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Adam Carolla’s ‘Uppity’ celebrates the racer who defied the racists

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When Willy T. Ribbs became the first African American race car driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500, the first to test a Formula One car and the first to win a Trans-Am race (all in the 1980s and 1990s), he got there in spite of overwhelming odds.

Comedian, director and podcaster Adam Carolla is co-director of the powerful and revealing documentary “Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story,” and says the story of how Ribbs confronted racism during an allegedly enlightened era is one that must be told.

“I grew up in the ‘70s in southern California, and if you’d asked me then about racism, I would have said it was something we dealt with a long time ago. I didn’t know it was still going strong in the south,” Carolla said during an interview with The Maine Edge.

After winning six races in England’s Formula Ford series at age 22 in 1977, Ribbs was entered in a NASCAR race the following year by Charlotte Motor Speedway president and race promoter “Humpy” Wheeler.

“That is such a great name,” Carolla said of the promoter’s moniker. “Humpy had a little P.T. Barnum in him, and he was integrating the sport, but he also knew the controversy would sell tickets.”

Carolla likens it to the promoter telling Ribbs: “Willy, come on in, the water is fine,” knowing that so many would be outraged at the prospect of a black driver being involved in a sport with historically white participants.

“He knew it would stir things up and he knew there would be death threats,” Carolla said. “They were still flying the rebel flag at NASCAR and Talledega and other places in the south. I was a little naïve about these pockets of racism still left in this country in those modern times.”

As “Uppity” reveals, Ribbs was undeterred by those death threats, and had been warned to expect them by an athlete who’d confronted the same evil during the previous decade - Muhammad Ali.

“He said ‘You’re going to face some challenges for one reason: You’re in an all-white sport,’” Ribbs recalls in a scene from ‘Uppity.’

Ribbs’s first NASCAR attempt was derailed before he could take his first lap, but he returned in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “If you don’t want me in your sport, then beat me,” Ribbs recalled saying during a contemporary interview filmed for ‘Uppity.’

Ribbs qualified for the Indianapolis 500 in 1991 and again in 1993, but nervous corporate sponsors pulled the plug the following year.

Though Ribbs recognizes the significance of being the athlete who broke the Indy 500 color barrier, he told ESPN’s “The Undefeated” that he has no feeling about it.

“I was trying to do what the other drivers were trying to – win races,” Ribbs said. “The only color barrier I was interested in breaking was the checkered flag.”

“Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story” includes interviews with drivers Wally Dallenback JR., David Hobbs, Dan Gurney, Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone and the late actor and racing enthusiast Paul Newman, among many others.

The film’s interviews with racing legends and participants add valuable context in telling Ribbs’s story, but the interviews with Ribbs himself are the film’s most revealing and compelling.

“Willy loves this movie,” Carolla told me. “He’s become a friend and he loves that his story is being told. He’s all in.”

(“Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story” is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and as an HD download at www.Chassy.com.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2020 09:04

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