Lester hopes he inspires more blacks into NASCAR
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 became the first black driver in nearly 20 years to qualify for a race in NASCAR's top series. The 45-year-old made it easily, qualifying 19th overall and the fastest of 15 drivers who tried to drive their way into the race.
"It's overwhelming," said Lester, who raced later Friday night in the truck race. "This is the culmination of a very long dream that I've had to race at the top level of motorsports. I'm hoping to think that this is the beginning, that it will open a few more eyes and get the attention of corporate America.
"This is quite a feat at my age, but I hope I'm still on the rise," added Lester, the first black man to qualify for a Cup race since Willy T. Ribbs ran three events in 1986, the last in June of that year at Michigan International Speedway. His best finish was 29th.
Lester was a long shot to make the 43-car field for the Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but was hoping his presence inspired 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."
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 the 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 Tiger 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."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press