Twenty years after Willy T. Ribbs became the first African-American to compete in the Indianapolis 500, he has formed a Firestone Indy Lights team in order to help another African-American driver achieve his dream. In partnership with Starting Grid, Inc. principal Chris Miles, Ribbs has formed Willy T. Ribbs Racing to campaign 21-year-old Chase Austin in this month's Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"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," Miles said.
Austin will take the wheel of the Willy T. Ribbs Racing/ Starting Grid Inc./Brooks Associates Racing entry in the May 27 race, the premier event on the Firestone Indy Lights schedule. With sponsorship support from American Honda Motor Company, Inc., the car carries No. 75 in homage to Ribbs' car number when driving for comedian Bill Cosby in 1993 and 1994.
With his debut, Austin will be following in the footsteps of the only two African-American drivers to have competed at the Indianapolis oval; his team owner Ribbs (1991, 1993-1994) and George Mack (2002). Lewis Hamilton was the last person of African heritage to compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and is the only driver of African descent to have won there, having claimed the 2007 United States Grand Prix.
By qualifying for the Freedom 100, Austin will be the first African-American to start a Firestone Indy Lights race. A previous attempt to make the FIL field was made in 2003 by Lloyd Mack (younger brother of George), when he qualified but failed to race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Austin underwent a successful rookie test on May 9-10 at Chicagoland Speedway in preparation for the team's first Firestone Indy Lights competition, and feels confident about taking the green flag for 40 laps on the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"The test in Chicago went incredibly well," Austin said. "It probably went better than expected, since 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."
Austin, much like his team owner, is no stranger to setting new benchmarks as he works his way up the racing ladder. Born in Eudora, Kan., he spent his formative years competing in anything from tiny 900lb midgets to intimidating, 700-horsepower dirt late-models. By 15 years of age, Austin was the youngest driver ever to sign a developmental contract in NASCAR, doing so with the Hendrick Motorsports team. He made history again in 2007 with Rusty Wallace Racing, becoming the first black driver to compete in a Nationwide Series oval event; highlighted by a sixth-place finish at Dover International Speedway. Austin has spent the past two seasons competing in the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series.
Ribbs' 23 years of professional auto racing included milestones as the first African-American to compete in open-wheel racing with 47 Indy car starts, and also included three NASCAR Cup races and 23 Truck races, in addition to a test for a Formula 1 team.
"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 capacity, even for one event, is an honor and the direction I want to go long term. 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."