INDIANAPOLIS, IN—Over the course of the last century, African-Americans have broken down barriers that once segregated them from various sports, proving their place in athletics should be amongst the best competition offered. Now it's IndyCar's turn to be impacted with the change.
After Rookie Orientation Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday, Willy T. Ribbs Racing announced African American driver Chase Austin will begin his journey to become apart of the IZOD IndyCar Series starting out by racing at the Firestone Freedom 100 Indy Lights race at IMS.
In collaboration with Starting Grid, Inc., Indiana native and founder Chris Miles partnered with Ribbs Racing and Brooks Associates Racing to give Austin the chance to make history in open-wheel racing.
"Starting Grid, Inc. has been involved in the diversification of motorsports for the last 20 years," Miles said. "We've been doing anything we could to really help diversify the motorsports industry by providing some visible identifiers out there to where we can have some young people get inspired and want to be associated with the world of motorsports."
Austin was just the target both racing gurus were looking for. The 21-year-old Eudora, Kansas native began racing when he was a mere six-years-old starting out with go-karts and working his way up to 700-horsepower dirt late-models. By the time he was 15, Austin became the youngest driver to earn a developmental contract in NASCAR, working with the Hendrick Motorsports team.
In 2007, Austin broke down his first racial barrier being the first African-American driver to compete in a Nationwide Series oval-track event with Rusty Wallace Racing. The top moment of his NASCAR career was a sixth-place finish at the Dover International Speedway. Over the past two years, Austin competed with the Camping World Truck Series as well, adding another notch in his belt to his very young, yet experienced racing career.
That's when Ribbs saw the potential and future Austin's career. A series of phone call exchanges trying to convince the young driver to switch over to open-wheel racing came twice, once when Austin was 16 and again when the driver turned 21.
"This wasn't an overnight decision," Ribbs said. "We thought about it for quite a long time and I told Chris, 'Well, who do you have as our rider?' and he said a young man by the name of Chase Austin. I think that is terrific. I think he is going to be someone who will be watched...When I heard he was coming to IndyCar I thought this was the best move for his career and I welcomed him and was honored to be asked."
Surprised to receive such a promising opportunity, Austin said he looked forward to the new start he would get in his break from NASCAR and the chance to one day be apart of the "big leagues". Austin called the switch as a whole "new and refreshing" as he has the opportunity to make strides along with some of the other most promising young drivers the IndyCar Series has to offer.
Ribbs' experience in racing goes back 25 years having reached a milestone as the first African-American to compete in open-whel racing, starting 47 IndyCar races, three NASCAR Winston Cup races and 23 truck races on top of a test for a Formula 1 Grand Prix team.
He still holds the title as the winningest driver of black heritage in history. While Ribbs has been out of racing for 10 years, the former driver views the acquisition of Austin to his team as something that will benefit all the parties involved.
"He's got a lot of road course experience and done a lot of open wheel stuff and I've been more in stock cars," Austin said. "It's just two worlds coming together and I'll be able to learn something from him and take stuff from my background and apply it to this. It'll work out well."
When he steps out onto the track for his first race with Firestone Indy Lights on Friday, May 27, Austin will become apart of only three other black drivers (Ribbs in 1991, 1993, 1994 and George Mack in 2002) to have competed at Indianapolis. While his switch to IndyCar is monumental to his team and the African-American community, the race issue and integration into the sport isn't exactly a top concern of the Kansas-bred driver.
"It's cool doing that but I'm more excited just to race," Austin said. "If it breaks some barriers, cool, but for me as a racer I'm just glad to be here, be able to do this, race new cars all the time and start something new."
The 2011 Firestone Freedom 100 is a 40-lap race set to kick off Miller Lite Carb Day on May 27 at 12:30 p.m. The race falls on a day of fan-focused events including the final Indianapolis 500 practice, the IZOD Indy 500 Pit Stop Challenge and the Carb Day concert featuring Staind with special guest Papa Roach.