There’s a new driver competing in the Nextel Cup Series. He wasn’t your prototypical “Young Gun.” This gentleman was 45 years old, practically ancient by modern NASCAR standards. However, he has a pretty healthy resume backing up his initial Cup start.
This driver has a degree from Cal-Berkeley in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. Berkeley is a rather lofty institution in the hierarchy of academia, and he was immediately hired after graduation by Hewlett-Packard. After a short stint with them, he decided to chase his dream of becoming a race car driver. His first foray into racing was in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). He was able to capture the Northern California Region Rookie of the Year title in 1985. He followed that up with the GT-3 Regional Road Racing Championship in 1986.
In 1989, he began racing in the IMSA series. He has four starts in the 24 hours of Daytona, and several other starts in the SCCA Trans Am series. His inaugural race in NASCAR was in 1999 at Watkins Glen. He finished 21st in a Busch Series race after running in the Top 10 before having some on track misfortune. He raced in NASCAR again in the 2000 Craftsman Truck Series race in Portland, bringing his truck home in 24th position.
His NASCAR career took off in 2001 when, after 15 years of road racing, he drove five events for Bobby Hamilton Racing in the Truck Series. He then competed in the full series for BHR in 2002 and 2003, with moderate success. He switched to Bill Davis Racing in 2004, and still drives for them in the Truck Series to this day, garnering two top fives, six top tens and three poles so far in his Truck Series career.
The new driver’s name, as if you hadn’t already figured it out, is Bill Lester. Oh, and by the way, he happens to be African-American.
I can’t say that I blame the rest of the mass media for going ga-ga over the fact that Bill was the first person of color to compete in a Cup race in 20 years. It is a shame it has been that long. However, I don’t think Mr. Lester really needed, or appreciated, all of the hype over his skin color. Lester is a driver who has paid his dues. He’s been racing for more than 20 years. He secured a quality education, and had a white-collar job before he decided to pursue his dream. He has taken rides in any number of series to showcase his talents to whoever cared to watch. And he has done it all without ever trying to exploit the fact that he is a minority.
Richard Petty commented over the weekend that he is completely behind Bill in his efforts to establish himself as a full-time Cup competitor. He wasn’t so flattering about his predecessor. Apparently, Willy T. Ribbs was a little different in his approach to his racing than Mr. Lester is. Willy is the last African-American to compete in a Cup race having last competed in a race at Michigan in 1986. According to the King, Willy was a bit more forward about his race. It seems as though Ribbs felt it was his right to be driving a race car, and a quality ride at that, because he was a person of color. Forget about whether or not he had the talent to be in the seat. Richard made the comment that, had it not been for Willy’s attitude, it probably would not have been 20 years before the next African-American raced in the Cup series.
I don’t know how true Mr. Petty’s statements are, but there is no doubt that he is very well known for calling it like it is. I’m glad to see the Bill Lester isn’t from that same mold. Bill is extremely well spoken. He comes across as very humble and genuine. I hope he is able to secure the sponsorship necessary to run full-time in the Cup series next year. Not because it is his right, but because he deserves it for working so hard at establishing his racing career over all these years. In the midst of the “young gun” craze, it is great to see a driver who is beyond his 40th birthday still get a shot at a Cup ride for the first time. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Here’s hoping that, when Bill makes his second and third starts in the Cup series, the stories will be about how a longtime driver has paid his dues and is finally getting a shot, and not about the color of his skin.
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