One of the most visible drivers in NASCAR’s diversity effort will make another bid to join the Nextel Cup field when it arrives at California Speedway this weekend.
Bill Lester, who this year became the first African American to drive in the sport’s top series in two decades, hopes to qualify again for the Sony HD 500 night race at the Fontana track Sept. 3.
“I’ve always said, the faster the track, the better, and California Speedway is definitely one of the fastest on the circuit,” Lester said. “Plus, I essentially grew up in California, so it makes sense.”
Lester, who was raised in San Jose and Oakland, now drives mainly in NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck series. But his goal is to become a regular in the Cup series, and he’s hoping to prove his mettle to sponsors and race teams with selected runs this year.
He qualified for his first Cup race at Atlanta in March, amid a whirl of publicity. Lester started 19th for Bill Davis Racing and finished 38th in the 43-car field, several laps behind winner Kasey Kahne.
Then in June, Lester again qualified his No. 23 Dodge at Michigan International Speedway, where he started 34th and finished 32nd but on the lead lap. Kahne won that race too.
“I think I can make the transition to full time,” said Lester, who lives in Smyrna, Ga.
“I’m hopeful. I didn’t climb this ladder to stop one rung from the top. I’ve been overwhelmed that so many people have taken the time to reach out to me and tell me that they enjoy me in the sport.”
Although Lester relishes bringing more diversity to NASCAR, he said he doesn’t race merely to break societal barriers.
“We’re all race-car drivers out there competing,” he said. “Once the helmet goes on and you’re suited up and in the car, we’re all the same. Obviously I’m unique in a way, but that’s not my platform.”
Lester, who speaks quickly and to the point, took an unusual route to racing. He earned an electrical engineering degree from California, then spent 16 years working for Hewlett-Packard.
At the same time, he was racing sports cars in the SCCA and elsewhere, and in the late-1990s decided to devote himself full time to racing. He joined NASCAR’s truck series in 2000.
He’s 45 but looks several years younger and contends that his age shouldn’t hold him back.
“I can hold my own against any of the other drivers, as far as fitness is concerned,” he said, adding that he also has the “marketability” that NASCAR teams and sponsors look for in NASCAR drivers today.
“I don’t know if I look my age or not, but I sure don’t act it,” he said.
Ultimately, it’s how he drives that matters. He’s struggling in the truck series this year, where he’s 23rd in the points with no wins or top-five finishes in 15 races.
But Lester says he’s earned a Cup ride.
“I came in through the school of hard knocks and I wasn’t respected when I first came in,” he said. “Now, I think I am definitely respected for my driving skill and talent.”