“They called me uppity, uppity n*****, and I loved it,” Willy T. Ribbs says as his story opens. The documentary, Uppity- The Willy T. Ribbs Story, tells the story of a driver who not only faces the usual obstacles of no money and few contacts, but also the additional hurdle of prejudice because of his skin color as he tried to succeed in a mostly white man’s sport. It is produced by Chassy Media, Adam Corolla’s production company, which also produced Winning -The Racing Life of Paul Newman.
He was the first African American to test a Formula 1 car and the first to drive in the Indianapolis 500. When Ribbs decided he wanted to be a racing driver, his goals were to drive Indycar and Formula 1. He reached one goal and had a chance at the other one.
I came to realize while watching the film that Ribbs was a darn good driver. I had only been familiar with his Indycar career. While he didn’t have much success in his brief time in the series, Ribbs won races in Trans Am and IMSA. He is tied for eighth all time in IMSA with 17 career wins. Ribbs would drive whatever an opportunity came along, including NASCAR and Trucks at the end of his career.
The documentary is nicely structured into segments by seasons and the series Ribbs drove in. The film has some great racing footage including some of Ribbs in Formula Ford in England. He clinched the Formula Ford championship with three races left in the season. He returned to the United States hoping to get a ride in a professional series.
Marshall Pruett of Racer Magazine provides technical and inside commentary throughout the film. He explains the money aspect of racing as well as the difference between the cars in various series. In addition to the main interviews with Ribbs, we also get viewpoints from Al Unser, Jr., Bobby Unser, Robby Unser, Wally Dallenbach, Jr., and David Hobbs.
Ribbs raced despite death threats, equipment sabotage, and team orders . Like most drivers, he felt he was better than his competition. Much of the time, he backed it up. He received help from Dan Gurney, Jim Trueman, Paul Newman, Don King, and Bill Cosby. He was friends with Muhammad Ali, who gave him advice early in his career.
Humpy Wheeler, the promoter who put Ribbs in a stock car at Charlotte in 1978, also received a death threat. When Ribbs returned to NASCAR in 1986, he found the same hostility as eight years earlier.
Throughout his career, Ribbs was never far from controversy. He almost refused to race when he was told to let teammate David Hobbs win an event. Ribbs was fined for hitting a driver he felt cut him off on track. Later he was suspended by IMSA after punching Scott Pruett after a race. Ribbs thought Pruettt spun him out and cost him a win late in the race. His Ali Shuffle victory dance on the roof of his car after a win annoyed some people. It was really no different than Helio Castroneves climbing the fence. I found that annoying.
Ribbs was really no different than some white drivers, but his skin color caused many to view him as more outspoken and more aggressive. While he maybe could have handled some situations differently, Ribbs remained faithful to his grandfather’s advice to “Be your own boss.” He lived by those words his entire career.
The final segment of the film is the most dramatic. It records his attempts to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. In 1985 ribs entered in a hastily thrown together car with the help of Don King, who got Miller Brewing Company to sponsor the effort. In pre May testing, it was obvious the chief mechanic didn’t want Ribbs to be in the race. The setups were not good and Willy was uncomfortable. He had enough experience to know that this arrangement wasn’t going to work. He withdrew from the race on April 27.
Ribbs returned to Indianapolis in 1991 with financial help from Bill Cosby. Derrick Walker assembled the team, which ran on a shoestring budget throughout the month. The team blew four engines, including one early on Bump Day. The drama of the day is captured very well and creates some tremendous drama. His triumphant qualifying run is filled with tension even though we know the outcome. This is the best part of the documentary.
I wrote about his 1991 qualification last May.
Willy T. Ribbs is a complicated, controversial figure in auto racing, but he broke through one of the sport’s final barriers in becoming the first African American to drive in the Indianapolis 500.
I wholeheartedly recommend this film. It is an important part of racing history. I liked the vintage film clips, although some of the worst crashes at Indianapolis are among them.
In the final interview segment, Ribbs talks about the 1993 500 when he was running at the finish of the race.
“I won. I didn’t win the Indianapolis 500, but I won.”
Be sure to watch the credits after the movie. The producers pay tribute to black drivers who raced before and after Ribbs. Charlie Wiggins, Joie Ray, Wendell Scott, Bubba Wallace, Chase Austin, and Lewis Hamilton are acknowledged. They also recognize the Black American Racing Association.