The trailblazers of black motorsport
As Lewis Hamilton comes ever closer to F1 immortality, we thought we'd shine the spotlight on those who paved the way.
What Lewis Hamilton has achieved in a mere 8 seasons with Mercedes is incomprehensible. Sure Mercedes have aced the game known as Formula 1 and turn up with the best machinery Stuttgart has to offer year in, year out, but you still have to drive the damn thing.
Even before his Mercedes stint with his boyhood team McLaren, there had been no other driver to take the eye as much Michael Schumacher at that point. I guarantee if Lewis walked into a mid-tier car in 2007 such as that seasons Renault, he would have still achieved heroic results.
I can honestly say, for as cringe as people find him, his heart is always in the right place. A lot of the criticism tends to be unfair. Such criticism's are not thrown at a lot of our star footballers ...unless they're Paul Pogba by a certain Sky Sports pundit, but that's a whole another topic for another day. It's fair to say the British press sometimes bordering on xenophobic have perceived him to be "above his station". This is often an argument made toward folks of immigrant origins in a lot of European countries, see Raheem Sterling vs. a certain shit piece rag.
Willy T. Ribbs
However, I digress. As I stood up to applaud the level of Hamilton when he put his car 1.2 seconds ahead of his teammate in second place at the Styrian Grand Prix qualifying, I started wondering about who else has come before him. Cue an excellent podcast via the official Formula 1 YouTube channel interviewing Willy T. Ribbs - the first black man to compete on the regular in IndyCar (or CART as it was known back then) and the first African American driver to test a Formula 1 car in the 1980's.
A very interesting fact about Willy is that he made the jump to the UK in the mid-70's perhaps when racism was a little more overt and rife. Despite this, he won the 1976 British Formula Ford championship. Speed was never a question, as you'll discover in the podcast, lack of sponsorships or huge sponsors being unsure about backing a black racing driver meant he had run out of cash by 1977 and had to return to the States.
Clearly the speed and passion were there, but the climate of those times didn't see him capitalise on that talent rather unfortunately. Interestingly, some of the same comments that were levelled at Hamilton, Pogba and Sterling throughout their careers were also levelled at Willy during the 80's and 90's. He was seen as a "hot head", even if that's true, the same is not said of fairly hot headed drivers like Ayrton Senna or Nelson Piquet throughout the same time period.
While Willy did relatively okay with Walker Racing in CART with a few top 10 finishes to his name, he never quite fulfilled the potential or rather was given the opportunity to.
If you think Willy's story is amazing, then I have another extraordinary one for you that perhaps experienced a little less overt hardships while trying to carve a career. I thought we should highlight an inspirational woman and one who should serve as an inspiration to anyone of any sex or background striving to make it in a hugely financially taxing sport. After all, most drivers even from well off or middle class backgrounds have to sacrifice a lot - see Lewis and his father and even Esteban Ocon's family selling their home to support his career.
Cheryl Linn Glass
Back on topic though and introducing you to Cheryl Linn Glass, the woman in the cover photo for this post. When I read her story, I started questioning "WHY HAVE I NOT HEARD ABOUT THIS SOONER?!" and I think that's for a myriad of reasons. Whether latent racism or the unfortunate suffering she endured in the last years of her life, she kind of fizzled out of consciousness. That and not enough people have been made aware of her heroics.
Sure before her there had been de Felipis, Wilson and Lombardi. Coincidentally Desire Wilson won non-championship F1 races, back when a real break away series was a threat during the days of FISA. Cheryl Linn Glass had one more caveat though, she was a black girl growing up in Seattle throughout the backdrop of a 1960's and 1970's America.
Despite the tough circumstances, Cheryl was not one to be deterred. A strong work ethic from 9 years old saw her opening her own doll making business, from which she would generate the wealth that eventually led to her racing career. If you're wondering, she was selling these bespoke dolls for $150 - $300!
It was one day she discovered local kids in a newspaper racing something unfortunately named a 'quarter-midget' car. With the money she made, she set about getting involved and thus her love for motor racing was born. In what could be considered the equivalent of soap box racers or go-karts, she competed in many regional championships and even was named the Rookie of the Year in her first year. Unheard of for a girl, let alone a black girl in the 1970's.
As she progressed throughout the decade and into the early 80's, she was making waves. She even dropped out of college to compete professionally, with a dream of competing at the Indy 500 and becoming a Formula 1 driver. Throughout this time though, her entrepreneurial instincts saw her start a fashion brand (remind you of Lewis? 👀), as the decade progressed and funding was hard to come by, her dreams were never truly realised.
Throughout that time she had made enough of a stir on the West coast as an African American woman competing largely in what is still today a sport dominated by males. This earned her a few drives in Indy Lights, but that didn't come without trials and tribulations. One of her last entries in Indy Lights came in 1990, where she would purchase and enter her own car despite the backlash against her. It was unfortunately to be the end of her racing career that saw much alienation from the American motorsport community.
She eventually pursued her fashion business and in 1991 one of the first tragedies struck. I'm not sure I can put into words the horrific experience she endured without getting angry - so this article by Marshall Pruett probably explains it a lot better.
Having fallen off the radar post her traumatic experience, in 1997 she unfortunately decided to take her own life, jumping a 167ft from the Aurora Bridge in Washington to her death. She in my view should be remembered in the same way Laurie Cunningham is lauded for being the first black player for England. She remains an inspiration and a historical figure who could have inspired further generations.
In my view, F1 and other motorsports series could do a lot more to tell her story. It's great to see drivers like Sophia Flörsch, Tatiana Calderon and Jamie Chadwick making their way in the junior formulas and even as reserve drivers, but someone like Cheryl should serve as an endless inspiration to those deterred by the close minded.
It's great to see the organisation behind Formula 1 listening and trying to open up discussion about race, despite it remaining apolitical for the majority of its existence. We should not expect companies to do more than treat folks fairly wherever they are from or whoever they are. What has been a little disappointing for me is the lack of cohesion amongst the grid while taking a knee, but I also understand the folks who want to keep it apolitical.
What I will say is, something has to be done about the spiralling costs and accessibility to motorsport. People of all backgrounds and sexes should have a shot at making it to the F1 grid. I hope this changes in the coming decade and we aren't just limited to handful of black drivers like Lewis, Cheryl, Willy and NASCAR's Wendell Scott and more recently Bubba Wallace.
This was a bit of a long one, but I've had this topic on my mind for a while. F1 and motorsport as a whole needs to diversify who has access and opportunity. I can only hope the shaky start they've had with unity campaigns improves over the years and opens more doors for more people.
Thanks for reading. 🙏