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Archive for Friday, February 14, 2003

Uneasy rider

NASCAR’s black driver a contrast among sport’s gang of good ol’ boys

February 14, 2003

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— Bill Lester remembers the first time he stepped foot on NASCAR soil in 1994 at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama. He felt uneasy immediately as he walked up the grandstands to meet a potential sponsor.

Confederate flags were flying proudly in the infield. Music was reverberating with a Southern twang. Unforgiving faces made extended eye contact. There was finger-pointing and whispers.

Lester knew why he was attracting so much attention. He was black.

The rest of the crowd -- about 100,000 or so -- was white.

"It was the land that time forgot," Lester said, nine years after taking that walk to a corporate suite, where social acceptance didn't depend on a man's color.

Today, Lester still wades his way through the NASCAR crowd, taking steps that have greater social relevance. He is the only African-American driver competing in NASCAR's three-headed empire of Craftsman, Busch and Winston Cup series.

While some Confederate flags still fly in the Daytona Beach Speedway this week during the sport's coming-out party for the 2003 season, Lester now finds the industry is making unprecedented strides to allow blacks and other minorities to become a more visible race in the world of speed.

A NASCAR Diversity Council has been established to address those concerns. Dodge is helping pay for Lester's sponsorship in the truck series as part of its diversity program. And those faces in the stands now reflect more than one cross-section of America's culture.

"If I can be a catalyst for change, that's just a feather in my cap," Lester said. "That's not my mission, but I definitely realize it's an opportunity for me, and I want to take advantage of it."

Despite gains in recent years, NASCAR still dangles an asterisk in its portfolio when it comes to race. Only six black drivers have competed on the Winston Cup circuit.

The legacy includes a shameful twist: When Wendell Scott won a 200-mile race on a Jacksonville short track in December 1963, his trophy was awarded to Buck Baker, a white driver. NASCAR officials feared that the predominantly white crowd would riot if Scott received the winner's trophy. The flagman didn't drop the checkered flag until Baker raced by.

"The promoters and NASCAR officials didn't want me out there kissing any beauty queens or accepting any awards," Scott would say years later.

A month after the fact, NASCAR officials finally named Scott the winner. He received a wooden trophy with no nameplate. Nobody was left in the grandstands.

Nearly 40 years later, the struggle continues. Thee Dixon, running an independent Mansion Motorsports operation, dropped out last year because of lack of funding. Orlando Magic executive Julius Erving, and former NFL running back Joe Washington invested in ownership of a Busch Series team in 1997 but folded after two years.

Willy T. Ribbs, who first competed in three NASCAR Winston Cup races for DiGard Racing in 1986, drove for the Bobby Hamilton Racing team in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2001. He was replaced by Lester.

There are mitigating factors that help account for the disparity: the prohibitive cost of putting together a competitive Winston Cup race team, estimated between $8 million and $15 million; a gravitation of African-Americans toward more traditional sports; and the blase attitude of NASCAR and its Deep South roots to assume minorities were an unreachable audience.

But a significant shift began in 2000, with the formation of The Diversity Council, a 36-member group that encompasses drivers (including Lester and Jeff Gordon), team owners, corporate sponsors, etc.

"How do we go about telling the message to everybody, from children to adults to every race to every walk of life that we're open for business?" NASCAR President Mike Helton said. "If the awareness isn't there, then we need to make it there."

The outreach extended to Bethune-Cookman College on Monday, when Lester joined a group of NASCAR officials as part of the company's NASCAR College Tour. As part of a joint effort with Coca-Cola, NASCAR wants to build awareness in minority schools throughout the country about job opportunities that don't necessarily involve driving a stock car at 180 mph.

The sport has made big gains in reaching a more diverse audience. Since 1999, NASCAR's fan base has increased by 23 percent in the Hispanic market and 29 percent among African-Americans.

"We have seen the sport go mainstream more and more," said Dora Taylor, a Cuban-American from Hialeah who stepped into the role as NASCAR's newly created senior manager of diversity affairs in January 2002.

As strategic issues are plotted in boardrooms, Lester embraces the most visible role in the minority-to-mainstream push.

After celebrating his 32nd birthday Feb. 6, Lester is beginning his second full-ride season as a driver for Hamilton in the Craftsman Truck Series, which stages its opening event of the 2003 season Friday. Lester will start eighth.

In 22 starts last season, Lester's best finish was 11th place at Fort Worth, Texas. The learning curve is typical for a guy who began his career as a road racer in 1985, winning the Sports Car Club of America Series Northern California Region rookie-of-the-year title the following year.

Lester approached "corporate America" in 1989 trying to get sponsorship but couldn't get the financial backing to rev up his career.

"I guess I didn't have the relationships, and I guess the timing wasn't right for someone like myself to get to the upper echelon of motor sports," Lester said.

Now, 14 years later, Lester he walks through the garages as a symbol of what NASCAR's future could be.

"I'll be happy when I'm not the only one in the room," Lester said. "But I know it's going to take time, and I'm hoping it's sooner rather than later."

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