In a recent conversation, it came to my attention that my boss was interested in knowing if there are any African-American drivers racing in the Indianapolis 500.
After pondering this for a minute, it occurred to me that there are very few Black motor racing fans in comparison to other spectator sports. Soccer, hockey and auto racing seem to be the step-children of Black American’s interest in sports.
To answer the question, there is some interest among Black drivers towards motor racing. As far as I can remember, back in the 80’s comedian Bill Cosby joined a few other investors in the sponsorship of Willy T. Ribbs. Ribbs was the first Black driver in modern times to make the field at Indianapolis. His best finish was 21st.
As an Indy car racer, Ribbs success was limited and he walked away to find a real job. But, after a 20-year vacation, Ribbs came back to participate in the first Baltimore Grand Prix.
In 2002, George Mack strapped himself into one of these land rockets, but his success was so limited he is no more than a footnote.
I have always viewed IndyCar racing as a sport I should put on a suit to watch. The open wheel cars are equipped with so much technology that an astronaut should be driving.
If I am going to spend an afternoon watching cars running around in circles, I prefer NASCAR. I am aware that NASCAR was born in the bowels of the “Good Ole Boy” mentality, and I am still a fan.
Back in the day, drivers were running moonshine in fast cars to stay a few steps ahead of the law. This led to bragging on the speed of their vehicles, which led to Saturday races. Some entrepreneur came up with the idea to put them on an oval track and charge admission to spectators. Often the first prize was no more than a steak dinner.
In Danville, Va., during the heat of this new form of entertainment, young Wendell Scott was learning at the knee of his mechanic father. Soon he learned how to drive and drive fast. Not wanting to waste his life in the cotton fields, he opted for a stint in the Army. When he returned home, he adopted the cloak of a moonshiner.
He made and delivered his own white lightning. It was necessary to have a fast car and the driving skills to evade the police. He soon realized that he was as good, or better, than the White drivers he had been watching at these Saturday contests.
Through some trickery, he managed to gain entry in one of the races. This was like donning a deer costume and walking through the woods during hunting season. Through perseverance and a lot of skill he managed to carve a niche in this previously all-white sport. He was the Jackie Robinson of what became NASCAR.
In 1952 he acquired a license to compete in what had become a sport of national interest. He had a career of wins and crashes. In 1963 he won the Grand National which at the time was the Super Bowl of Sprint Car Racing. Scott continued to race for another 10 years, often competing in repurposed equipment and retread tires.
After Scott retired, there was quite a lapse until NFL running back Joe Washington and NBA legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving sponsored a team. Although the pair were stars in their respective sports, their effort to put together a winner on the racing circuit bombed.
The latest news comes from former MLB legend Reggie Jackson who is showing interest in sponsorship. I wish him luck, because the sport could really use more diversity.