- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Bill Lester is a racer. That's who he is, that's how he wants to be known.
But in today's NASCAR, he's not seen as just being a racer. Rather, he's known as the only full-time black driver in one of NASCAR's top series.
Lester's goal? To be judged solely on his racing ability and no more.
"That's definitely my hope," Lester said. "I'd like to be able to talk more about racing, pole positions like I got last year, and things like that. That's definitely what I'm more about. But, I welcome the questions and will respond to the best of my ability."
Lester may see his hope of becoming considered just another driver come to fruition a lot sooner than he expects. He enters the 2004 season in a new role as lead driver in CTS for Bill Davis Racing, as well as being part of Toyota's long-awaited entry into truck racing this season.
"Bill has a couple of years of experience that's been mostly positive," team owner Bill Davis said. "He's sat on the pole, he's led some races, had some real fast trucks, but he just didn't complete the deal. It just made sense for us to put an experienced veteran in to team with an 18-year-old kid like Shelby Howard (who will be Lester's teammate this year). They'll play off each other, and I think Bill will help Shelby get up to speed quicker."
When Lester lost his ride with Bobby Hamilton Racing at the end of last season, his prospects didn't look very bright for 2004. He was worried that his career might hit the skids until an acquaintance of Lester's, who just happened to be a Toyota official, led him to Davis' stable. The deal came together in less than a month, and now Lester finds himself in potentially the best situation of his racing career.
"It was a pretty hectic, anxious winter at first," said Lester, who will drive the No. 22 Toyota Tundra this season. "I didn't let any grass grow under my feet. I was working the phones and trying to be one of the people that got an opportunity to race for Toyota. I knew I'd land on my feet somewhere, but I never thought it really was going to be as good as the situation I've landed in. I'm just so excited about being here. The sky's the limit, and they're going about things really professionally, meticulously and engineering logically.
"There was a lot of persistence, determination and support. NASCAR has been very supportive of the fact that I'm in the series, and they'd like to see me continue. A lot of people were really pulling for me, but nobody was pulling harder than myself, making phone calls, meeting with Toyota and Bill Davis officials, just indicating to them I could do the job and I'm thankful they believed in me and gave me the opportunity.
"I made a lot of phone calls, I got a number of phone calls, the one from Bill Davis is the one that mattered, and here I am."
Lester is coming off his best season yet as a NASCAR competitor, finishing the 2003 campaign in 14th place. In addition, he captured his first career pole (at Charlotte last May) and earned his best single race finish (10th at Kansas last July).
An even greater treat for Lester is he's finally surrounded by resources that match his talent. For too long, Lester has struggled with either sub-par or not enough equipment. Still, he managed with what he was given. And now that he has such expansive resources, technology and support behind him, he can focus solely on his racing rather than worrying about extraneous off-track stuff.
"The real exciting thing for me is that this coming season will be the first time in my NASCAR career that I've driven a new truck," Lester said. "It's really cool, the fact that we have everything at our disposal and now the pressure is on us to perform. That's the way I want it to be."
Although he turns 43 Friday, Lester isn't giving up on his dreams of one day advancing to a full-time ride in Nextel Cup -- and he knows that a strong performance behind the wheel of his Toyota truck this season could go a long way toward giving him notoriety and attention unlike any he's had in the past.
"I guess I'd be lying to you if was to say I wish I wasn't in Cup. I would like to be there sooner rather than later, but you can only go so far as the opportunities that are presented to you. As far as the timeline, I don't have any control over my age. All I can do is the best I can with the situations that are presented to me. I'm very excited to be where I am now. I'm optimistic about the future and that my driving development will be hand in hand with Toyota's racing development and we'll get to Cup together. But I'd like to say before it's all said and done that I raced in Cup and I was successful there."
Toyota might be a new entry in one of NASCAR's top series, but officials from the manufacturer's camp have said that racing in Nextel Cup is a goal -- and that coincides nicely with Lester's own efforts.
"I'm hoping to continue to grow and develop with Toyota. It would seem they have a two- or three-year time frame (to eventually get to Nextel Cup), even though they don't have any firm plans yet. I'm just waiting to see what develops. That's kind of putting the cart before the horse, because we have to see how we do in the Craftsman Truck Series before we can make further plans. But, I'm hoping that everything will work out very fortuitously and I'll be able to grow with them up into a Cup program."
While Toyota will potentially have a steep learning curve against the more established programs from Dodge, Ford and Chevy in the truck series, Lester has seen enough progress during offseason preparations for the 2004 campaign that he feels a Toyota truck can win a CTS race this year -- and he's hoping he's the driver to take the company to victory lane.
"As a new program, we have to figure out what it is we want to achieve this year," Lester said. "Needless to say, everybody wants to win, and we're no different than that. But, we have to be realistic in what it is we can achieve. We think we can win, and I'm very confident we can. It's not how you qualify, it's how you finish. This is really a work in progress."
Equally as important for Lester as becoming successful in a Toyota truck is the feeling that the sport is continuing to move forward and make additional progress in increasing opportunities for minorities as drivers, crew members and team officials.
"The welcome mat is definitely rolled out, and I'm really encouraged about that," Lester said. "I commend NASCAR for their efforts. I think it's going to be a situation where people of color are going to realize that this is a sport where they're welcome, and that's a key thing. I'm also hoping that somebody who is in a position such as myself will be able to help continue to pave the way, so that there's somebody that fans of color can identify with. It's the same kind of example as with Venus and Serena Williams in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf, until there's somebody that minority fans can identify with, they won't come to the events. There's a lot of closet NASCAR fans out there, but until there's somebody like a Bill Lester to root for, they're probably going to continue to be closet fans. I'm hoping to think that as we get more exposure and hopefully race wins and success, that a whole lot more fans will come out to help cheer us on.
"I guess the reality is that the black population is recognizing that this sport needs more people of color, and I'm happy about that. It's not something that I feel any extra pressure about, but it's something I realize is an opportunity and responsibility. I have to be the best race car driver I can be. And, hopefully as a result of my uniqueness, that will open the door and give encouragement to those who want to follow my steps and who want to support me."
Lester is glad to help improve the lot of minorities and their participation within NASCAR's ranks. While he came into the sport first and foremost because he loved racing, he also has gladly accepted the role as one of the leading minority figureheads.
"If you look at it from the standpoint of people considering me a pioneer or role model or trailblazer, that's a term I've been given," Lester said. "I don't want to necessarily consider myself to be a role model in the sense that it's something I'm striving to be. I'm just a race car driver. The fact that people consider me to be a role model is something I'm flattered by, and I just try to carry myself to the best of my ability as a race car driver. Whether people gravitate to that, I think that's terrific.
"I don't shy away from the responsibility. I know I can make an impression on somebody's life, but I'm not out here racing just so I can say I'm a black race car driver and I want everybody to be like me. But the fact that people tend to take an interest in me, I think that's cool."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
With Toyota's backing, Bill Lester has perhaps his best chance to distinguish himself on the race track.