It’s been two decades since Willy T. Ribbs became the first African-American to qualify and compete in the Indy 500. He was also honored with two Driver of the Year awards and was the first African-American to compete in NASCAR’s Winston Cup series.
At 57, Ribbs’ name is still synonymous with racing in the Black community because there have been few and far between to follow in his footsteps.
Although Walter Thomas III considers himself, “pretty good, but not the best,” the 13-year-old has aspirations to make an even bigger mark on the racing world than Ribbs. And judging by his commitment (his dad Walter Jr. says his son understands opting for the $500 car part over the latest iPod) and talent, he’s well on his way.
Thomas’ young racing career began at 4-years-old when he started racing quarter midgets, followed by three years in junior dragsters. For the past two years, he has raced in bandoleros, where he scored a win in a national qualifier as well as becoming the first African-American to win the Outlaw Track Championship at Indianapolis’ Speedrome. He finished 2011 in a legends car, which he continues to race in today.
For his achievements, NASCAR honored Thomas in March with the Young Racer Award.
“I remember I crashed a car I was drag racing and put it in the garage,” said Thomas Jr. “One day, I couldn’t find Walter. He was sitting behind the wheel of the car playing with the gearshifts. I knew then that we just might having something special on our hands.”
Ribbs met the special achiever for the first time during last year’s Indy 500.
“It was such an honor,” said Thomas III.
Though the two may have little in common when it comes to music or video games, when it comes to racing the “old school” racer has plenty of advice for the “new school” racer.
Thomas: What advice do you have for someone like me?
Ribbs: The most important thing you have to do is race all the time. At your age, you should be racing twice a month, preferably once a week. You should be on oval and road coursing.
Thomas: I practice everyday and race every week at the Indianapolis Speedrome. (He’s completed 15 races so far this season.)
Ribbs: You should also have all the financing you can get. You have to have the backing to compete and at 13-years-old, Burger King checks aren’t going to get it done.
Money is speed and I don’t care what anybody says. More than any sport on the planet, racing requires the most money.
I will say this, Walter; you’re lucky from the standpoint of your age. You have to be the director in which way you want your career to go? How long do you want to do this?
Thomas: Forever. I would like it to be my career.
Recorder: Walter, do you set goals for yourself each week when you race?
Thomas: I try to improve weekly on what I may have messed up on the previous week. I like to finish in a higher position than I did the week before.
Ribbs: I’ll tell you this: at your stage and age, there is no messing up. You’re too young to call it messing it up. Right now, it’s strictly learning. You’re so young that in three years you won’t be the same guy. If you keep racing, in three years you’ll be so much improved. However, your learning curve is going to be just as much technical knowledge as it is racing knowledge. You have to understand the technical side.
Thomas: Were you racing at my age?
Ribbs: I wasn’t racing at 13. I was racing my buddies in a street car out in the country, but I wasn’t on a racetrack. The fact that you (are already racing) is a great advantage. But, money is No. 1.
Recorder: What about diversity? Racing is still a sport where you see very few African-Americans.
Thomas: Every place I’ve raced I’ve been the tallest and the only African-American. At the end of the day it’s in the back of my mind, but I don’t pay much attention to it. When it comes down to it, there is no Black or white on the racetrack, only who is first and who is last.
Ribbs: That is the bottom line, who is first. I treated people how they treated me. If you were arrogant, I was arrogant. If you were kind, I was kind.
Recorder: Willy, are you surprised that there hasn’t been more diversity in racing?
Ribbs: I am surprised. I’m not surprised to see Walter racing. I want to be surprised to see him still racing in 20 years. That is not a cruel statement; it’s a real statement.
Recorder: Do you have any final advice for Walter?
Ribbs: Study other drivers. I studied Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney and Bobby Unser. I wanted to know why they were as fast was they were. I wanted to know what made them special. There were good drivers, great drivers and great, great drivers. Study that.
Right now, you’re in that learning curve and you want to learn as much as you can. You want to go to the Speedway and watch the drivers run around the track. You want to see where they’re running, why they’re running and how they’re using the throttle. You want to watch every inch of what they’re doing with the car.