May 19, 2005

Today in Automotive History 1991

Today in Automotive History

1991 Racing Against Racism

In a sport not known for embracing diversity, racer Willy T. Ribbs became the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indy 500 on this date in 1991.

Ribbs, a Californian, objects to the obstacles placed in front of African-American racers: "Here we are, moving into a new millennium, and auto racing still looks like 1939 baseball." Ribbs's achievement at Indy is especially remarkable, as the cost of running at Indy normally deters racers who don't have powerful corporate sponsors.

While stock-car racing is more accessible financially, the sport hasn't fared any better in attracting African-American participants. NASCAR officials, however, don't feel the lack of African-American racers is a reflection of racism within the sport. Longtime President Bill France explained his case: "America is what America is today. Anybody can be anything, regardless of your race or your national origin. You can't cast a wand and make everything happen that somebody wants to happen."

In the 50 years of NASCAR history, only six African-American drivers have made it to the Winston Cup, stock car's top category; only Wendell Scott ever won a race. One explanation for the dearth of African-American racers is that car racing is a hereditary sport. Most racers come from racing families.

By that criterion, however, the Scott family could have continued racing. Wendell Scott, using secondhand equipment, set the sport on fire 25 years ago with his fearless attitude and abundant talent. "Had the sport offered more help to the Scotts, others would have been inspired by us in another generation," said Wendell Scott Jr. "They nipped us in the bud."

An example: In 1963, Scott won a race in Jacksonville, and the race officials, fearing a reaction from the crowd, presented the trophy to another driver. They gave Scott the trophy after the crowd had left. Ribbs also believes that corporations are reluctant to offer sponsorship to African-American drivers, because they don't believe these racers will be financially beneficial to their brands. Even the NASCAR team owned by former NFL running-back Joe Washington and former NBA legend Julius Erving cannot guarantee an African-American driver behind the wheel of its car. Washington and Erving started the first wholly minority-owned team since Scott and his sons left competition over 25 years ago. Kathy Thompson, a representative for the team, explained their predicament: "To get into a Winston Cup car is dangerous. I wouldn't want to race against Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon without experience. That's suicide. I wouldn't want that on my conscience, somebody getting out there who wasn't ready."

The fact remains that large African-American communities exist in the regions where NASCAR's fan base is strongest. It wouldn't take much for NASCAR to foster a more openly encouraging attitude toward minorities in racing--and who knows, maybe the sport will be rewarded with a great champion. Baseball came a long way after 1939.

Posted by Quality Weenie at May 19, 2005 08:12 AM