The image of professional car racing in the West is not a diverse one. In one of the most popular and visible corners of the scene, NASCAR, thousands of competitors have taken the wheel since 1949, but in all that time, there have only been seven Black drivers that have competed in races at the premier level.
One of those racers is Willy T. Ribbs, the focus of 2020 documentary Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story, which details the life of Ribbs and his pursuit of making it as a professional race car driver in a sport that is notoriously white and continues to grapple with issues of racism.
In response to civil unrest against police brutality and racism, NASCAR has only recently banned the Confederate flag from its events and an FBI investigation into a noose that was found in Black driver Bubba Wallace’s stall has just concluded. Professional racing’s relationship to white supremacy is in the spotlight, and Uppity is a perfect examination of all the ways that micro and major aggressions toward Black people in the sport foster a community of fans, competitors, and engineers that is overwhelmingly white.
Piecing together interviews with Ribbs, his brother, other racers, managers, pit crew members, and journalists, Uppity is a fascinating documentary that displays both the intricacies of how professional racing works at its various levels and all the ways that racists try to disrupt progression for Ribbs — and, though unspoken for, any other person who isn’t a white male that wants to compete in one of the most popular sports in the world.
Racism seeps through every corner of Ribbs’ professional life story, which is one of determination, tenacity, outstanding talent, and the mountain of hate that Ribbs had to continuously push through to make his mark in the history of racing.
That racism is present right in the documentary’s title, Uppity. It’s an adjective that racists employ to imply that a Black person is stepping above where they “belong,” a place of docility and subservience. But it’s even worse than that, because the title is just a partial reference to the phrase that racists openly used to refer to Ribbs during his career: “uppity N-word.” It’s baldly hateful, but Ribbs said he loved it. That hate fueled him to succeed despite the barriers that were placed in front of him again and again.
Despite early signs of his talent, he had trouble finding sponsors, which are a necessary requirement to compete at the top levels, because of how much it costs just to race. Cars and their parts cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and without a sponsor willing to put that money into a racer, they simply can’t compete. Even when people saw his talent and gave Ribbs a chance, he was routinely met with problems that his fellow white drivers didn’t have to deal with, whether it was being fined or suspended for actions that white drivers never saw repercussions for, or bigoted engineers who actively sabotaged his cars.
The ways he kept pushing through the bullshit in this sport is both inspiring and infuriating.
At a pivotal moment in his career, Ribbs was set to compete in the 1985 Indianapolis 500, a legendary 500-mile race where drivers maintain speeds above 200 miles per hour and engineers have to maintain proper airflow over cars or else they can easily flip and tumble into deadly crashes. Uppity lays out the danger of these races and we learn that Ribbs’ crew chief, who wouldn’t speak to Ribbs, intentionally installed the windscreen (similar to a short windshield on a standard car) too low, meaning that when Ribbs took a corner in the car, his head would get rocked by 200 mile-per-hour winds. Ribbs knew the danger that could put him in and pulled himself out of the race. The press and public at the time labeled him as a chicken.
The barriers Ribbs overcame not only were attempts to take him out of racing, they were attempts at his life. To see him talk about these events and to see the ways that he faced them, the ways he kept pushing through the bullshit in this sport is both inspiring and infuriating. Infuriating that these realities kept and continue to keep people out of spaces, but inspiring that Ribbs managed to fulfill his dreams in spite of it all.
There aren’t really any references to the modern era of professional racing except for flashes of footage of Confederate flags at events — hate symbols for people who are pro-slavery, pro-segregation, or just plain racist. It’s a nod to the fact that these barriers are still real and the community around professional racing, specifically in the U.S., still has strong connections to white supremacy. Ribbs fulfilled his dream but so many other racers never got the chance because of racists.