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Formula 1

Hamilton ‘in same mould’ as Ali, says Willy T. Ribbs

by Jack Benyon
4 min read

Willy T. Ribbs, star of the documentary Uppity, has drawn comparisons between Lewis Hamilton and boxer Muhammad Ali in the fight against racial injustice, saying both have “stood for right”.

Boxer Ali – who changed his name after converting to the popular Nation of Islam movement in the 1960s, saying Cassius Clay was a “slave name” – rose to become one of the most famous sportsmen in history.

He is also remembered for his philanthropy and for his vocal part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s as part of his affiliation with the Nation of Islam.

Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis in May, Hamilton has become more vocal about justice for minorities, attending a ‘black lives matter’ protest in London as well as using his social media accounts to call for an end to racism.

Ribbs won multiple Trans-Am championships in the 1980s, and qualified for the Indianapolis 500 in 1991. The African American driver rose to prominence recently after his life and career were turned into a documentary featured on Netflix called Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story.

He says that Hamilton and the drivers who are supporting him should be “proud”, and will be “remembered, for being great human beings” after many of the current grid kneeled before last weekend’s race in Austria and wore ‘end racism’ t-shirts.

“If you look at history, Muhammad Ali was the greatest sportsman ever,” Ribbs told The Race in an exclusive interview.

“Yes, globally, there was no one bigger and there probably will be no one ever as big as Muhammad Ali.

“Lewis Hamilton and Ali, always stood for right, what is right.

“If you are going to be a global image, if you’re going to be an image that people respect and admire, you have a duty to project and stand up for what’s right.

“And, and a lot of athletes in America, they don’t do it because there’s scared. They’re scared of losing their commercial value, of being boycotted or being vilified.

“Ali wasn’t afraid. Well, Lewis is in that same mould.

“You stand up for what’s right and the other young drivers in Formula 1, I’m proud of those boys, because they’re following Lewis’s lead and they’re doing what’s right and all of them.

“In the end will all be remembered. Not just for their racing prowess. They’ll be remembered for being great human beings.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

Off the back of Hamilton’s campaigning, Mercedes has switched to a black livery for its F1 challenger this year, while Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas are wearing black race suits instead of their traditional white.

Ribbs said Mercedes should be proud of “taking a stand” and being in a “position of right” for backing Hamilton in his quest for equality and more diversity in Formula 1.

The championship itself has launched a new initiative, which the FIA and Liberty Media CEO Chase Carey have each invested heavily in, but Ribbs reckons the series must do even more to raise more funds, and become more accessible to all drivers, not just those from a minority background.

“They’re gonna have to take it and do it right,” added Ribbs. “For the best interest of the sport, not just people of color and minorities.

“But for the interests of the sport, overall, because the young kids that are coming along today, the millennials for the lack of a better word, they’ll shut you off because there’s a lot of activities they can be involved in. And if they don’t think there’s an opportunity for them, they’ll shut you off.

“And then the sport will fade away. It’s what I’ve said to the American racing series here in this country.”

Ribbs came close to creating a path to Formula 1, testing a Brabham in the 1986 pre-season. The team, then owned by Bernie Ecclestone, elected not to sign him for the season, with Ribbs claiming that the team’s sponsors may have been behind the decision to pass on his services.

Ecclestone – who later went on to own and run F1 before selling to Liberty Media recently in 2016 – was criticised by F1 and particularly Lewis Hamilton for recent comments made on race.

“I love uncle Bernie first of all, and I always stand by him, because he has always been supportive of me and my career that I will stand firm on,” said Ribbs.

“Now, he made a, a sort of, an error in in his description. And I wish I would have talked with him before he said anything.

“But what he said was a lot of blacks are more racist than whites, right?

“What I would have told him to say, which is the right description, is that racism creates hate-ism.

“Black people are not going to be racist just to be racist. They will react to racism, with hate-ism.

“That’s what I would have said to my uncle Bernie. Which is true – if someone’s racist against you, you’re not gonna like it. You’re gonna hate them. That is that is the proper description and I would have liked to have talked with him before he said anything.”

Ribbs’s story could soon become a TV series, with creator of hit Showtime programme Billions – starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti – Brian Koppelman deciding to make the story into a regular show, having been impressed by the Uppity documentary.

It is set to feature a blend of fiction and non-fiction, although Ribbs’s story is the main plotline.

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