. He is so human; you just want to see him win. I wanted to see him win.
So, I watched, and I wasn’t disappointed. The filmmakers captured his story in a perfectly uplifting way.
I highly recommend the Movie Uppity, even if you are not a race fan. You will love this Adama Carolla movie, co-starring notable names in racing and Ribbs and just an amazing story of true competition, courage, and sport.
I watched it once, and I cried and laughed and loved it! I texted Willy, “Wow,” I said. He responded with something and a checkered flag. I could not believe I was texting with Ribbs while watching this awesome movie.
Then I watched it again and loved it even more. I texted him again, “I need to ask you more now.”
I got busy looking at other reactions to the movie. I thought the following was well said. CNN reported on this racing trailblazer:
When Willy T. Ribbs speaks, his words are packed with punch, power, and purpose — verbally mimicking the actions of his sporting hero and former friend, Muhammad Ali.
They are words carved from the experiences of a man who knows what it’s like to stand alone.
A Black driver whose effort to break into motorsport was slowed by several hurdles and stereotyping throughout his career.
But for all the fighting talk, his words are undercut with a sense of what could and perhaps should have been. “I wanted to be like the greats — I wanted to be Formula 1 world champion. My mother always said I was 25 years ahead of my time. It was a dream conceived in the Californian mountains.”
In the movie, the participants do not gloss over the racism that Ribbs faced. It is a central part of the movie, and it is something that needs to be addressed and fixed. Ribbs did, in fact, boldly and without apology break down barriers, and he did it like a Champion. Then he shared the victories of the transformation with other people. See, that is the hugely powerful message of Ribbs. He shares his victories so that we can learn from them and be a part of them.
Willy T. Ribbs is an exciting driver, and one of the things that makes him exciting is his fighting spirit to break down the barriers that were keeping him from his dream. There is no doubt about it, Ribbs changed racing and made it more possible for others, and the sport does still have a long way to go to better reflect America. He is leading the pack again.
ON BREAKING THE COLOR BARRIER IN RACING
“I give Roger Penske credit for making part of his racing legacy about some of these changes. We need to see more Black drivers and fans in this sport and he is trying. We see NASCAR and FormulaOne have adapted and made those changes. I am here to help him, if he needs that help,” Ribbs said.
The movie explains Ribb’s point of view on Corporate Sponsorship perfectly. You have to watch it.
Ribbs, unstoppable at 66, is also starting a new racing career. He will be the star of a Superstar Racing Experience. Starting June 12 for 6 weeks, the SRX Series on CBS Sports.
— Willy T. Ribbs (@WillyRibbs) April 22, 2021
RIBBS THE INFLUENCER
“This series is really cool because the oldest driver on the team is a Black man, me. And the youngest man on the team is Ernie Francias Jr. is also Black. Ernie Francias Jr. is an excellent driver,” Ribbs said. “He should be in Indy car.”
The series looks promising with a list of excellent and notable champions in racing. Tony Stewart is involved that is always promising for high-energy racing.
From their site:
“SRX will re-ignite the passion of the die-hard motorsports fan and reintroduce racing to a whole new generation. Featuring an unprecedented line-up of all-star drivers and crews, this supercharged spectacle is hellbent on recapturing the glory days of racing and getting things back on track. Big engines, bigger personalities, and big-time drama and intensity irresistible. This will be the most exhilarating racing on the planet.”
Great- now Ribbs has me watching TV, something else I don’t do. But I am not going to miss out on this awesome American adventure.
After watching Uppity, the way he described that qualifying day, I feel like I was in the car with him on the track at the Indy 500.
Since he encouraged me to text him and then flagged me through to victory, my next question to him after watching the movie the second time was, “Can I interview you again?”
His answer was, “Anytime.” He is going to let a geeky ‘girl’ tag along on his racing adventure. Awesome. Willy T. Ribbs, a hero who doesn’t disappoint.
Kari is an ex-Community Organizer who writes about Cultural Marxism, grassroots activism, music, IndyCar racing and political campaigns. @Saorsa1776