MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Posted: 02.13.2017


file 20170213173637 Willy Ribbs
When you look back at the history of African Americans whom have made their mark on professional auto racing, most people would remember the great careers of Willy T. Ribbs and the late Wendell Scott.

Over the years, people have said that Willy T. Ribbs broke the color barrier in auto racing just as the late Jackie Robinson did for baseball, having cemented his legacy as the first African American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

Ribbs was the first African American driver since the legendary Wendell Scott to break into automotive racing having qualified for the legendary Indy 500 race in 1987 and again in 1988. He was also named the driver of the year in the IMSA GTO Sedan Racing Series.
file 20170213173655 Willy Ribbs
In May 1985, Ribbs came to Indy with the backing of boxing promoter Don King. However, Ribbs’ career started in earnest when he won the Dunlop championship in his first year of competition. He later placed first at the British Formula Ford Championship in 1977. In 1984, he began winning the Trans-AM races and in April of 1985, he started at the Indy 500 races.

During those early years, Ribbs raced with a Buick engine that was given to him by the company. Buick management said, “We were stunned at the amount of publicity that we got as a result of what we did,” said Buick General Marketing Manager Darwin Clark.

As a child, Ribbs was inspired by the racing icons of his generation. He once stated, “As a kid I had racing heroes. I wanted to pursue my passion.”
file 20170213173710 Willy Ribbs
As Ribbs’ continued to pile up wins and more notoriety, he started to attract bigger sponsors such as McDonalds. He stated at the time, “I don’t know if I can tell you how delighted and honored that the McDonald’s Corporation is part of our team.”

For Ribbs, automotive racing and competition was in his blood from an early age. And although Ribbs at times struggled with his career in racing, as most do, he rolled with the punches and has now delivered his own chapter in the automotive history books for generations to read about.
file 20170213173726 Willy Ribbs
Robin Miller, Sports Editor from the Indianapolis Star newspaper once said this about Willy T. Ribbs, “The team that was almost history made some Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speed Way. Willy T. Ribbs, whose shoestring operation was running out of money, engines and time, brought qualifying to a dramatic windup as he roared into the record books and starting lineup for the 75th Indianapolis 500. Ribbs, the first black driver to compete at Indianapolis, overcame a month of frustration with a splendid ride of 217.358 miles per hour.”

In May 2011, Ribbs had announced that he had formed Willy T. Ribbs Racing to campaign former NASCAR driver Chase Austin in the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which coincided with Ribbs 20th anniversary of breaking the color barrier at Indy. In conclusion, Willy T. Ribbs will always be a part of our great history for automotive racing.
file 20170213173741 Willy Ribbs
file 20170213173801 Willy Ribbs
A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for contributing this story to the MotorCities Story of the Week Program.

For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area. (Bibliography: Miller, Robin. “Persistence puts Ribbs in lineup” The Indianapolis 500 Extra Monday, May 20, 1991; Crowe, Steve. “Ribbs breaks barrier into Indy 500 lineup” Detroit Free Press1991; Graves, Gary. “Ribbs, Indy 500 first black driver, breaking ground again” USA Today)

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