Uppity: The Story of Willy T Ribbs – review

Back in 2008, Lewis Hamilton found himself the subject of racist chants from sections of the crowd in Spain and Bahrain, the British press condemned the actions of ignorant few who had sullied the reputation of Formula One by bringing to the sport something that was more common and, in some ways, acceptable, at football and on football terraces.

Across the pond, a certain Willy T. Ribbs must have broken into an ironic smile on hearing about the much-decorated world champions troubles. He knew just how he felt and some. Willy had a dream and it was a dream he had harboured since he was nine years old. He wanted to be a racing driver.

Willy is the subject of directors Nate Adams and Adam Carolla captivating documentary Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story. Told for the most part by Willy himself with additional commentary from his family, other racing persons, ex-drivers and notable people of the time, Uppity tells the story of Willy becoming the first black man to qualify for the Indy 500.

Willy tells of how his grandfather, whose words and character influenced him greatly, worked hard so as he would not have to depend on others and would always be able to work for himself. He handed his business on to Willy’s father, William. William liked to race cars as a hobby. Willy took it far more seriously than that.

Willy began his career in England, starting with Formula Four. An exceptional driver, he won the championship with six races still left for the season. Unfortunately, to get to the next level he needed money, real money, not the sort of money that could be provided by a few friends and family who, though comfortable, were not rich.

Willy was forced to return to America. It was on his return that he really experienced opposition to his presence in racing due to his colour. This was the late seventies, less than twenties years after the civil rights movement and in the racing world, especially in the Indy 500, there were no black drivers.

Willy tells of meeting Muhammed Ali, who himself suffered in his career due to his Vietnam stance, and was told how his sport was particularly difficult as, unlike basketball, baseball or even his own sport, racing was a white sport.

Most of Willy’s battles to get into racing were almost entirely down to others not wanting him to succeed, as if they felt that him being a talented driver was a slight on them. Even members of his own driving team sabotaged his dream at times.

If truth be told, Willy did not always help himself. A proud man and one who had perhaps grown up with more than many blacks of his era, he had and nor does he display none of the almost innate subservience many black people feel society places on them. He knew he was the best driver around and he was not afraid to tell anyone or show it. This rubbed people, white people, the wrong way.

That being said, there were those who went out of their way to try and help Willy. Paul Newman knew of his talent and offered him assistance. Even as he got into driving, his teammates and team did not appreciate his attitude and desire to win. Willy just wanted to win races. He resented playing second fiddle to a driver in David Hobbs, an established driver, who he felt he was better than.

The next year, Willy was determined to be the lead driver. Unfortunately, an altercation with another teams driver gave his team the excuse they had been looking for to get rid of him. Willy was not unemployed for very long, receiving a call to join another team the very next day.

Willy was very successful and brash in his success, goading those who felt irked by his, to them, getting above his station. Willy was fuelled by this racial hatred. If they wanted him to stop being so brash they would have to beat him on the track.

When Willy got his first chance to try out for the Indy circuit, his opportunity was thwarted by the engineer of the team that had been put together. The engineer refused to talk to him, making it impossible for him to drive on a circuit in an unknown car, at speed of two hundred miles per hour, without almost certainly coming to harm. Willy decided against racing and was pilloried in the press.

These are just some of the challenges Willy faced that are covered in Uppity. The story is told in such a way that even those who have very little knowledge of race driving can understand and appreciate his struggles. At just over one hundred minutes long, Uppity is a strangely compellingly watch, even if the man himself is not especially likeable.

Not that Willy is detestable or even particularly awful, it is just that he still retains the arrogance, confidence, that probably made him such a great driver. Uppity is definitely worth watching even you are not a fan of driving – I am not – and is a fascinating look into a sport and era that few scrutinise.

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