The car doesn’t know who’s driving it or working on it. The car reacts to driver and crew input, whether the source is white, black, male, female. It doesn’t matter to the car. It does what it’s told to do.
Recognition and promotion of Black racers has been far and few between at the upper levels of American motorsports. There have been standouts in both open- and closed-wheel competitions and, as reality would have it, oftentimes talent is not the big identifier as to who will get the nod to drive or crew a race car. To celebrate Black History Month, we wanted to turn attention to a few of the black race drivers who have left their mark on the sport in an effort to encourage new racers and teams to promote more diversity in racing.
Among the earlier known standouts was Wendell Scott, the NASCAR driver whose exploits earned him few major series starts but engendered him to fans of the sport and his competitors. While Wendell Scott never achieved the fame he might have had if he’d been born a different skin color, he enabled many that followed him in the sport. Scott was NASCAR’s first black victor in the Grand National series and was inducted into NASCAR’s hall of fame in 2015.
At the time Scott was slowing down, in 1972 a group called the Black American Racers Association was formed, to inform the American public about the achievements of black participants in motorsports and to increase black spectator interest in racing. While BARA lasted only five years, it grew to nearly 5,000 members, including several car clubs.
Scott’s exploits in NASCAR surely emboldened Willy T Ribbs, the flamboyant racer who was the first racer of color to qualify and compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in 1991. Willy T made his mark in the car as well as out of it, using his great personality to advance his career and celebrating his many victories by dancing atop the car.
A new film, “Uppity” about his racing life is available on Netflix and is exceptionally well done. Ribbs will be inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame on the Thursday prior to this year’s 46th annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, it was just announced. Ribbs made his debut at the track in 1978 in the Formula Atlantic series, winning pole in 1982.
Bill Lester, the first black racer to win a Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race, started in SCCA and IMSA, but soon morphed go NASCAR, where he was, in 1999 the first black driver to compete in what’s now the Xfinity Series. In 2000 Lester made his [Gander RV & Outdoors] Truck Series debut and was runner-up in 2002 to Brendan Gaughan for truck series rookie of the year. Lester went to the Cup Series in 2006, becoming the first black driver in that series since 1986!
After returning to sports cars in 2008, Bill Lester raced in the Grand-Am’s prototype category, finishing third in the 2009 summer Daytona race. Fittingly, when he moved to the GT category with Autohaus Motorsports, Lester became the first black driver to win in any Grand-Am category, taking the checkered flags at Virginia International Raceway, close to the home of Wendell Scott.
NHRA racing has been more inclusive of black racers and claims two champions of color: Antron Brown has earned three Top Fuel titles while J.R. Todd secured his first Funny Car championship in 2018. Brown has just formed his own team, AB Motorsports, working in tandem with mentor Don Schumacher, while Todd continues to race for the legendary Connie Kalitta.
Brown got his racing start in Pro Stock Motorcycle and was joined in that arena by Peggy Llewelyn, who became the first black woman to compete in two wheels at the top level of drag racing, winning the 2007 race at Dallas.
The brothers Mack, George and Lloyd, have competed in open wheel motorsports and in NASCAR. George is a former Indy Racing League contestant and Lloyd competed in both the Indy Pro Series and some short-track contests. Like so many, they lacked the financial security to race full-time but made their marks wherever they took green flags.
There are many other racers that have worked at the craft of motorsport, either as drivers or crew members. Tom Hammonds, a former pro basketball player, tried his hand at Pro Stock NHRA racing before the money ran out and other professional stick-and-ball competitors have raced – notably “Sweetness”, the late Walter Payton. Look anywhere and you will see people of color working on major motorsports teams, as well.
In this Black History Month, we at RacingJunk salute them all.