Meet Willy T. Ribbs, the first African American to drive a Formula 1 car in 1986

Stephen Nartey March 02, 2023
Willy Ribbs/Photo credit: The Times

He knew formula one racing was strictly segregated, but that did not stop Willy T. Ribbs from nursing his dream to race on that track one day. Though he did not have the opportunity to fulfill this goal, he broke the color barrier for other African Americans like Lewis Hamilton, to have an easy sail on the formula one racing turf. Willy T. Ribbs however became the first African American to drive a formula 1 car in 1986. For him, it was a one-off test drive behind the wheel of a Brabham, but it had a lifelong rippling effect on the motorsport.

According to the Guardian, Willy ruffled a lot of feathers with his decision to be in a sport dominated by the white majority. He battled racism and made enemies even within his own circle when he became the first African American to race in the Indianapolis 500. Though given a car with mechanical and communication challenges, he was bent on making history in the Indianapolis 500 race.

Since he was born in the 1950s, Willy demonstrated immense love for racing. Picking inspiration from his father who was an amateur sports car racer, he started riding the family’s two-door car down the roads of California Mountain when he was 12 years old.

Being self-aware of the racial climate in the United States during the 1970s, he relocated to Europe when he completed high school in 1975. He set his dream in motion by competing in the Formula Ford Series. His exceptional skill behind the wheel earned him the nickname “Star of Tomorrow” in Europe. He later won the Dunlop Championship by outclassing the country’s most promising young drivers. However, despite these achievements, he yearned for an opportunity to return home and compete on the big stage.

In 1978, he launched a comeback in North America’s Long Beach Grand Prix for his 12th professional race, where he finished 10th. He was given a shot at the NASCAR Winston Cup by the Charlotte Motor Speedway President and race promoter, Humpy Wheeler, as a part of a bigger strategy to attract black spectators. Sadly, Willy lost this opportunity because track officials thought he lacked stock car experience. He was replaced by Dale Earnhardt, who filled his slot after other brushes on the track involving high-speed chases and missing multiple racing practices.

Willy, however, did not give up. He entered the Formula Atlantic Series and won the pole in the Long Beach Formula Atlantic Race in 1982, and brightened his accomplishments by winning five races in 1983 during several competitions at the SCCA Trans-AM Series.

His biggest test, however, was the Indianapolis in 1985. While testing his car, Willy surprisingly came short on speed, which compelled him to withdraw from the race. He had challenges subsequently catching up with the speed of his competitors, and later had to look elsewhere. In 1986, he opted to drive with a privately sponsored team on the NASCAR Winston Cup Circuit, joining as the only black driver on the circuit. He staged a comeback when Bill Cosby funded a car that he used to qualify in 1991 in the Indianapolis 500. Though he wasn’t able to compete in 1992, he made his debut in the 1993 race.

Willy retired from motorsport in 1999 and set up a racing company in his name to commemorate his 20th anniversary of breaking the color barrier in the Indianapolis 500 in 2011.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 2, 2023


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