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The Unfinished Line

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by Chris Stevenson

Apparently one grand old racing car circuit is moving forward and another is moving backwards. Not surprisingly, it’s the American circuit who’s tires are stuck in reverse. I’ve been remiss on reporting on a black driver in auto racing’s most famous circuit, Formula One (F1) AKA the European Grand Prix. Truth be told I’ve followed F1 for decades, those colorful open wheel cars with the high horsepower engines of exotic vehicles such as Ferrari, BMV, Porsche etc., and the long sharp-turn highway tracks always appealed to me over the long oval and circular redundant tracks of the American auto racing leagues.

Since the ’80’s I’ve seen some of the greatest drivers ever compete in F1; Alan Prost, the late-great-Ayrton Senna,and the best racer ever in my opinion, Michael Shummacher. The F1 season just recently ended last month and the final point standing show a dead heat between 2 of the top 10 drivers; Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) with 98 points, and Felipe Massa (Ferrari) with 97. The pleasent surprise about Hamilton is he is black (Ok black father, white mother for you armchair gene splicers), the 2nd black driver to drive an F1 vehicle and the first to complete a full season of competition. The scary thing about Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton (named after track star Carl Lewis) is this is only his 2nd year year. He just missed winning it all last year by the same margin, setting many rookie records along the way. This year he nailed it with a final lap pass to finish 5th in the Brazilian Grand Prix in San Paulo, this also made him the youngest ever (23) to win an F1 title.

Hamilton’s relationship with F1 began when he was only 10-years-old. The story goes, his idol then was Senna and he met the boss of Senna’s McLaren team Ron Dennis and told him he wanted to drive for him some day (Lewis was already accomplished in go-cart racing) and Dennis replied to young Lewis to see him in 9 years. That kid was a natural, he had so much success in the junior racing circuts, Dennis looked him up.

I’m not implying that there is no racism directed toward Hamilton, the most he’s recieved is from Spanish fans and the root of that has to do with a rivalry with a Spanish ex-teammate. Evidently there hasn’t been any racism from the F1 officials. A huge difference from black drivers in the American circuits, who have a tough time even attracting sponsors the same way black basketball, football, baseball and even soccer players and teams traditionally have.

America’s most famous car racing league; the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is still showing no signs of accepting blacks in any capacity even at this late date. They stick by their racism no matter what the cost. As of now it cost them around $225 million. Understand NASCAR has been saturated with rednecks ever since their days in the Grand National Series (later called Winston Cup, Nextel Cup and now Sprint Cup) back in1949. It’s not that black drivers are completely foriegn to them, back in the early ’60’s there was Wendell Scott and I recall Willey T. Ribbs with Winston Cup and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) before he retired.

In truth only 6 black drivers followed Scott (who retired in ’73), Elias Bowie, Charlie Scott, George Willshire, Randy Bethea, Ribbs and Bill Lester. Of all of them Ribbs has had the longest and the most accomplished career. In ’86 he became the first black to drive a formula one car (from Brabham, Portugal), from ’90-94 he drove open wheel again, this time for CART in a car owned by Bill Cosby. During that period he became the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in ’91, and drove for another CART team in ’94.

Although NASCAR makes claims of reaching out to the black community to encourage black involvement not only with drivers, but also technical crews and administration, recent news show their problems with race are too thorough and start from the top down. What NASCAR has had a hard time with lately is their acceptence of a black female official; 32-year-old Mauricia Grant. From 1/05 to 10/07 Grant was a technical inspector whose responsibility was to certify cars.

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Allegedly she endured 23 incidents of sexual harassment and 34 incidents of race and gender discrimination, being referred to as a “nappy-headed mo” and “Queen Sheba” by co-workers. In other instances male co-workers have exposed themselves in front of her. Talk about NASTYCAR, of course at some point she was fired, of the 17 named in Ms. Grant’s suit only 2 were fired later on. Being a southern-born sports league and one of the last bastions of Confederate influence, NASCAR makes no apologies even in the era of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama.

Ribbs-though heaping praise upon CART-was known to be very critical of NASCAR, pummeling them with names like “Neck Car” and “WWE.” Evidently the circuit’s racism is as cirular and persistent as their tracks. NASCAR doesn’t have to make change as painful as they do, it’s going to come sooner or later. There are legions of black drivers from American cities racing for various local associations, and within some of these can be found the next Wendell Scotts, Willey T. Ribbs, and Lewis Hamiltons.

Chris Stevenson is a columnist for the Buffalo Challenger, contact him at pointblankdta@yahoo.com

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