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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

A Missing Piece: Why African-Americans are poorly represented in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”

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Growing up in Indianapolis, racing has always held a special place in my heart. When the month of May arrived I always knew that I could start hearing the cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway thunder across the “Yard of Bricks.” The smell of the burnt rubber and the gasoline always sparked my imagination of one day being in one of the 33 rocket ships that raced in Speedway every Memorial Day weekend. Growing older the realization arose that my dreams of racing were just that: imagination.

Representation is big for anyone aspiring to be anything in life from lawyer, actor to musician. All of these occupations have a fair share of Blacks in those professions, and even in the athletic realm African-Americans have dominated the avenues of football, basketball, baseball, golf, and even tennis with the Williams sisters. One of the few areas that traditionally lack success from Blacks is auto racing.

Wendell Scott raced in Nascar in the ‘60s and ‘70s amid the civil rights movement and even won a race in 1963 though he struggled to find consistent success in the Southern-based sport. While Indycar has been seen as a more diverse and open racing circuit, the league created barriers over the years in sponsorship funding and opportunities. 

“I believe Indycar wants African-American drivers in their series, but they don’t know the most effective method of doing it,” says third-generation driver Colton Herta. “Being fortunate enough to grow up in a family with racing ties and the funding to race I still saw how expensive and difficult it was sometimes to get things together to race.”

Money issues have squandered the dreams of many African-American hopefuls with the rising costs of a ride. The estimated cost for one car to race just in the Indianapolis 500 is an estimated $1 million. With that steep price tag, most African-Americans are eliminated from self-funding cars to compete in the race.

Just two black drivers have ever piloted an Indycar in the Indianapolis 500 and none since 2002 when George Mack finished in 17th position. Mack who was preceded by Willie T. Ribbs in 1991 raced one full Indycar season before losing his ride due to lack of sponsorship. No Blacks have competed in the 500 since and no rumblings of when the next one will be in the future.

In a 2017 interview, Willie T. Ribbs offered a solution that may help get more African-Americans behind the wheel, but it would have to be a group effort.

“I would advise IndyCar create a program that brought in minority kids almost into a classroom setting and teach them the sport,” Ribbs said at the time. “Then select the most interested ones and put them into a racing team at an early age, like an apprenticeship. Take two or three kids and put them on Penske’s team, two or three with Ganassi, two or three with Andretti. And I’m talking 10 and 12 years old, then at the same time, put them in a go-kart racing, very similar to the way Ron Dennis did with Lewis Hamilton (in Formula 1).”

Will we see a diversity program soon? Personally I hope so, but with the auto-racing business struggling in ticket sales and attendance it seems very far-fetched for the near future. I hope one day to be in victory lane covering a winner at IMS that looks like me.


Contact staff writer Dontre Graves at 317-762-7848. Follow him on twitter: @DontreGraves

Marco Andretti qualifies at IMS for the Grand Prix of Indy.

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