Bill Lester was 8 when he fell in love with speed. His father took him to a motor racing competition and there began his love affair with the smell of engine oil, the sound of growling engines and the speed of cars that can go faster than 200 miles per hour.
As he grew up, Lester tested his driving skills on the streets of California, later taking it to the track. But he didn’t break into the motor racing professionally until he was 40 — in a sport where competitors can start as early as 16.
Lester, 50, will be racing on Saturday in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Grand Touring Division of Grand Prix of Miami at the Homestead Miami Speedway.
Grand-Am Auto Racing is a division of NASCAR. Grand Prix of Miami features two types of cars: some that look like sports cars and others that look like showroom cars but are super-charged under the hood. Lester will drive a supped-up Camaro owned by Autohaus Motorsports in Delray Beach in the grand touring event.
He has come a long way.
To pursue his racing passion meant that Lester had to give up a corporate job and pound the pavement to look for sponsors to support him in a sport that costs, on the low end, more than $1 million a year to participate.
The electrical engineer, who lives in Orlando, said he went looking for a niche in motor racing and what he found was a lonely, uphill battle for a man of color who was “not born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”
Bill Kimm, a NASCAR columnist, wrote in a 2008 online column for NASCAR that in the 60 years of NASCAR history, the sport produced only six notable black drivers, including Lester.
“This is a problem for the sport and NASCAR knows it. But the sport is in a tough situation and patience is required for it to be rectified,” Kimm wrote.
“Teams can't just give rides away to help break barriers. The sport costs way too much money and just putting a minority driver behind the wheel doesn't fix the problem — it can potentially set them up for failure. Development is key, which is exactly the route NASCAR has taken.”
A NASCAR program, Driving for Diversity, gears minorities to work in the pit, as well as drive, but still the numbers are low.
Lester broke into racing his way. He quit his project manager job at Hewlett-Packard when he was 37. Three years later, he was driving in NASCAR which is looked upon as a “good ole boy’s club,” he said. That was one reason it is difficult for him to find sponsors, especially black corporations. White corporations, meanwhile, don’t think there is a black following for motor racing, so they don’t believe their sponsorship dollars will get a good return.
Lester said when he arrived at NASCAR truck racing, the fans were almost all white. But, as he continued to race, he saw the stands peppered with people of color. He affectionately refers to them as closet racing fans.
After he was forced to quit NASCAR because of lack of sponsorship in 2007, he said, the stands are reverting to all-white again.
The presence of black drivers in NASCAR dates back to 1955, when Elias Bowie finished 28th in the Grand National race at Bay Meadows Speedway in San Mateo, Calif. Wendell Scott was the first black driver to win a NASCAR Cup series, though that victory was shrouded in controversy.
Lester has had some success. His first race was at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach in 2000 and he gave one of his best showings overall at Daytona in 2009, placing third. His best performance was in the truck racing division. Lester had six top 10 finishes overall in truck racing and two top five finishes.
In 2003, Lester won his first NASCAR pole when he posted the fastest qualifying lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina; he finished 15th.
The owner of his current car, Autohaus Motorsports, has high expectations for Saturday. Theresa Conder, general manager of the team, said the company’s relationship with Lester began a few months ago. Autohaus was attracted to Lester because of his experience as a professional driver but also because he is a minority. He will co-drive the Camaro GT with a white 19-year-old-old electrical engineer, Jordan Taylor, of Apopka.
“We know he would be a perfect complement to Jordan Taylor,” Conder said. “We are also looking for opportunities to develop more minorities and women in the sport, so, yes, that he was a minority was very interesting to us.”
Lester said his driving skills are a gift and not everyone who races has it. He did not attend racing school and drives by instinct, a feeling in his gut.
“There is nothing more fulfilling than race car driving, one of freedom. This is what I was meant to do,” he said. “Even though I have tried other things, nothing gives me the fulfillment and satisfaction than that of driving on the edge of control.”
Carolyn Guniss may be reached at email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Miami Grand Prix
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Homestead Miami Speedway, 1 Speedway, Homestead
TICKETS: Call 866-409-RACE or visit homesteadmiamispeedway.com