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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Published 2.3.2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of MotorCities’ observance of Black History Month, we are revisiting this Story of the Week from February 13, 2017. 

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When you look back at the history of African Americans who 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 Indy Car racing like Jackie Robinson did for baseball, having cemented his legacy as the first African American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1991.

Ribbs was the first African American driver since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott to break into auto racing, having first tested at the Brickyard in 1985. He was also named the driver of the year in the IMSA GTO Sedan Racing Series.

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In May 1985, Ribbs came to Indianapolis 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 Trans Am series races.

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

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As Ribbs continued to pile up wins and 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, auto racing and competition was in his blood from an early age. 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.

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Robin Miller, sports editor of the Indianapolis Star, wrote the following about Willy T. Ribbs: “The team that was almost history made some Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 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 with former NASCAR driver Chase Austin to compete 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.

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In conclusion, Willy T. Ribbs will always be known as a trailblazer in auto racing.

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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 Press, 1991

Graves, Gary. “Ribbs, Indy 500 first black driver, breaking ground again” USA Today.