ATLANTA -- Bill Lester couldn't stand sitting behind a desk.
He walked away from a six-figure job to pursue his dream of
being a race car driver, not even thinking about the chance to
leave his mark on history.
"I'm a racer," Lester said. "But now I realize that I have a
unique opportunity and responsibility to make a change."
On Friday, Lester will attempt to become the first black driver
in nearly 20 years to qualify for a race in NASCAR's top series.
He's a long shot to make the 43-car field for the Nextel Cup race
at Atlanta Motor Speedway but hopes that his presence will inspire
others to follow.
"There are a lot of black people out there who are closet
NASCAR fans," Lester said. "They feel uncomfortable about coming
to the racetrack because it's hard to identify with anyone there.
I'm in a position to change that."
Willy T. Ribbs was the last black driver to compete in a Cup
race, qualifying for three events in 1986. His best finish was
NASCAR's most successful black driver was Wendell Scott, whose
13-year career spanned 495 races and a landmark victory in 1964. A
few years after he retired, Richard Pryor starred in the movie
"Greased Lightning," largely based on Scott's battle for
acceptance in the white-dominated sport.
Lester, a regular in NASCAR's truck series since 2002, hasn't
been as successful as Scott. He's managed to finish in the top five
twice and been on the pole three times in the truck series but has
yet to make it to the winner's circle. At 45, he's probably too old
to be considered for a regular ride in Nextel Cup.
Still, it's a lot better than his former job as a project
manager at Hewlett-Packard Corp., where he grew bored with making presentations and meeting with board directors.
"At that point of my life, I didn't want to feel like it was a
coulda or woulda situation," Lester recalled. "Grease, gas and
rubber has given me a totally different effect than before."
Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark encouraged Lester to
enter qualifying for this week's Nextel Cup race, not far from the
driver's home in suburban Atlanta.
Clark hasn't given up on the idea of Lester earning a regular
spot on the Nextel Cup circuit.
"He is the kind of guy that represents NASCAR well," Clark
said. "This isn't about a one-time race. He's going to have a
chance to do this six or more times this year and maybe lead into a
full-time opportunity next year."
Anthony Martin, a friend of Ribbs', said it's not enough for a
black driver to compete in Nextel Cup. Pointing to the Williams
sisters in tennis and Tiger Woods in golf, he said the best way to
break through racial stereotypes is to win races.
"It can be a situation where he finishes 25th or 30th and there
is no significance," said Martin, founder and director executive
of Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia.
Lester doesn't worry about the long odds he faces in becoming
the Woods of his sport.
"If I lived the way other people view me, then I wouldn't be
where I am today," Lester said. "If I meet my goals and
expectations, then I've easily exceeded everyone else."
It was initially tough for Lester and his wife, Cheryl, when he
made the career change in 1987. For three years, they got by on
smart investments, savings -- and hope.
Lester struggled through 14 years of searching for a sponsor. In
1999, he finally raced in his first NASCAR event, a Busch Series
event in which he moved into the top 10 before a crash left him
with a 21st-place finish.
In 2002, Lester got his big break -- a regular ride in the truck
series. He finished 17th in the standings his first season and
moved up to 14th the next year. In 2005, he won back-to-back poles
at Kansas and Kentucky, and a pair of fifth-place finishes were the
best of his career.
"I had to overcome all the disappointment, rejection and
slammed doors, then picking myself back up," Lester said. "I
realized that when every door closes, another one opens."
Waste Management signed on as Lester's sponsor, giving him
much-needed financial support and a better chance of producing his
first win. He hopes to race until he's at least 50.
"Bill said once that he doesn't look like the typical NASCAR
driver," said David Steiner, the company's CEO. "But in the
future, there will be many who will look like Bill and many others
with different colors and faces. It'll be just racers."