The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are just getting underway as scheduled after navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back on the regular season, the on-track headlines were dominated by the success of championship favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
The sport has also found itself in the national spotlight due to a variety of off-track stories. It began when Kyle Larson used a racial slur during an iRacing event that led to his abrupt departure from NASCAR. We then saw Bubba Wallace call for the banning of the Confederate Flag, which the sport swiftly took action to do. Shortly after that, a rope fashioned as a noose was found in Wallace's garage, leading the FBI to launch an investigation that determined there was no hate crime committed.
Wallace is the lone black driver in the Cup Series and one of just seven African-American drivers to race at NASCAR's highest level. One of the first drivers to do so was Willy T. Ribbs, who has a diverse racing background. Ribbs is most known for being the first black driver to qualify and race in the Indianapolis 500 as well as test a Formula One car. He also won 17 races in the Trans-Am Series.
CBS Sports caught up with the 65-year-old driver, Ribbs, to discuss social matters in modern-day motorsports. Here are the highlights from that conversation.
CBS Sports: A noose was found in Bubba Wallace's garage earlier this year and the FBI determined that it was not a hate crime. You said that you weren't surprised the noose was discovered, why is that?
Ribbs: "Hell no I wasn't shocked but I wouldn't have said anything about it. If Willy T. Ribbs would have walked in there and that noose would have been hanging there, I would have waited for the person who planted it. I wouldn't have said a damn thing. Whoever planted it was going to get their ass kicked. That's how I've always handled sensitive or controversial situations in my career, the old fashioned way. I'm not gonna call the media. I'm not going to try and get someone fired. No, you're gonna eat your dinner through a straw for a couple of weeks."
CBS Sports: NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag and has shown its support for diversity initiatives. We saw how they backed Bubba Wallace. What else can NASCAR do?
Ribbs: "This is the dilemma the sport is in and if you look at all the major league sports it looks like America. And now the old guard is sort of transitioning out of the sport. When I say old guard that's drivers and fans. The older generation is headed out to pasture. The new millennials now don't want to see a sport that's deep in traditions of segregations for the lack of a better word. The millennials now, they want to see what's hip and what they look like, what the country looks like now and unless the sport moves in that direction and NASCAR is trying to move in that direction and I applaud them for it. They are making an effort. Formula One, they're way ahead of everybody. Formula One has got a driver of color that's probably the greatest driver ever by the name of Lewis Hamilton. Bernie Ecclestone saw that. Bernie said this is great for Formula One, this is great for our sport and Formula One is actively right now pushing the envelope for inclusion. NASCAR is trying to do that and sadly IndyCar where I come from is not really doing much at all. That's the most surprising. IndyCar sort of fell off the wagon and they're not getting anything done. I mean they're making announcements for drivers that they're looking at in go-karts but that's a long ways away if at all."
Willy T. Ribbs says he applauds #NASCAR for its diversity efforts and notes that Formula 1 is way ahead of everyone in terms of inclusion.— Matt Mayer (@MatthewMayerCBS) September 3, 2020
Ribbs, the first African-American to qualify and race in the Indy 500, was very critical of IndyCar, saying the sport is not doing enough. pic.twitter.com/Wv4bRLI39u
CBS Sports: You mentioned Lewis Hamilton as one of the best drivers. What do you make of Bubba Wallace's driving ability?
Ribbs: "For Wallace to be successful, like Hamilton is successful, you have to be on the right team. You have to have the right resources behind you to be a competitor to win or even to be in the top 10 or top 20 you've gotta have it because as Mario Andretti used to say it takes 1,000 components to win and if you've got 999, you're at a disadvantage. Only time will tell whether Wallace can be really successful and that will depend on what team he's with and how much resources he has to work with."
CBS Sports: What do you make of that whole situation with Kyle Larson?
"I gotta tell you this, I am a Kyle Larson supporter...Look the young kids today throw around the n-word and they do it to be hip and actually it's not, in some industries it's part of the industry as far as lyrics are concerned. It's actually starting to phase itself out. I don't think he meant it maliciously, I think he wanted to be cute and hip and it caught him. But I support him, I've made that clear that everybody makes mistakes in life. I've said a lot of things that I don't necessarily regret because it wasn't racially motivated but I have used some language and still do. But it is in reference to cartoon figures or animals, when you call someone a horse's ass, maybe that's just what they are but I don't regret saying it."
"Everybody makes mistakes."— Matt Mayer (@MatthewMayerCBS) September 2, 2020
Willy T. Ribbs, one of the most notable African-American drivers in racing history, says he supports Kyle Larson.
Ribbs said he doesn't believe Larson meant anything malicious when he used a racial slur that led to his abrupt departure from #NASCAR. pic.twitter.com/p98fG9JrCh