Always outspoken, always entertaining, Willy T Ribbs has never pulled punches. On the eve of the Miami Grand Prix the groundbreaking, black American driver is typically effusive in his admiration for Lewis Hamilton, who he believes has fundamentally changed Formula One. “I knew before I met him he was the second coming,” he says. “You won’t see another driver who will achieve as much as Lewis Hamilton in 200 years.”
Ribbs is bold and confident, the 67-year-old speaking with authority and wit, a smile never far from his lips having earned his place in racing’s history the hard way. Ribbs was the first black driver to test an F1 car, doing so for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team in 1986 at Estoril and the first African-American to qualify and then race at the Indy 500 in 1991.
Over a long career he overcame racism that ran the gamut from what he describes as “opposition, barriers and denial based on one thing: the color of my skin” right up to death threats, but faced it down with a fearless swagger. “It could demoralize a lot of people, I wasn’t that way,” he says. “I love fighting. It builds character and I was going to fight until I couldn’t breathe any more. ”
This weekend in Miami, F1 is celebrating its new-found success in the US. There are two races in the country this year for the first time since 1984, next year with Las Vegas added to Miami and Texas there will be three. Ribbs is pleased that the sport he has loved since he was in diapers is once more on the up in the USA but maintains that Hamilton’s integral part in that should be recognized.
“When I used to talk to Muhammad Ali, he told me that all people congregate to champions no matter what color you are and Lewis is in that Muhammad Ali league,” he says. “He is now on that level as far as interest from all people, especially people of color who have never had that before, who have never had a representative that looked like them.
“Now Lewis Hamilton in this country is a huge name with African-Americans and people of color. He is worldwide but in this country he is mega. The sport has got him now, he has opened it up and brought attention to millions and millions of people of color all over the world. That is the greatest thing for Formula One, right now it is a crossover sport, with crossover appeal. ”
The T stands for Theodore but is always truncated. When his name is mentioned to former world champion Mario Andretti, the great man immediately says: “Ah, Willy T”, with fondness. Ribbs is now a diversity and inclusion representative for F1, an initiative that was effectively kickstarted when Hamilton insisted F1 needed to address these issues while he was championing the Black Lives Matter movement. Ribbs was enthusiastic to get involved, recognizing how much work there was to be done.
He had raced from when he came to Europe to pursue his dream in 1975 until 2001 across a wide range of disciplines including IndyCar, Champ Car, Trans-Am, Nascar and Imsa. He took 17 victories in the Trans-Am series but had grown up loving F1, amid family dinner table conversations in California about Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss.
Learning his craft in the UK, Ribbs bashed wheels with Nigel Mansell in Formula Ford at Brands Hatch, with both drivers finishing on the podium, an experience he remembers with a broad grin. “We banged it up during the race, it was absolutely ruthless and fun but clean,” he says. “After the race we went around the track on the back of that truck with our laurel wreaths on, we shook hands and Nigel and I are still buddies today, I love him to death.”
He recalls how he was welcomed to the UK with open arms by Stirling Moss and John Surtees, how they only saw a quick driver and that he didn’t want his race to define him. “I thought of myself as a race driver not as a driver of any particular color. I didn’t consider Jim Clark or Graham Hill or Jochen Rindt or any of those guys anything other than race drivers. I didn’t see them as white race drivers, I looked at them as great race drivers. ”
In 1986 the test did not turn into a drive with Brabham but Ribbs was pleased to have a shot. At Indianapolis in 1991 he was roundly cheered as he dragged his underperforming car through qualifying to make the race, his elation clear as he rolled through the pitlane, arms aloft. However on a weekend where the car chewed through six engine changes, the race was a disappointment with the sixth giving out on lap five. Undeterred he returned to the Brickyard in 1993 and this time made the flag in 21st place.
He was not considering the impacts his achievements would have at the time, viewing them only as part of his ambition to be the best driver he could. Yet his legacy as the first black driver to make these steps was vital as he now acknowledges, not least by Hamilton who has invited him as a guest to races. “In 2012 at the US GP I talked to his father Anthony and he said, ‘I followed you and you were one of the reasons I wanted Lewis to be an F1 driver,'” he says.
Ribbs believes Hamilton is doing similarly inspiring work in ensuring F1 has an audience for the future in the US but of course has a singularly Willy T take on it.
“I see Lewis as the best ambassador for diversity and inclusion and I see Willy T Ribbs as the second-best ambassador. We got the front row, ”he says with an expansive laugh. “To have Lewis and Willy T to be the chassis with F1 as the engine, it is the greatest thing for the sport you are going to see right now in America, F1 has never been bigger.”