INTERVIEW: “Motorsports in America: Do Black Lives Matter?”

Part One of a Four-Part NNPA Exclusive Feature News Series

NNPA Newswire Service and

Washington, DC — This past Fourth of July, the motorsports world was exploding with action in Austria with Formula One, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made history by hosting INDYCAR and NASCAR, on the same race weekend.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, and the civil unrest that ensued, each racing series has been in the news with regards to their interest to support the abolishment of racial injustices, racism and police brutality by having their respective sport create diversity and inclusion initiatives to welcome a new generation of fans, industry professionals and sponsors.

But the key question remains unanswered.  In the growing economic gains and spheres of public influence of the Motorsports Industry in America, do Black Lives Matter?

The NNPA is the global media partner for the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network (ARDN), an advocacy and marketing partner of the United Nations, and we had an opportunity to interview an African American leader in motorsports, Chris Miles, Global Motorsport Marketing Advisor and Diversity & Inclusion Strategist for ARDN, as well as principal owner of Starting Grid, Inc., to get his opinion on the diversity initiatives happening now in the world of motorsports.

NNPA:  What is Willy T. Ribbs up to these days?

Chris Miles: He’s married, living in Texas and still races actually.

NNPA: What does he race?

Chris Miles: Crazily, Willy is the inaugural 2019 VROC Champion, which stands for Vintage Race of Champions, associated with the Sports Car Vintage Association, also known as SVRA. He competes against many legendary championship drivers from the past like Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser and Bill Elliott.

NNPA: If you don’t mind us asking, how old is Willy Ribbs? 

Chris Miles: 65 years young.

NNPA: So, he has stayed pretty active in the sport?

Chris Miles: No, not so much. The last time he drove competitively was in 2011, when I challenged him to come out of retirement and compete in the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix for our team Willy T. Ribbs Racing to assist our efforts with securing additional funding.

For many years, while retired, Willy traveled with his son Theo to sporting clay tournaments all over the country. Theo, as a junior competitor, was consistently one of the top three shooters in the world.

Theo is now on a professional sporting clay circuit and he is still within the top ten shooters in the world. And quite frankly, I may be short changing his current world ranking.

NNPA: So, what does Willy have to say about all the diversity talk in motorsports?

Chris Miles: Well actually quite a bit.

NNPA: Why is that?

Chris Miles: Willy is in high demand for interviews, at the moment, because everything that is being discussed regarding diversity in motorsports from Formula One, INDYCAR. and especially concerning NASCAR, and the N-word bomb, the confederate flag and racial discrimination — it is all on full display in his documentary film on Netflix called UPPITY: The Willy T. Ribbs Story.

NNPA:  We will absolutely have to check out UPPITY.

Chris Miles: It is a must see. And it is not just a racing movie. It is a movie about perseverance, fighting through overt racial discrimination, overcoming the odds, and standing up for what you believe in. It is an incredibly powerful film, with a few surprises, that was produced by entertainment personality Adam Carolla and Nate Adams.

NNPA: Given your past dealings with Mark Miles, is it safe to say, Willy was also able to see through this smoke screen of a diversity initiative presented by INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

Chris Miles: I cannot directly speak for Willy; but, what is intriguing about the announcement, is its timing.

The “Race for Equality and Change” announcement materialized out of thin air on Saturday, July 4th. It comes on the heels of an article written by Nathan Brown, in the Indianapolis Star, on Wednesday, July 1st, where Willy was quoted, and I’m paraphrasing, Formula One and NASCAR were leading the way with regards to diversity, and INDYCAR was in last place.

Willy’s statement was indeed factual, because INDYCAR is in last place. They have zero persons of color competing in any of their three championship series, and they have not had any persons of color since Starting Grid, Inc. was financially endorsed by American Honda for four years which ended in 2014 when Willy, Chase Austin, Axcil Jefferies (from Zimbabwe) and myself were involved.

Formula One has Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain, a six-time World Champion with 84 wins, 88 pole positions and 151 podium finishes, is the first and only Black driver to ever compete in Formula One’s history, while NASCAR has hitched its wagon to Darrell Wallace, Jr., the only African American competing in any of NASCAR’s three touring series championships.

NNPA: Please clarify. You said Axcil Jefferies is from Zimbabwe?

Chris Miles: I did, and it’s an interesting story.

NNPA: How in the world did you find a race car driver from Africa?

Chris Miles: Back in 2012, Axcil was to make his American racing debut in Indy Lights with famed racing pioneer and Black Athletes Hall of Famer Leonard Miller, who founded Black American Racers Association back in 1972.

As a side note, Leonard has an amazing autobiography out called “Silent Thunder – Breaking Through Cultural, Racial and Class Barriers in Motorsports”. The late, great actor Paul Newman said, “Silent Thunder is an extraordinary book that is refreshingly honest.”

NNPA: Thank you for that, we will have to keep that book in mind.

Chris Miles: For sure, it is a great read. Nevertheless, I reached out to Axcil and his father Suhail welcoming them to the series and letting them know to contact me if they needed anything, as well as let them know we looked forward to competing with him upon his arrival.

Unfortunately, their funding fell through, so they contacted me to see if I had additional funding to support Axcil competing in 2012. Our program was already committed financially. I told them if there was not an opportunity with Leonard in 2013, and if American Honda came back on board my program in 2013 — then I would absolutely consider having Axcil drive for me.

NNPA: That’s amazing.

Chris Miles: Yes, it is! And that is what further frustrates me with this announcement, because I know of drivers all over the globe where if proper funding were in place Starting Grid can have several drivers of African descent competing in INDYCAR’s racing ladder system and other disciplines of motorsports as well.

NNPA: Then why do you believe they made this announcement, and what kind of impact can $1 million dollars actually have?

Chris Miles: Well that is the million-dollar question isn’t it? I’ll just say this, at the end of the day, something is always better than nothing. However, when it comes to diversity motorsport programs that something is always next to nothing.

With that said, one aspect Mark Miles says INDYCAR and IMS are interested in investing, are in minority communities to help reach out to people who normally wouldn’t think about motorsports.

Well by landing in our wheelhouse, they just got their wish, because they have provided us, and us being NNPA and Starting Grid, an opportunity to secure some of that million dollars to leverage NNPA’s urban reach of 20-plus million weekly readership.

That would be a start, but there are so many other opportunities addressed within their announcement that will undoubtedly allow us to collaboratively participate.

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