INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Willy T. Ribbs made Indianapolis 500 history 30 years ago as the first Black man to qualify for the race.
Racial tensions of the time created challenges for him, but now he’s being recognized. Ribbs said racing for him wasn’t about making history — but about winning.
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Ribbs said 30 years may sound like a long time ago, but some memorable moments feel to him as if they happened seconds ago. On the Friday before the 105th running of the 500-mile race, he said he was happy to see where the culture of racing is going and who’s hitting the track.
“This place is one of the most dangerous places in the world to race. So the drivers that race here know that they are putting their life on the line,” he said. “And it’s worth it. And that’s why they do it and that’s why I did it.”
When Ribbs suited up for the Indy 500, he was coming to the track with a third of the financial backing that other teams had. He knew he’d be in for a tough ride.
“I shouldn’t have been in the race. But I was, and we made it happen,” Ribbs said.
He was an accomplished race car driver before the Indy 500. Although a crash ended his run and racial tensions of the time put a damper on progress, it didn’t end his story or crush his drive.
“You never get it out of your system. And here this is the biggest race on the planet,” Ribbs said.
At the time, the push for racial justice and inclusion in auto racing was only a dream. It’s becoming a reality now, with Ribbs applauding efforts to improve diversity and inclusion.
“It was going to eventually happen — whether George Floyd was the spark that lit the fire — it was going to eventually happen,” Ribbs said.
The drive was never about making history, but his story has helped pave the way for diversity on the track, particularly with 2021’s entry by the nearly all-women Paretta AutoRacing team and its driver, Simona de Silvestro.
“She is absolutely a force to be reckoned with. If it’s her day and the car is working, she’ll run right at the front with the big boys. Because she’s big,” Ribbs said.
Ribbs, now in his 60s, said he’s still not done with racing. In a few weeks, he’ll participate in the SRX Super Star race.