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After nearly 14 years away from NASCAR, Camping World Truck Series veteran Bill Lester returned to competition on Saturday (March 20) for the Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Although he started 31st and finished 36th, he was one of the weekend’s biggest stories after revealing just weeks prior that he would be hopping back in a truck for David Gilliland Racing.
Prior to his return, Lester raced for nine years in NASCAR between 1999-2007. He made one NASCAR Xfinity Series start in 1999 and went full-time in Trucks in 2002, driving for Bobby Hamilton, Bill Davis and Billy Ballew over the course of 142 races. His best finishes came at Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2005, where he finished fifth in both events after starting on the pole and in second, respectively.
During the 2006 season, Lester was brought up to NASCAR Cup Series competition by Bill Davis Racing and made two starts. With those appearances, Lester became the first Black driver to make a Cup start since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 and the last Black driver to do so until Bubba Wallace in 2017.
The 60-year-old Lester has an expansive catalog of motorsports experience, including competing in IMSA racing, Rolex Grand-Am and Formula Atlantics, as well as testing cars for Indy Lights. In 2011, Lester and co-driver Jordan Taylor drove to victory in the GT category at Virginia International Raceway, where Lester became the first Black driver to win a Grand-Am event.
Frontstretch caught up with Lester prior to his return at Atlanta and discussed his career, racing at Atlanta and his time across all motorsports, as well as the impact that NASCAR’s support of social justice and Wallace’s activism had on him last year.
The following is an edited version of our interview with Lester; you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube below.
Adam Cheek, Frontstretch: How did this deal with David Gilliland Racing come together for you to come back in their No. 17 truck?
Bill Lester: Well, as it turned out, once I found out that I was going to have an opportunity to come back, I got some partner support. I reached out to a former crew chief of mine that I raced with in 2007 [Doug George] … so he was basically my boots on the ground. And he started pulling a few people’s coattails, and as it turned out, he talked to David Gilliland, and David said, ‘Yeah, I’d be willing to step out of my [No.] 17 truck, if the opportunity’s right.”
And so, after a couple of negotiations, we got to a point where we were both happy.
Cheek: How are you approaching returning to Trucks at Atlanta and prepping for your first race in almost 14 years? Have you done any iRacing, simulator [work], any of that?
Lester: … This past weekend, I got behind the wheel of a simulator called Simcraft … and then as a result of being part of David Gilliland Racing and Ford Performance, I was able to take advantage of being in the Ford simulator last [Wednesday]. So that was very valuable as well.
… Look, after not having driven a truck in 14 years, even though I have great memories and fond memories of what it was like, the platforms have changed, right? I mean, the motors are different now … the bodies appear to have a bit more downforce than they had back when I was driving, so the whole situation is going to be different. I’m not familiar with these guys and girls that I’m going to be racing against and with, so that’s going to be a new experience. But I’d say the biggest thing is just going for broke effectively, right from the drop of the green, right? I mean, back when I was running, you had an opportunity to kind of wind into it, right? I mean you had practice, you had qualifying and then you had the race.
Now, they drop the green rag and you go. … There is no warm up, it’s on kill from the start. So that’s going to be a very different experience, I got an opportunity to meet Hailie Deegan, one of my teammates, yesterday when I was in the shop , and she told me that was one of the biggest adjustments for her it — it’s just right off the drop of the hat, we’re going. And she also was indicating to me that throughout the whole field, everybody is going at it like it’s the last lap. And I’m like, ‘Really?’
I mean, it’s kind of hard to get to the finish line when you have that mentality, so I’m not too sure I’m going to take that approach. My objective is to get there to the black-and-white checkered flag: not to the stage flags, per se, but to the end of the race.
I’m hoping that some experience will rule over that youth and exuberance that’s throughout the rest of the field … I’m wide open in terms of what to expect. I have no preconceived notions. I’ve watched some of the Truck races, needless to say, and it seems to be a whole lot of carnage going on. I mean these kids, they just crunch them up, and they bring more. It seems like everybody’s got an endless budget, it appears. But, in any event, I don’t, so I want to make this a positive experience. I want to be able to get all 200 laps in and come back with a clean truck and see what happens next.
Cheek: Last year, NASCAR took some steps toward further inclusivity with the sport, like banning the Confederate flag, the Cup field standing in solidarity with Bubba [Wallace] at Talladega Superspeedway and Bubba later running the Black Lives Matter scheme within a few weeks of that race. What did all of that mean to you?
Lester: I mean, that was tremendous. I was so glad to see that NASCAR took the position that they did by banning the flag, it was long overdue. I mentioned that the flag made me uncomfortable when I was racing with regularity in the mid-2000s, but that wasn’t the time. The ears were not open, the minds were not open. But with regard to all the things that happened last year, one of the positive things is that people became more receptive to some of the racial injustice and police brutality. And it’s just some of the systemic racism that is in this country, and so NASCAR took note of it as well — it took, obviously, the nudge by Bubba.
And, fortunately, Bubba is racing at the highest level of the sport and had a great platform to stand on. And he used it. So to his credit, I commend him for doing so, and I commend NASCAR for realizing, “Look, if we’re going to be reflective of this country, and be like an American sport, we have to be more reflective of the hue of this country.”
And that means more diversity, and so they made the statement. I’m hoping they’re going to stick to it from the standpoint that they’re going to implement more actions — measurable actions, quantifiable actions — that are going to move the needle in terms of everybody feeling comfortable, being involved in the sport. Because needless to say, traditionally, when the Confederate flag was waving, we didn’t want any part of it as African-Americans, so that was just a huge deterrent.
So with that being lowered and basically banned, now it’s going to be a matter of NASCAR reaching out to more diverse groups and trying to embrace the sport for them so that it’s something that we want to be a part of. I think Bubba doing well, and effectively winning, would go a long way toward moving the needle as well, as far as the African-American community. We’re very big on rallying behind those that are winning, and so it’s going to be a tough challenge for him because he’s in a brand-new team. You know, people are like, “Well, how come Bubba’s not winning yet, he’s got TRD stuff and Joe Gibbs [Racing] stuff and blah, blah,” so on and so forth.
I mean, realistically … come on, it takes a moment for all the parts and pieces and people and everything to gel. It’s a chemistry, it’s a bond, it’s basically knowing what everybody’s going to do before they say they need to do it, that sort of thing. … But I do believe that they do have the right foundation underneath them in terms of JGR and TRD giving them an open book and then utilizing it. I don’t think [23XI Racing co-owners] Denny Hamlin nor Michael Jordan is interested in coming up short, so I think things will come together. But I also believe that Bubba made a huge statement by saying he expects to win two races this year. That’s a huge statement, that’s a lot of confidence, and so I hope that he’s able to back it up. And [as for] all the doubters and the naysayers, I hope he’s able to send them home.
Cheek: What kind of outlook does that give you for further diversity in NASCAR’s future? And how, in your opinion, does more diversity in ownership, like this year with Michael Jordan and Pitbull coming into the sport, open the door and pave the road for more opportunities for drivers and owners as they climb through the ranks of NASCAR?
Lester: Yeah, it’s even more than just drivers and owners, it’s across the gamut [and] just more participation in the sport. I’ve seen a huge change in the complexion of folks on pit road, both male and female, those that are white as well as those of color. I mean, when I was racing in the mid-2000s, there was nobody that looked like me on pit road except for one guy, William Wilson, who was with Jim Smith’s Ultra Motorsports [Dodge] team. But beyond him, there was nobody, and now when I see the pit crews and NASCAR, it’s like, “Wow, this is great.”
Not only racial diversity, but gender diversity. It’s fantastic. I enjoy seeing that, but I think that with Michael Jordan and Pitbull joining the sport, that’s raising eyebrows, that’s creating more exposure and more talk and more buzz, and with that comes more interest.
And so folks, I believe, will tune in. Pitbull, he’s got a lot of energy, he’s out there going crazy just like he is, and that generates a lot of excitement. Michael Jordan is more laid-back, more subdued, but as soon as he starts showing up around the track and they start interviewing him and get on the networks and what have you, bring that forward, then people are gonna start taking interest. So I think that the opportunities in NASCAR to expand are huge. I think that the traditional typical fan has been tapped out, that marketplace has been almost aged out. And so they got to backfill, and I think it’s a great opportunity what NASCAR is doing in terms of reaching a broader cross section of people.
Cheek: Looking at your career as a whole, your first race was in Xfinity in 1999, then you made one start in Trucks in 2000, five in 2001 and then ran your first full season in 2002. What were the biggest things you learned during those one-offs to prepare you for that first full season, and what were the biggest obstacles of getting into racing in terms of competition or with, as you mentioned, the systemic racism in NASCAR?
Lester: So with regard to the one-offs that I was doing to get ready for the full season, the big thing was just understanding NASCAR racing. I had no familiarity with it. I did not come from a dirt oval background, I came from a road-racing sports car background … trail braking, heel toe, all that kind of stuff, as opposed to being in the big, heavy stock car and just turning left. [Just] understanding the dynamics of the vehicle, understanding how NASCAR works … how a NASCAR team works, which is very different than a stock car team, and [also] how the southern culture is.
… The biggest obstacle, quite frankly, is the ability to get the opportunity to go racing. And what I mean by that is just how expensive it is and just how little access to capital, both myself as well as other people of color, have in terms of getting the sponsorship from Corporate America. Most of the decision makers are typically white male … the hard thing is just getting the financial backing to be able to do it, unless you’re just independently wealthy, which I am not. And I don’t have that pedigree last name or anything like that. I wasn’t born in this sport, wasn’t brought up through the sport. You gotta hustle for it. And it’s more than just hustling on the racetrack, it’s hustling to have the opportunity to get to the racetrack.
Cheek: How do you reflect on your time racing in NASCAR, whether in Xfinity, the couple of Cup starts [or] the full-time truck efforts, and then coming back to Atlanta, getting the opportunity to come back this weekend?
Lester: I’ve been very fortunate for somebody who probably should have never made it. I did make it. At a very late stage in life, I became a full-time professional racecar driver at 40 years of age, which is an age at which most racecar drivers are ending their career. They’re starting out in their single-digit years, or at least in their teens. I didn’t start racing until I was in my 20s, and I got the opportunity to race sports cars … won a race with Jordan Taylor in 2011 — the first Black driver to do that. And, again, to now be able to come full circle and come back into NASCAR at 60 years of age, that’s kind of unheard of.
I mean, my whole story is just breaking the mold, I’ve just done everything so atypically. That’s why my memoir, my book, is called “Winning in Reverse.” I did everything the opposite way, effectively, of what a typical racecar driver does. So in reflecting on my story, I feel I’m blessed and feeling very fortunate, I wouldn’t have done anything any differently. I took advantage of every opportunity that was provided to me, and I made the best of it. I carried myself, I think, with the utmost of dignity and respect and just held myself in good regard, [and] esteem: my family, my race. I don’t think I’ve put a wheel wrong in any respect that way.
So I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish … but I always had firm belief in myself, and I’ve always had a passion for the sport. And I’m doing one of the things that I outlined in my book. I’ve identified eight keys to my success, and the most important one is passion. But right up next to that is getting out of your comfort zone, so that’s what I’m gonna be doing this weekend.