National Native American Heritage Month: Cory Witherill, Racecar Driver

Racecar driver Cory Witherill, who is a member of the Navajo tribe, was born in California in 1971 and has remained a resident of that state. In 2001, he made motorsports history when he became the first full-blooded Native American to compete in the Indianapolis 500 (also known as the Indy 500) annual automobile race.

When John R. Boling (1895-1962) raced in the 1920 running of the Indy 500, he became the first Native American to take part in that event. Boling’s Native American ancestry, however, came from his mother’s side of the family only. Joie Chitwood (1912-1988), whose participation in the 1950 running of the Indy 500 made him the last Native American to compete in that event prior to Witherill’s own participation more than a half-century later, likewise traced his Native American ancestry to only one of his parents. His father was half-Cherokee, half-Irish.  

Witherill’s racing career began in earnest in 1987, when he first participated in high-speed events that involved driving all-terrain vehicles. Witherill eventually established himself as a formidable competitor in off-road races between modified buggies. He won a couple of U.S. championships for off-road stadium racing and, in 2000, set a new record as the first person to be a four-time Super 1600 champion in the annual Canadian motorcycle competition known as Motocross Valvoline de Montreal.

At the Indy 500 in 2001, Witherill — behind the wheel in a G-Force Oldsmobile — finished 19th out of 33 drivers. A few weeks earlier, he had taken time during an interview with the Los Angeles Times to discuss his participation in the Indy 500 and his unique role in that year’s running of the event. “I always wanted to be there and participate in such a historical part of racing history,” Witherill said during that interview. “I don’t feel any pressure from being the only Native American. I have so much support from all the people I have met over the years. My friends and family always give me 100% support.”

Witherill’s other car racing accomplishments included eight podium finishes and one win in the Indy Pro races at Nashville Superspeedway in 2002. Over the years, Witherill has also been extensively involved in various public service activities on behalf of the Native American community. Key examples of these activities have been his motivational speeches to children living in the Navajo Nation, which encompasses sections of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. “I want to serve as a role model for Native American kids,” Witherill explained during that 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “My message to them is simple. They can achieve anything they want, just as I have, if they put their minds to it.”

Photo Credit: lmsproductions (licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

For more information on Cory Witherill, please check out https://www.indycar.com/news/2021/11/11-26-witherill and https://www.definingcultures.com/cory-witherill-native-american/

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