The first time I met Willy T. Ribbs in 1978, he was wearing a shirt that said, “I know what satisfaction is!” So I figured right away this wasn’t your average race driver. And, over the next couple of decades, Willy T. showed us a unique character with unwavering confidence, blunt honesty, bravery in an unfriendly atmosphere, raw talent and a mouth that got him noticed as well as hated.
And all of those emotions and his roller-coaster career are on display in “Uppity,” the documentary of his life that debuted on Netflix this week (also available on Chassy.com).
Produced and directed by Adam Carolla, Nate Adams and Mike August, it’s an honest look at how a black race driver took on an all-white establishment and went from sure thing to unemployed to trendsetter to the side of the road and finally into the Indianapolis 500.
It opens with Willy waxing the best that young, up-and-coming Formula Ford drivers had to offer in England, one of the most competitive arenas in the world, by winning six of 11 Dunlop Star of Tomorrow races and the 1977 championship at the age of 21.
That should have propelled him up the Formula 1 ladder, but he couldn’t get a Formula 3 ride so he headed back to America where, over the next few years, he would meet five people who greatly influenced his life: Humpy Wheeler, Jim Trueman, Paul Newman, Don King and Muhammad Ali.
One of the great motorsports promoters, Wheeler figured Ribbs was exactly what NASCAR needed to create some headlines, so he got him a ride at Talladega. Unfortunately, there were so many death threats that they withdrew him from the race.
Ribbs’ real breakthrough in terms of proving himself came in 1982 at Long Beach. Trueman got him a Formula Atlantic ride and he proceeded to out-qualify both Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. and led the race until the engine expired a few laps before the finish.
That led to a phone call from Newman, who got him in a Trans-Am car with Budweiser sponsorship and things took off. He won in his fourth start and battled teammate David Hobbs before moving on to Jack Roush’s Ford team where he and Wally Dallenbach Jr. duked it out for a couple of seasons.
Hobbs and Dallenbach, who both became good TV analysts, provide the best sound of the film as they laid out the good, bad and ugly of being on the same team as Ribbs. “Very abrasive,” was how Hobbs termed their relationship. “David knew it was personal,” countered Ribbs.
He got a call from King in 1985 who said he had Miller Beer as a sponsor for Indy. But it all went bad in his first and only day of practice and he walked away. The car didn’t have a proper windshield so his head was buffeted around to the point he could barely see the corners. What the documentary didn’t show was the fact he was running a turbocharger for Milwaukee instead of Indy so the torque was hard to control. Willy claimed he was sabotaged by a racist crew chief and he had a good case, but his critics called the exercise “Chicken and Ribbs,” claiming he just wasn’t brave enough for Indy’s high speeds.
The next adventure came when Bernie Ecclestone asked if he wanted to test an F1 car in Portugal. The test went quite well but the sponsor wanted an Italian driver so Willy T. came back home and continued his Trans Am success – winning eight times but incurring four DNFs.
“Sabotaged by Roush,” is how he explains it.
It was back for another go at NASCAR in 1986, where he made four starts for DiGard Racing but suffered several engine failures. “NASCAR knew I was going to win Watkins Glen and they couldn’t have that,” he reckoned.
After Trueman died of cancer in June of 1986, Ribbs got a lifeline from Dan Gurney, who put him in his GTO Toyota Celica for the IMSA series in 1987.
The last and most dramatic act came in 1991 when Derrick Walker’s under-financed IndyCar team got $350,000 from Bill Cosby to run Ribbs at Indianapolis. He qualified in the closing minutes in his third and final attempt to break Indy’s color barrier and win the respect of Gasoline Alley.
Now, Ribbs has always been one of those guys people either love or despise, and he welcomed confrontation and challenge. Sometimes he was his own worst enemy but you always got a straight shot.
One wonders what might have happened if he’d been snatched up by a rich owner over in England or if Trueman lived longer or if Walker had hit the lottery.
But he carved out a pretty damn good career and has a cool story to tell in this film entitled with this lifelong mantra: “They called me an uppity n***** … and I loved it.”