former racer willy t. ribbs, the first black driver to race in the indianapolis 500, has a message for nascar in the wake of the announcement that it is banning the confederate flag at its events.
"now that nascar has taken a step," ribbs told our friends at autoweek, "they better keep on stepping. this ride that we're on now is not going to be over for a while."
and when it comes to those who need to keep stepping in the march for improved race relations and an end to racism, that goes for richard petty.
and jimmie johnson.
and all the "listeners" out there.
ribbs, who in 1991 became the first black driver to race in the indy 500, is a veteran of nascar, indycar, imsa, and the trans-am series. he's lived through a few of these supposed watershed moments in the history of race relations. while this moment in history, he says, feels a little different—he's already seen a few missteps by the racing community that could easily stall any positive movement.
"it seems like lewis hamilton kicked it off by taking a stand for humanity," ribbs said. "however, where was everyone in racing when colin kaepernick was kneeling? if george floyd were still alive, would that confederate flag still be flying?"
ribbs, 65, says most know the answer to that one.
"nascar and the flag," ribbs said. "it was a reactive move. it wasn't proactive. but it was a brilliant pr move on their part. it was absolutely brilliant. they could teach the nfl something about that. now, they're going to have to show they mean it."
bubba wallace sported a black lives matter shirt and paint scheme for his richard petty motorsports–owned chevrolet during this past wednesday night's nascar cup series race at martinsville. that same day, nascar announced in a press release that it was banning the confederate flag at its events. that announcement came two days after wallace spoke out, calling for such a move.
it was wallace's version of a peaceful protest.
"if only everybody would have just listened to [kaepernick]," ribbs said. "that was a peaceful protest. it didn't cost anything. there was no damage. no one was getting hurt. there was no looting, there was no burning. all they had to do was just listen. now people in hindsight are saying, 'wow, we should have listened.'
"colin went out there as a sacrificial lamb. what did they do? they sheared him and they made chops out of him. now they want to anoint him. before colin kaepernick, there was john carlos and tommie smith at the 1968 olympics. they were destroyed. colin kaepernick was destroyed. bubba is not going to get destroyed because the timing of what he did.
"i'm sure nascar gave him the green light. there's no question. drivers don't tell nascar what to do. drivers and owners don't make rules for nascar. they just sent him out there as a frontman."
wallace and ribbs have never met.
"i've never talked to him," ribbs said. "lewis hamilton and i are good friends. lewis and his father anthony, i'm their guest every year at the formula 1 u.s. grand prix. as for bubba, bubba might have been told, 'don't you talk to mr. uppity.' you stay away. he's not good for you.' "
ribbs is waiting for more of the players in nascar to take action, particularly the most visible drivers and owners at the very top of the sport's food chain.
"i thought that all the drivers, there was the 'i'm listening' group," ribbs said. "jimmie 'i'm listening' johnson and the rest of the listeners. i thought of the nascar drivers as if they were a band. you could call them jimmie johnson and the listeners.
"they should have all had black lives matter on their cars. all of them. richard petty should have been out here with a black lives matter shirt on. the king. if you're sincere about what you're saying, then don't have the only african american in the group be the only one to do it. it should matter to all of them. wearing that shirt would probably have been the biggest statement that richard petty ever made in his life."
ribbs—whose incredible life story is the subject of the documentary uppity: the willy t. ribbs story, which made its debut on netflix in february—admits that his racing career as a black pioneer in the sport was not exactly a fairy tale.
"i've had a great relationship with trans-am to this day. that was good stuff," he said. "i had a mixed relationship with imsa. i did not have a smooth relationship with the imsa officials, at all. indycar was good. when i was with cart it was really good.
"nascar, no. nascar was not interested in having willy t. around."
ribbs is hopeful that change is coming, but he's not setting the table for any parties to celebrate better days just yet.
"i have never bit my lip in my life when it came to telling the truth," ribbs said. "i’m glad lewis hamilton is doing it. i want to see the nascar listeners band do it—not just say they're listening, but do something.
"you want to see the flags put away, but i want to see more, and so does the public. everyone has seen they’ve taken the first step.
"now, are you going to take two steps back, or are you going to keep stepping forward?"