Breaking Boundaries: Black Athletes In Motorsport
“I am completely overcome with rage at the sight of such blatant disregard for the lives of our people. The injustice that we are seeing our brothers and sisters face all over the world time and time again is disgusting, and MUST stop.” – Lewis Hamilton, 2021
February is Black History Month
Black History Month is as much about reflecting on the actions of our predecessors, as it is about looking toward the future with hope and celebrating every accomplishment that’s been achieved by members of the Black community.
It may seem like the Jim Crow era is long in the rearview mirror, but let’s all keep in mind that the Civil Rights Act was only signed into law 59 years ago, and it took several years to be fully implemented after that. In perspective, that’s just not that long ago, and even though the law was implemented, the damaging effects on the Black community are still being reverberated today. As much as we’d all love to think that “things are different”, for so many of our fellow Americans, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Take one look at motorsport and you’ll see a glaring lack of diversity across every series, but just as Bob Dylan once sang “For the times they are a-changin’”.
Let’s take a look at some of the best Black motorsports athletes and celebrate their accomplishments together.
NASCAR was born of bootleggers in the segregated south, which also happened to be ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Thanks to the oppressive laws and arcane attitudes, Black Americans had little shot of moving into traditionally white sports like NASCAR but NASCAR hall of fame inductee Wendell Scott never got that memo.
After serving in World War II as a mechanic, Wendell came home to Virginia and opened up a mechanic shop, and ran moonshine to make ends meet. After meeting a promoter who was looking to recruit black drivers in 1952, Wendell competed in his first race and beat the competition to the tune of $50. He was hooked.
Despite the persistent challenges of being Black in the south, Wendell and his family pressed on until he joined the NASCAR series as a professional in 1961. He won his first race in 1963, which was rife with controversy because NASCAR handed the initial win to the second-place finisher, only to later declare a “scoring error”. Later, it was determined that NASCAR simply wanted to avoid Wendell receiving a kiss from the event’s White beauty queen.
By 1966, he was a solid mid-pack driver, which is especially impressive because his mechanics were his family, and the old Fords he raced were almost always secondhand. It would be many years before Bubba Wallace would kick open the NASCAR door, but Wendell was incredibly brave in a time when there were few allies in the pit lane.
Willy T. Ribbs
Born in San Jose, California, and one of five kids, Willy T. Ribbs was born to be in a racecar.
As a teen, he would scream down mountain passes in his modified muscle car, and after high school, he left for Europe to pursue his dream of becoming an open-wheel racer. After winning amateur series in Europe, Willy returned to America and competed in the Formula Atlantic series in Long Beach, where he finished 10th place. From there on out, Willy made the rounds across a staggering number of series and blazed an incredible career.
In the early 80s, Willy dipped his toes in NASCAR and even tested out for Formula 1’s Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham team. This made him the first black driver to pilot a Formula 1 car, which in and of itself is an incredible accomplishment. By the early 90s, Willy was competing in CART (now INDYCAR) and was the first black driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500. The 2000s saw Willy make the switch back to NASCAR but this time behind the wheel of a Dodge-powered truck in the truck series.
Despite reservations from sponsors, and percent barriers, Willy had one hell of a career in motorsport that spanned nearly three decades.
Wendell Scott and Willy T. Ribbs cut the path that Lewis Hamilton would turn into a five-lane superhighway.
There’s little debate that Lewis is the greatest Formula 1 driver in history, which he backs up with seven World Drivers Championships, but it wasn’t always easy for Lewis. In the beginning, Lewis always knew wanted to be a race car driver, but growing up without much money meant that Lewis and his dad Anthony had to do things the hard way. Lewis often reflects on those early days of showing up to the circuit with a second-hand kart, while other white kids had the newest and best equipment.
He began racing at only eight years old and won his first karting championship by ten, from there he would join McLaren’s young driver program and win nearly every race he entered up to the age of fifteen. After winning the F1 feeder series, GP2, Hamilton joined the McLaren F1 team in 2007. His rookie season would see him come in second to Kimi Raikkonen, but only by a few points. In 2008, he would win his first driver’s championship and would remain competitive in his McLaren years, but it was the F1 hybrid era that would be where Hamilton would shine.
Once he joined Mercedes-Benz Petronas in 2013, it only took him a season to get adjusted, and in 2014, he won his second title. From there on out, it was domination for Hamilton, winning five more championships in the coming years, until Max Verstappen put a halt to his glory in 2021.
On top of his incredible performances, Lewis is also a major advocate of Civil Rights and is a huge champion of boosting diversity in a traditionally white, and male-dominated space. His foundation, Mission 44, seeks to boost participation from traditionally un-represented groups in STEM programs that serve the automotive and motorsports industries. He’s used his platform for good from day one, and that makes him not only an outstanding driver but an outstanding human being.
Lewis Hamilton’s legacy is still being written, and we can’t wait to see what he does for the sport and world next.
Black American Racers Association / African American Racers Association (AARA)
Way back in 1972, Leonard W. Miller with Wendell Scott (who we already showcased), Ron Hines, and Malcolm Durham banded together to form an organization that showcased Black drivers, and their accomplishments. In addition, BARA worked hard to boost interest in racing careers within the Black community and increase Black attendance at motorsports events all over the world.
Although it only lasted for five years, BARA managed to capture the hearts and minds of 5000 members and held 4 annual conventions. Chairperson Leonard W. Miller would go on to be one of the prolific members of the racing community, including being the first black open-wheel race team owner to enter a vehicle into the Indy 500. In subsequent years, the African American Racers Association (AARA) was formed to continue the mission of African Americans in all types of motorsports, from drag racing to NASCAR.
Check out their hall of fame to read some bios on some of the best and brightest that have ever taken to the track, including a new breed of racers who are set to take the racing world by storm.
We Still Have A Long Way To Go
Even though we live in an age of awareness and apparent openness, the Black community still faces an incredible amount of adversity across the board.
Just last year, Lewis Hamilton was the subject of a disgusting comment made by Formula 1 legend Nelson Piquet regarding his race, along with dealing with hate speech online and in person. Take one look at social media and you’ll see more than one video of racial slurs slung with cowardice at members of the Black community. As abhorrent as this behavior is, there is still far too much acceptance and silence.
This is exactly why we need to keep sharing stories, and spreading love and adoration around exceptional members of the black community. Motorsports just happens to be one of those unstudied areas of Black achievement where the story is still being written and evolving right before our very eyes. It’s crucial to celebrate the pioneers that paved the way for people like Lewis Hamilton to achieve greatness, even as Lewis Hamilton considers passing the torch to a new generation.
Will Lewis Hamilton finally get that eighth title to beat out Michael Schumacher for the all-time greatest racing driver in history? You’ll just have to follow the 2023 season with a keen eye and see if Lewis and the new W14 can achieve the greatest honor in all of motorsport.
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