“My grandfather told me ‘You must be better. You must be not good, not average. You must be better than the best.’”
It’s an all-too-familiar edict that is handed down across multiple generations of African-Americans. Our elders would say that in order to enter the hallowed, but exclusively white (and predominately male) institutions of this country, we had to be more exceptional at our crafts than the white participants who just merely had to show up.
In sports, there’s a slight twist to the ordeal as being average can only take you so far, regardless of the demographics you check off in a questionnaire. When you reach the highest levels of a sport, every participant is incredibly talented with various degrees of success, failures and for the most fortunate, longevity. Yet, sports aren’t a complete meritocracy, most especially those competitions where an athlete trying to break a demographic barrier is going to face an absurd amount of discrimination just for merely existing.
In the 1970s through the early 2000s, one man did more than just merely try to existin the capital-intensive world of auto racing — he persisted.
Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story profiles an auto racing trailblazer with a brash personality that belied an insane focus and a deep affection for those who guided him along the way. (The title of the documentary itself is rooted in a line that demonstrates his trademark combativeness: “They called me the n-word. An uppity n-word. And I loved it.” Keep in mind that Ribbs did not censor himself by calling himself an “n-word.”)
Not often highlighted in the same pioneering sphere as Black athletes who broke color barriers in better known team sports, Ribbs is famously known in the racing world for becoming the first Black man to test a Formula 1 car in 1986, and becoming the first Black man to race in the Indianapolis 500 in 1991. Fortunately for us, Uppity looked to provide him far more due beyond the historical markers. In fact, you would be hard pressed to not be just as engaged in the other roads Ribbs had taken to Indy as the one that eventually took him to the big show.
Coming from a racing family himself while growing up in San Jose, California, Ribbs would take laps in Trans-Am (where he achieved most of his success), IMSA, Champ Car, IndyCar and NASCAR. Whether open-wheel or closed, Ribbs was willing to show that he could race with anyone if given the chance. Unfortunately, he would meet frequent rejections from sponsors and even sabotage from members of his pit crew.
Uppity may be a story which features a man overcoming obscene hurdles to show he can compete with the best in the world. Yet, for someone who would never fully reach the stardom of his white peers, Ribbs had quite the star-crossed career as far as the 1980s and ’90s are concerned. Ribbs comes across five unique individuals who were either benefactors, competitors, or straight up hustlers trying to hitch themselves to his wagon. It was a kinship with Muhammad Ali that steeled him up for the challenge of being the only Black driver on the track. Legendary actor Paul Newman brought Ribbs into the Trans-Am Series, which he would dominate almost immediately. Former Olympic hero turned competitive driver, Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner, who speaks on camera), came oh-so-close to a different kind of immortality when his racing teammate got on Ribbs’ bad side. Don King used his once-indominable promotional might to score Ribbs his first shot at the Indy 500. And in a case of one complicated legacy, it was Bill Cosby that made the grandest investment into Ribbs’ second IndyCar foray. (Uppity was made in the aftermath of the sexual assault trial that sent Cosby to prison in 2018, which is addressed in the film.)
The telling of Ribbs’ story comes at a time where auto racing has been gaining a little more traction in diversity, although the sport may never be as diverse as the NBA or international soccer. The best driver on Earth – and arguably the most charismatic – is six-time Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, born to a white mother and black father in England. In addition to growing ranks in the lower levels of NASCAR, several non-white drivers are running full-time in its premier Cup Series – Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace – to go along with a steadily increasing number of ethnic minority men and women working in the pit crews for teams all over the circuit.
Uppity’s arrival to Netflix could not have been better for racing aficionados and history buffs. It arrived during February – which is Black History Month – a time where we consciously put the spotlight on some relatively unknown figures, pushing beyond the well-worn tales of civil rights icons and the best-known entertainers. February was also the start of racing season, namely the major circuits such as NASCAR and Formula 1. With the second season of the tremendous Netflix Original series Formula 1: Drive to Survive forthcoming, Uppity is one of several docs on the streamer that can whet the appetites until then. (It’s the second offering from Adam Carolla and Nate Adams’s production company, Chassy Media, that’s on Netflix; they also produced The 24 Hour War.)
You could imagine Willy T. Ribbs, now 65, as someone who would like his roses while he’s still here to smell them. Perhaps that would be on brand or maybe even, well, uppity of him. But what was perceived as arrogance by fans, media and some drivers was really confidence manifested in someone with a skin tone that supposedly didn’t belong. But Ribbs belonged – and he’ll tell you exactly why.
Jason Clinkscales is the editor-in-chief for The Sports Fan Journal and senior editor at Yardbarker whose work has been featured at Awful Announcing, The Week and Dime Magazine. A New York City native, he is also a former media research analyst in both television networks and advertising agencies.
The post ‘Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story’ On Netflix Is A Dynamic Profile Of An Auto Racing Trailblazer appeared first on Decider.