A few weeks back, I got a new neighbor. Willie T. Ribbs moved into a neighborhood near the Atomic World HQ. I hadn’t seen him since I was thirteen years old and while he said he remembered me, I know he didn’t… He did, however, remember my old man and that’s enough for me.
See, I grew up around famous race car drivers. I was that “annoying kid in the pits” to guys with names like Andretti, Unser, and Foyt. Even so, it was Ribbs that fascinated me the most. I met him shortly after my old man taught me about racism, Martin Luther King, the civil rights era, etc… And so I was very conscious about how he must feel surrounded by white guys and participating in a sport not renowned for acceptance.
I’ll never forget the moment by dad introduced me. Because of all the stories I had heard and the shit I figured he must have gone through, I had this weird sense of pitty (for lack of a better word). But Willie shook my hand and grinned with this knowing confidence that changed all that. He was wearing a hat that just said “Uppity” on it and I remember questioning my dad:
“It means he doesn’t care what anyone might think of him. He’s here to win races, not acceptance.”
Having just got my first Ramones album, I knew exactly what my dad meant by that. And, I loved it. It was my first exposure to punk rock and what started a life long obsession with hip hop music.
Willie T. Ribbs is probably the most recognizable black guy to break through the race barrier in major American racing and I think that’s because he was able to be successful while also being non-apologetic and brash. He couldn’t be ignored or hidden.
Before him, though, was Charlie Wiggins. Charlie was a mechanic in an Indianapolis garage in the 1920’s that got the hankering for a race car. So, he built one and entered the Colored Speedway Association’s “Gold & Glory Sweepstakes” – a brutal and all black 100 mile race held on a dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Between 1926 and 1935, Charlie won the damned thing four times.
The thing is though, Charlie wasn’t really recognized as being an especially talented driver. He didn’t win with talent. He won with preparation. His cars were technically superior because Charlie had an incredible understanding of the physics it took to get a car around a circle track both quickly and efficiently.
And this particular understanding didn’t go unnoticed. In 1934, Bill Cummings hired Wiggins to set up his car for the Indy 500. In order to get him on to gasoline alley, Bill told race officials that Charlie was the team’s janitor. It worked and Bill Cummings won his first Indy 500.
A year later, Charlie was again racing in the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes when on the second lap he was involved in an accident. He ended up losing both his right leg and right eye. As a consequence, Charlie never raced again.
In fact, the rest of Charlie’s life was spent dealing with constant infections and pain. He finally passed away in 1979, but not before he raised all kinds of hell and mentored all kinds of race car drivers. The man that had to be snuck into the 1934 Indy 500, ended his life as the first and most important figure in fighting segregationist policies in American Auto Racing.
In a way, Charlie Wiggins was to Auto Racing what Martin Luther King was to the world. He was a man that most around him tried to limit, but he had a dream – and no one was gonna stop him from striving. To me, that is punk rock at its very essence. And to me, that is what life is all about.