INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - A quick glance at the starting grid for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 might give the impression that IndyCar has got the message, that diversity is the future, but on closer inspection the absence of African-American drivers shows it still has a long road ahead.
There were plenty of Latin American drivers sprinkled through Sunday’s 33-car field, including Brazilian Helio Castroneves, who was bidding for a record-equalling fourth win.
Japan’s Takuma Sato, the defending 500 champion, waved the flag for Asia while Danica Patrick was the women’s standard bearer in the final race of her career. There has been at least one woman start in every Indy 500 since 2000 and in 2010, 2011 and 2013 there were four.
However, the only African-American drivers to have appeared on the grid in 102 runnings of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” spread over more than a century of racing at the famed Brickyard were Willy T. Ribbs in 1991 and George Mack in 2002.
Ribbs was back at Indianapolis on Saturday for the premier of ‘Uppity’, a biographical movie about his life and his struggles to compete at motorsports highest levels.
“The sport has got to want diversity first of all,” Ribbs told Reuters. “Whether it is IndyCar or NASCAR if you want diversity in your sport you will get it and if you don’t want it you won’t have it.
“When I came in I don’t know if many people were ready for Willy T. Ribbs.
“Some people had a difficult time with that.”
Tennis has the Williams sisters, golf Tiger Woods and Formula One Lewis Hamilton, who have all, with varying degrees of success, opened up their respective sports to minorities.
Data collected from an IndyCar survey found there are 69 million self-declared IndyCar fans worldwide, of which the vast majority (79 percent) are Caucasian and male (66 percent).
While an estimated crowd of 300,000 poured into the Speedway for Sunday’s race only a small percentage appeared to be minorities.
IndyCar said it was developing programs like the ‘Road to Indy’ ladder system to specifically advance the careers of drivers to help further diversity within the sport.
“All are welcome at our events, we are also committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive environment within the sport,” IndyCar chief marketing officer CJ O’Donnell told Reuters.
“Consideration has already been given to defining means of expanding the effectiveness of this program to better reach the African-American community.
“The release of the film “Uppity,” featuring Willy T. Ribbs, provides a platform for further outreach to the African-American community.”
Ribbs said that while it was IndyCar’s job to grow a fan base, sponsors must share the responsibility and had done a poor job, lacking the courage to reach out to new markets.
“The sponsors of this sport, the people who underwrite this sport, if you want the sport to survive you better get diversified because the other sports are,” said Ribbs.
Ribbs’ issue was never a lack of talent but rather a shortage of sponsorship, coupled with what some viewed as an abrasive personality.
As a young man he went to Europe to develop his craft, racing in Formula Ford and eventually graduating to the Indy car feeder series Formula Atlantic.
In 1986 he became the first African-American to test a Formula One car.
He would race in NASCAR and IndyCar but it was sportscars where he eventually found sponsorship and success, winning 17 races.
Ribbs’ dream of racing in the Indy 500 might never have become reality without the financial support of comedian Bill Cosby.
“When I raced for Dan Gurney and Toyota I won but once I got to that glass ceiling if it wasn’t for Bill Cosby’s money I would have never made it in the Indy 500.
“This was the biggest career achievement. Even with all the wins and records I had in other championships being in the Indy 500 was like being in the Super Bowl.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford