Black Interests

Willie T. Ribbs – Never Turned The Other Cheek by Harold Bell

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In 1972, Leonard Miller found the Black American Racers the same year I made my radio debut on W-O-O-K Radio in Washington, DC. The birth of Inside Sports and Black American Races were born and changed the landscape in the World of sports.

His partners were Wendell Scott, Malcolm Durham and Ron Hines, fellow drivers who would become legends in their own time and place. They were the first black drivers to compete in NASCAR, They promoted black driver development and honored black drivers, mechanics and others in auto racing. BARA grew to 5,000 members.

Leonard Miller grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, His love for cars developed through conversations he heard on the estates where his mother worked as a house keeper. He secretly worked on his parents’ car when he was a youth.

Miller also was part of Vanguard Racing Inc. and became the first black owner to enter a car in the Indianapolis 500 in 1972. He wanted Benny Scott to drive the car, but blacks were denied entry into the Indy 500, so John Mahler, a white driver whom Miller tapped to work with Scott, ended up driving the car. A year later, Vanguard joined the Black American Racers Inc., with Benny Scott as the primary driver. BAR qualified for the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix in 1975 as one of the top 60 race teams in the world. Benny Scott finished 11th in the race.

Miller later founded Miller Racing Group with his son, Leonard T. Miller. They became the first African-American team owners to win a track championship in NASCAR history when they won the stock car title at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Virginia, in 2005.

Then along came Willie T, Leonard Miller was not a big fan of the colorful and sometimes controversial Willie T. Ribbs.

He claimed Willie had a chip on his shoulder and thought someone owned him something. I didn’t agree, I thought all Willie T wanted was to be treated fairly and like a human being. if you stepped across the line, he didn’t turn the other cheek.

Willie grew up in San Jose, California as one of five children in a middle-class family. His father William “Bunny” Ribbs, Sr. was a plumbing contractor and amateur sports car racer. He was also friends and neighbors with Indy Car driver Joe Leonard.

Willie was nearly killed at eight years old when an out-of-control car at a race struck him. As a teenager, He would take his car out in the California mountains at high speeds, frequently stopped by police for reckless driving. After graduating from high school in 1975 he moved to Europe to compete. In 1977, he won the Dunlop/Autosport Star of Tomorrow in his first year of competition, winning six races in eleven starts. He returned to the United States in 1978, making his debut in the Formula Atlantic open-wheel series at Long Beach on April 1, finishing 10th after running as high as 4th.

In May 1978, Charlotte Motor Speedway president and race promoter Humpy Wheeler chose Willie to drive a NASCAR Winston Cup car in the World 600 at Charlotte in an effort to attract black fans to his race track. He partnered with veteran crew chief Harry Hyde. He was initially rejected by track officials due to a lack of stock car experience and when the Dodge Magnum he was suppose to drive was committed to another driver, Wheeler set him up with owner Will Cronkite in a Bud Moore Engineering-built Ford Torino. In addition to missing two practice sessions, his debut in NASCAR was derailed after rumors surfaced of a high-speed car chase by police down the wrong way of a one-way street, possibly due to Ribbs being a black driver. According to Charlotte Observer reporter Tom Higgins, Ribbs outran the police before being apprehended in the gymnasium of Queens University of Charlotte. Cronkite replaced him with future champion Dale Earnhardt.

Willie returned to the Formula Atlantic series in 1981 winning the pole in the Long Beach Formula Atlantic race in 1982. The following year, He moved to the SCCA Trans-Am Series, driving Chevrolet Camaros with sponsorship from Budweiser. Willie won five races and was honored as Pro Rookie of the Year, while his teammate David Hobbs won the series championship. He won four races in 1984 driving factory-backed Mercury Capris for Roush Racing.

Willie’ made his first attempt at the Indianapolis 500 in 1985, which ended in controversy when during testing he topped out at 170 miles per hour while other rookie drivers were running laps above 200 miles per hour. He withdrew from the race altogether. The deal had been put together in part by boxing promoter Don King, who he hired to manage him, with sponsorship from Miller Brewing Company, but with a second hand car.

Willie attempted NASCAR again in 1986, running three races in the No. 30 Red Roof Inns car owned by DiGard Motorsports. His best finish came at his debut, a 22nd at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Also in 1986, he became the first black person to drive a Formula One car, when he tested for the Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham team at the Autódromo do Estoril, Portugal. Willie was not given the opportunity to drive for the upcoming year In 1987, He began driving Toyota Celicas for Dan Gurney in the IMSA GT Championship, winning four races.

In 1990, He joined the CART circuit in a car funded in-part by comedian Bill Cosby. Willie had one top-10 event that season. He was involved in an unfortunate incident in Vancouver when a group of track marshals ran onto the track to assist Ross Bentley who had stalled, however one of the marshals ran in front of Ribbs’ car and the marshal was killed in the impact.

In 1991, he became the first African-American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He raced there a second time in 1993. In 1994, he continued in the CART series with the team, finishing in the top 10 at the Michigan International Speedway and New Hampshire International Speedway races.

Controversy was no stranger to Willie T, during his career. He received criticism for his strong personality, There were times the backstabbers and naysayers were other African Americans in auto racing. Black car owner Leonard T. Miller for one felt he was not the best representative of the black community due to his outspoken nature.

Willie had also spoken negatively about his experience in NASCAR. In May 2006, a newspaper column by Jason Whitlock quoted him detailing his criticism of NASCAR and his lauding of the Indianapolis 500. He created controversy by referring to NASCAR as Al-Qaida, “Neckcar”, and WWE.

In 1984, during a warm-up session at the SCCA Trans-Am Series season opener at Road Atlanta, Willie was fined $1,000 for throwing a punch at fellow driver Bob Lobenberg, after the two drivers made contact on the track. In 1987 following a race at Portland International Raceway, Willie was suspended by the International Motor Sports Association for one month after throwing a punch at driver Scott Pruett. He felt that Pruett had cost him a chance at winning the race.

I had the opportunity to watch Willie perform up close and personal on several occasions and it was never pretty. Once in Miami, Charlotte and Richmond. There was a love/hate relationship among fans, but all this did was fuel his spirit.

After retiring from racing, Willie turned to professional shooting, specializing in sporting clays. His son Theodore is a professional sport shooter. Willie married hotel management executive Stephanie Bauer in August 2018.

Willie is featured in the 2020 documentary titled, Uppity, the Willy T. Ribbs Story, which was released by Netflix. The title derided from racing circles during his career, he was known as the “Uppity Nigger”!

In the final analysis, I would jump over 100 Leonard Millers to get to one Willie T. Ribbs. Leonard was two-faced, he had one face for “The White Privilege” and another face for the black community. With Willie what you saw was what you got!

You could never carry Leonard Miller’s word to the bank. His word would bounce higher than any bad check you would ever try to cash. Willie T. Ribbs was the bank!

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