SBJ/April 3 - 9, 2006/One On One

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  • Lester intent on driving a winning car, not history

    The rain couldn’t stop Bill Lester from driving in Atlanta;
    he has two more definite Nextel Cup starts for this season.
    Two days after Bill Lester became just the sixth African-American driver to start a race in the 57-year history of NASCAR’s elite series and the first in 20 years, the media glare surrounding his accomplishment still shone brightly. The Atlanta resident started 19th and finished 38th in the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 20.

    Lester, 45, graduated with an electrical engineering and computer science degree from the University of California at Berkeley and in a previous professional life worked for Hewlett-Packard, but 18 years ago, he left the trappings of a high-paying corporate job to pursue his dream of driving professionally.

    After becoming the first black driver to compete in a NASCAR Busch Series race at Watkins Glen in 1999, he moved in 2002 to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. His goal now is to land a full-time ride in the Nextel Cup Series.

    With support from Houston-based Waste Management, primary sponsor of his Bill Davis Racing truck series entry and for three scheduled Cup races this season, Lester is auditioning for a seat in one of BDR’s Toyota Camrys next season. With the manufacturer entering the Nextel Cup in 2007 and at a time when NASCAR is working hard to drive diversity, Lester could be at the forefront of a stock car racing revolution.

    As SportsBusiness Journal correspondent Kris Johnson discovered during a March 22 phone conversation, Lester is more interested in proving himself as a race car driver, though, than being recognized as a pioneer for social progress.

    Favorite song: “Stay Fly” by Three 6 Mafia
    Personal hero: My two heroes are my father and the late Ayrton Senna, the Formula One driver from Brazil.
    Pet peeve: People on cell phones while they’re driving.
    Favorite vacation spot: The fact is, since I live out of a suitcase, I don’t really like to vacation. I like to be at home [in Atlanta]. That’s pretty much it: I like to be at home.
    Best piece of advice you’ve received: Stay focused and determined.

    You finished 38th at Atlanta and said afterward that you were embarrassed to be in the postrace news conference with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Why did you feel that way?

    Regarding the possibility of minority-owned teams, Lester
    says even high-powered efforts like Roger Staubach and Troy
    Aikman’s Hall of Fame Racing take years to put together.
    LESTER: The attention that I got or that I was getting [then], I didn’t really feel was deserved. The fact is, the winner, Kasey Kahne, and second and third place should have been up there. The attention that I’ve got has been overwhelming. It was embarrassing because I’m not all that particularly proud of a 38th-place finish.

    Having said that, how long do you think it will take for your racing — and not your race — to be the story?

    LESTER: I can’t predict that.

    You’ve got two more definite Cup starts this season, at Michigan and California, right?

    LESTER: That’s correct. We’re working diligently on trying to gain more races throughout the schedule.

    Do you feel like a symbol of social change as someone who is helping to create acceptance in the NASCAR realm?

    LESTER: I’ve been thrust into that position, but that’s nothing that I signed up for. But it’s essentially [something] that goes along with the territory. It’s a responsibility that I understand I now pretty much have to hold, so I accept it.

    Is there pressure on you carrying that banner at all?

    LESTER: There’s no pressure. Nobody can put more pressure on me than the pressure I put on myself.

    Have you ever been confronted with racism directly in the garage or by fans?

    LESTER: Absolutely not.

    NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program is already
    bringing changes, Lester says.
    Let me ask you about NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” program. It seems like they’ve done a lot in a short amount of time. What have you seen as the most tangible gains since that effort started a few years ago?

    LESTER: I’d say probably just the changing of the hue in the garage area with regard to crew members and the like, officials and crew members, and not just from the standpoint of color but as far as gender, too.

    What remains left to do in the short term?

    LESTER: Just continue to change, that’s really what it comes down to. … I mean, Rome’s not built in a day, and it’s going to take a while for the situation to be that we no longer talk about diversity and inclusion. That’s when we know that the program has been successful.

    How much seasoning do you think it would take for somebody coming up the ranks? Would they have to start as a young kid and work their way up?

    LESTER: More than likely. There’s probably a lot of talented race car drivers out there that happen to be of color or a minority that aren’t getting the chance. So, it all remains to be seen. Maybe one of those guys will break through with a sponsorship and come in and take the series by storm. But the bottom line is that there has to be opportunity.

    Shifting over to the ownership side of things, and the story of Julius Erving and Joe Washington trying to launch a Cup team stands out in particular: Why do you think it has been such a struggle for minorities?

    LESTER: [Troy Aikman- and Roger Staubach-led] Hall of Fame Racing took three years or so to do it. They didn’t do it overnight. It took a long time for them and they finally secured the sponsorship. And that’s what it is all about: This sport is driven by money. As long as there isn’t equal opportunity to procure it, and what I mean by that is you have to have a situation where a program that’s non-mainstream has the same opportunity, the same chance of getting that sponsorship than mainstream [groups]. … At this point, that’s not the case. The accessibility hasn’t been the same.

    Would you ever have an interest in ownership?

    LESTER: It’s too early to tell, but more than likely not. People tell me that my career will probably be in front of a camera. … My interest [now] is singularly focused on driving, but I’ve had the experience and exposure of television and I’ve enjoyed that. More than likely I would venture that that’s where my future might go, but it’s entirely too early for me to be talking about that. I haven’t really spent much time thinking about it.

    How do you assess your chances of being in one of Bill Davis Racing’s Toyota Cup cars next year?

    LESTER: Well, I have to demonstrate that I deserve the opportunity. So far, I’ve yet to feel comfortable that I’ve done that. I need to have more opportunities to show my talent, and once that occurs, that’s probably a better time to ask me the question.

    What advantages, if any, do you have as an African-American in attracting new sponsorship dollars?

    LESTER: I would say probably just the uniqueness of being able to appeal to even a broader market than my white counterpart would.

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