For you old school fans, you remember Willy T Ribbs as the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 1991, exactly 20 years ago today, with Walker Racing and funding from comedian Bill Cosby. Those of you who are newer to the sport may only know Willy T as the straight-speaking analyst on Versus coverage of the Firestone Indy Lights Series. Mr. Ribbs now returns to competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not as a driver, but as a team owner. In a partnership with Starting Grid, Inc., Willy T. Ribbs Racing will enter part-time NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver Chase Austin in the Firestone Freedom 100. Chase tested an Indy Lights car for the first time last week at Chicagoland Speedway and will join his fellow competitors on track tomorrow morning at 9am EDT for the first Firestone Indy Lights practice session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The test in Chicago went incredibly well. It probably went better than expected, being that these cars are so much different from stock cars. However, I adapted very quickly and was able to accomplish the team’s goals for the test. As for competing at Indianapolis and for Willy T. Ribbs Racing, it is a tremendous honor. I have to thank Chris, Willy and American Honda for believing in me and providing this incredible opportunity. This experience has been amazing so far, and I hope it will not end any time soon.” — Chase Austin, Willy T Ribbs Racing
With this entry, Chase is following in his team owner’s example and will become the first African-American driver to compete in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. How important is this in motorsports today? It won’t be, nor should it be, to the competitors around him. Once the helmet is on, your competitors are exactly that, your competitors regardless of who they are. Where Chase’s entry into Firestone Indy Lights is extremely important and valuable is off the track in how it can inspire and encourage others to explore motorsports when they might not have otherwise. INDYCAR is becoming a more and more diverse sport both from the style of driving required racing on road, street, short ovals, and superspeedways, and in the drivers that compete on those circuits. If you want to encourage as many youngsters as possible to become involved in racing, there’s no better way to do it that to have as open, diverse, and competitive of a field as possible. We now see drivers in INDYCAR from six continents, and from a wide variety of backgrounds. This is a great thing!
“As we celebrate the Centennial of the Indianapolis 500, as well as the 20th anniversary of Willy breaking the color barrier at the Speedway, I felt it was imperative that Starting Grid build a program that would honor the past, while establishing the foundation for a strong future in motorsports.” — Starting Grid, Inc. principal Chris Miles
Ribbs and Miles aren’t coming into this cold, they’re partnering with a team with a long history of racing at this level, Brooks Associates Racing. BAR had participated in Atlantics Championship until the series folded in 2008. Now they run part-time in the Firestone Indy Lights series most recently signing Ryan Phinney to drive at the last race in Long Beach. This year, it looks that this partnership is solely for the Firestone Freedom 100, but Ribbs is entertaining the notion of forming a full-time team for 2012.
“My first rodeo at Indy was 1991,” said Ribbs. “It was without a doubt the greatest experience of my 23-year career. Without question, there is no bigger race on the planet; it is the biggest, most prestigious race in the world. To return in a team-owner capacity, even for one event, is an honor and the direction I want to go longterm. I’ve known about Chase for a long time. I could tell from the first time I spoke with him that he was very talented and that he was committed. To be successful in this business, ultimately, you must have commitment. Having Chase a part of INDYCAR is great for the sport and our sponsors, and I’m honored to bring him into the fold. I’m really happy he’s doing it in INDYCAR, which is where he will have an opportunity to succeed.”
Be sure to catch the first Firestone Indy Lights practice tomorrow at 0900 EDT via live timing and scoring at IndyCar.com. The Lights drivers won’t return to the track until Thursday, May 26th in preparation for the Firestone Freedom 100 on Carburetion Day, May 27th. You can follow Chase on his website, http://www.chaseaustin.net/.