Juri Vips spoke a word in a public forum that didn’t belong to him. The full measure of the Estonian’s ignorance was presented while gaming in June of 2022 on Twitch, the popular live streaming platform.
Vips paid a heavy price for using the N-word. Cut by Red Bull, the then-22-year-old lost the energy drink company’s support and his place on its prized Red Bull Junior Team. He also became Public Enemy No. 1 for many on social media and was cancelled in an instant. Vips’ dreams of reaching Formula 1 were forfeited that day on Twitch.
His Hitech Grand Prix Formula 2 team kept him in the car for the rest of the season, but after finishing sixth in the championship as a rookie, falling to 11th in the standings as an embattled sophomore had a devastating effect on his career.
If the absence of Red Bull’s funding wasn’t enough of a blow to his prospects, being deemed a racist ensured Vips was all but untouchable, a toxic character that no team would want associated with its name or aligned with its sponsors. And then Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing entered the conversation.
With no opportunities to advance his career in Europe, Vips turned to America, birthplace of the word that brought his upward trajectory in F1 to an end. His friend Christian Lundgaard, another F2 graduate, was doing big things at RLL, and with an invitation to test for the IndyCar team, Vips demonstrated impressive speed and feedback that piqued the organization’s interest. Another chance to test emerged, and once again, Vips made a strong impression with the Indiana-based squad.
Just as NASCAR’s Kyle Larson found, after his use of the same word while gaming upended his life and stalled his career, time and education helped Vips to put some serious distance between the dumbest day of his life and where he stands now as RLL’s newest IndyCar driver. That time and distance, however, doesn’t change the fact that Vips is bringing a lot of heat — the wrong kind of heat— with him to RLL.
Team co-owner Bobby Rahal doesn’t want to write Vips off, which is exactly why he and Mike Lanigan and David Letterman have embraced Vips, who’s now one year older – he turned 23 earlier this month — and says he’s much wiser than the version of himself who set fire to his future. He’s fortunate to have the backing of those who don’t focus on external input or influences while choosing their drivers.
Speaking to Vips on Monday, I asked who IndyCar fans will meet when he arrives in Portland later this week to drive the No. 30 Honda alongside Lundgaard and RLL stablemate Graham Rahal, and this is what he said.
“After everything happened last year, I asked my team at the time, Hitech, to do some kind of course for me to understand what’s offensive and what’s not because I made this huge mistake without knowing it’s such a big mistake. I thought it was just a swear word that I was saying,” Vips said.
“I wanted to know more about it, first of all, just so nothing like this can ever happen again because I don’t know what else I don’t know. I had a lot of time to reflect on who I disappointed. I had so many fans, so many people cheering for me, so many people that helped me through my career, and I just threw it all away. Because before this, I wasn’t interested in learning about anything. All I cared about was racing.
“That’s why I thought the word that I said was a swear word and not way worse than it actually is. Since then, I’ve learned a lot.”
Acts of remorse and contrition are often needed for transgressors like Vips to be forgiven. But for some of those who cancelled Vips, or who’ve had that word fired at them by people who look like Vips, claiming to be unaware of the word’s etymology and taking sensitivity courses isn’t enough to be freed from societal exile. And for those who don’t care, RLL’s signing of Vips is much ado about nothing, but the team knew it would not be universally embraced.
Fully aware of the backlash that was awaiting Vips’ announcement as its driver for Portland and the season finale in Monterey, RLL turned off the ability for users of X — formerly known as Twitter — to comment on the post. The act itself spoke volumes about the situation RLL knowingly entered into with Vips, and while direct commenting on the team’s post can’t be made, it hasn’t stopped the comments from being posted elsewhere, or the calls from coming in from members of the racing community who are unimpressed by RLL’s decision.
There are plenty of young drivers who are just as talented as Vips, and just as unemployed, who haven’t used that word. As one friend asked, “This is the best guy for the job they could get? What makes them put him higher on the list than the other ones?”
Rahal offered some insights on the same call.
“I spoke to some friends that had worked with Juri, and they were just very unbelievably impressed and supportive of him, with his skills,” he said. “Knowing that, I know that, as I said earlier, also Juri had already gone through diversity training in London with Dr. Lateesha Osbourne.
“I think he knew there was a lot more to do beyond that even, but we felt that certainly all the response we were getting from people who had been with him was very positive. Obviously sad that he made a mistake of this nature, and he paid a huge price for it, I might add. But I was impressed because he set about correcting that and learning from that, and continues to this day.
“So as I said, the opinions I got about him as a driver were extremely high, and he did do that test for us, and we were quite pleased with it at Sebring. So I guess I personally feel, and I think Mike Lanigan, our team, feels, that everybody makes mistakes, and you have to do what you can to repair and learn from those mistakes, but everybody deserves a second chance. I certainly feel strongly about that, so that’s why he is here.”
The giving of a second chance isn’t the most meaningful act by RLL. It’s what Vips does with the second chance — and not just on the race track, but off it — that will shape how he’s received by the IndyCar community and its fans.
His teammate Graham Rahal has some great victories and plenty of personal racing achievements to be proud of, but when it comes to Rahal’s legacy in the sport, all the trips to victory lane pale in comparison to the millions of dollars he and his wife Courtney have raised to help those in need.
If Vips has, as he said on Monday, come to care about more than racing, he’d be wise to consult with Rahal and find ways to prove it, because he’ll be sharing dinners and engineering debriefs over the next two weeks with one of IndyCar’s charitable leaders. If he really cares, his actions — not his words — will determine whether he is given a pass here in the coming months or years.
“I took two sensitivity courses,” Vips said. “One in the U.K., and we decided with Rahal here it’s good to do a refresher course as well. Things might be a little bit different in the U.S., it’s a different company, and that’s definitely helped as well just to get a different perspective on things. I definitely learned more in the RISE Program that I just completed here.
“I feel like I have grown as a person, but yeah, I am really grateful for the second chance, and I completely understand all the outrage. Now that I understand what the word means, it’s completely justifiable, and I am very sorry for everybody that I’ve hurt.”
Vips isn’t a pariah, which is an important distinction to make. And let’s be honest: Vips won’t be the only person in the paddock at Portland who has used that word. As I’ve said for decades, if I want to hear the N-word spoken in IndyCar, I know exactly where to go to witness it leaving the mouths of those who fully understand its meaning and say it with defiant pride.
Talk to some of the Black members of the IndyCar community, the Indy NXT community, or the USF Pro Championships paddock, and they’ll tell you the N-word is well and truly alive across the various places we go to race each season. Some of the things emboldened fans have said, in particular, would make you think we were living in the 1800s, but the racial epithets hurled at our brothers and sisters in open-wheel racing are just as cruel and pervasive in 2023 as they were in the woebegone days.
The sad fact about Vips is on this side of the Atlantic ocean, we didn’t know much about him until last summer when his word choice brought him to our collective attention. Through RLL, starting at Portland, he’s able to open a new chapter in his life, and we know he can drive. But that’s not the concern in question.
It’s also not lost on me that at the same Portland even where Vips will make his American racing debut, the first African American open-wheel champion in most of our lifetimes could be crowned with Myles Rowe in the USF Pro 2000 series in the Force Indy entry funded by Roger Penske’s Race For Equality & Change program. You won’t find a finer example of a young man than Rowe, and he’s pretty damn good at driving race cars, too.
I hope we’re able to say similar things about Vips as a person in the future. Sensitivity training is a great first step, and across the bridge from the IndyCar paddock this weekend, there’s a wonderful opportunity to gain real-world knowledge from a group of willing teachers about the intersection of race and racing at Force Indy. For Vips’ sake, I’m rooting for him to take that walk.