F1 pioneer Willy T. Ribbs on the sport's Texas roots and explosive growth

'Formula 1 is blowing up like the Goodyear Blimp.'

Photo of Dan Carson
SEBRING, FLORIDA - MARCH 18, 1988: Willy T. Ribbs sits in the cockpit of his Toyota GTO race car at the Sebring International Raceway, in Sebring, Florida on March 18, 1988. (Photo by Rick Dole/Getty Images)

SEBRING, FLORIDA - MARCH 18, 1988: Willy T. Ribbs sits in the cockpit of his Toyota GTO race car at the Sebring International Raceway, in Sebring, Florida on March 18, 1988. (Photo by Rick Dole/Getty Images)

Rick Dole/Getty Images

Willy T. Ribbs remembers when Formula 1's presence in America was little more than a dirt lot outside of Austin.

The 67-year-old racing icon from Dripping Springs, Texas, is wearing an F1 flat brim as he speaks fondly about the time he first visited what would become the Circuit of the Americas track. COTA, as it's known, was still under construction at the time, and Ribbs recalls being driven by a worker up a steep, looming mountain of red earth that would later be carved into the tracks that make up its now-famous "Big Red" Turn 1.

"All you could see was planes, Caterpillars and blades," Ribbs says. "Now look what it’s turned out to be. It's something the state of Texas can be very proud of."

Ribbs will return to COTA this weekend as a Formula 1 Diversity and Inclusion representative, offering interviews and mixing with attendees. A former Formula Ford champion, Ribbs blazed a trail through motorsport during the 1970s, '80s and '90s, as he became the first Black wheel man to test drive a Formula 1 car, as well as the first to qualify and race in the Indianapolis 500.

INDIANAPOLIS - May 28: Former race car driver Willy T. Ribbs poses for photos during the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana on May 28, 2016. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS - May 28: Former race car driver Willy T. Ribbs poses for photos during the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana on May 28, 2016. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Ribbs' spin with Formula 1 came in 1986, when he piloted a Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham around the Autódromo do Estoril in Portugal. The experience tied him forever to the sport, and he's proud to have played a small part in Formula 1's thriving, if newfound, popularity across the U.S. 

"Formula 1 is blowing up like the Goodyear Blimp," Ribbs says, nodding his head.

Ribbs, like many others, watched the sport's reputation skyrocket following the timely release of Netflix’s "Drive to Survive" at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Newly home-bound Americans hoovered up the documentary series, which was conveniently launching its second season. When the sport returned to Austin in 2021 after a year-long pandemic hiatus, a historic crowd of 400,000 fans poured through the gates at COTA to watch reigning F1 champ Max Verstappen eek out a thrilling, last-gasp victory over a charging Lewis Hamilton. The 2021 U.S. Grand Prix was the most widely attended F1 race ever held, but Ribbs sees that record being broken in short order by the sport's newest addition to the 2023 calendar. 

"Vegas is a big deal," Ribbs says. "Without any hyperbole, this will be the biggest Formula 1 race in history."

Ribbs expects at least 500,000 fans to attend the Las Vegas Grand Prix, which will run along a 3.8-mile circuit on the streets of the desert city next November. The street circuit configuration will be a far cry from the days when Formula 1 racers lapped the world’s fastest cars through a makeshift track in the Caesar's Palace parking lot, a spot Ribbs is familiar with—he won the 1983 SCCA Trans-Am Las Vegas race there.

As for who Ribbs expects to prevail this weekend in Austin, he says he's had his eye on the same driver all year.

"It's got to be Max," Ribbs says, speaking of Verstappen, who sewed up his victory in the 2022's driver’s championship with a casually dominant win in waterlogged conditions at Suzuka, Japan earlier this month. "He's got it. He's very talented, a great driver. And he's got a great leader behind him."

Asked if the leader he's referring to is Red Bull team principle Christian Horner, Ribbs makes an important clarification.

"I think that Adrian Newey is the smartest guy that ever walked into the paddock in Formula One," Ribbs says, praising Red Bull's chief technical officer. "He's just a rocket scientist and he got it figured out first."

Ribbs said he counts Newey as one of many good friends he's excited to reunite with during the grand prix weekend. Another is Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time Formula 1 champion and the sport's only Black driver continues to carry the torch ignited by Ribbs' test drive in Portugal more than three decades ago. Hamilton, a soft-spoken Briton, is in many ways an inverse of Ribbs, whose famous on-track clashes and bravado were catalogued in the 2018 documentary "Uppity."

UNKNOWN â€?” 1984: Drivers (L-R) Tom Gloy, Greg Pickett and Willy T. Ribbs drove Mercury Capris for car owner Jack Roush during the SCCA Trans-AM season. The trio combined for 11 total wins during the year. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

UNKNOWN â€?” 1984: Drivers (L-R) Tom Gloy, Greg Pickett and Willy T. Ribbs drove Mercury Capris for car owner Jack Roush during the SCCA Trans-AM season. The trio combined for 11 total wins during the year. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

RacingOne/ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

Hamilton's meteoric rise as the sport's first Black superstar has not come without incident. Ribbs notes—with disappointment—comments made earlier this year by Nelson Piquet, the Brazilian former world champion who was banned from the F1 paddock in June following the surfacing of racist language he'd employed while discussing Hamilton in 2021. During an interview after that season's British Grand Prix, Piquet used a racist slur while discussing Hamilton's high-speed crash with Verstappen at Silverstone. Piquet later apologized.

"What I said was ill thought out, and I make no defense for it," Piquet said in a statement. "But the term used has widely and historically been used colloquially in Brazilian Portuguese as a synonym for 'guy' or 'person' and was never intended to offend."

Piquet's comments were uniquely troubling to Ribbs, who recalls the Brazilian driver offering him encouragement and advice for handling the circuit ahead of his Portugal test drive in '86. "I've known [Piquet] before Lewis was born," Ribbs says. "I don't know if he meant it maliciously…[Piquet] helped me, but if I was to sit him down, 'Hey, come on. What's going on? You know? You're a smart kid. You know what you went through. You know who we are.'"

“Lewis has been fighting that his whole career," Ribbs says. "I fought it. Yeah, I tried it. Lewis turns the other cheek.”

His history with the sport and his influence among drivers are great assets for Ribbs now operating as an ambassador for the sport. Ribbs is arguably most proud of the the racing league's STEM programs, which provide scholarships and educational materials for young engineers of color. These, Ribbs notes, are steps in the right direction for the majority-white sport as it attempts to foster a more inclusive ecosystem, and are part of the responsibility Formula 1 must take on as it continues to grow and expand to more and more host nations.

"They've gotten so big," Ribbs says. "The biggest issue is how many countries are going to want Formula One. That's the biggest problem? How many countries? It's a good problem to have." 

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