Bill Lester had no itch to scratch or intention of coming back to NASCAR but felt everything fell into place perfectly to do so this weekend and promote his recently released memoir.
“I was content not racing,” Lester said. “Every once in a while, I would go and scratch the competitive itch by indoor or outdoor karting, something like that but never had any real desire to come back on a full-time professional platform like the NASCAR Truck Series. But I just realized this was a great opportunity to help give more legs to my book — thought this was a great scenario.”
Lester is entered in the FR8 Auctions 200 this Saturday afternoon with David Gilliland Racing in the No. 17 Ford. His last start in the series and NASCAR came at Nashville Superspeedway in 2007.
In early February, Winning in Reverse: Defying the Odds and Achieving Dreams – The Bill Lester Story was released. The book, a motivational story with a motorsports backdrop and not an autobiography, was co-authored by Lester and Jonathan Ingram.
“I’ve always kind of wondered in the back of my head what it’s going to be like to get back behind the wheel of a NASCAR vehicle after not being behind the wheel of one for 14 years,” Lester admitted. “Then doing it at 60 years of age. I’m no spring chicken, but I think I keep myself in pretty good shape, and my wife will tell you I don’t act my age; I don’t know if I ever will. But it just seemed, again, that the planets had aligned and with the support that was forthcoming was the perfect opportunity.
“Sometimes I think I must be crazy, but at the same token, I still love racing. I still have a passion for it. If I didn’t have a passion for it, I wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody except myself. I’m proving it to myself that I can still do it and giving some more longevity and boost to my memoir, which I think people can gain a lot from if they take the time to sit down and read it.”
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Racing again is also a way for Lester to practice what he preaches. A fan of motorsports, Lester still watches many different disciplines, and he could have stayed on the couch but wanted to get out of his comfort zone like he tells others. Jumping into a truck again without practice and qualifying at one of the fastest tracks on the circuit is the ultimate way for Lester to get out of his comfort zone.
“I’m extremely excited to have this opportunity,” said Lester. “The amount of attention this has generated has been fairly overwhelming. I thought I would just slip in under the radar and slip back out, but a few people have raised their hand and shown interest in the fact that I want to do this, so with that, I’m here.”
Lester made a pair of Cup Series starts in 2006 with Bill Davis Racing. F.Peirce Williams/Motorsport Images
Here is much different than when Lester last suited up.
Lester was the first black driver to compete in the Xfinity Series, doing so in 1999, and he became the first black driver since Willy T. Ribbs to run a Cup Series race when he made his debut at Atlanta in 2006. Lester made 145 starts across all three national series between 1999 and 2007.
During his career, Lester saw the Confederate flags and was well-aware of the racial divide in the country and the sport. But he knew “ears were not ready to hear” what he had to say, and there wasn’t a platform for Lester to speak up for change. Certainly not like how Darrell Wallace Jr. has been able to do over the last year.
“My concern and trepidation and anxiety were always getting into the racetrack, especially a place like Martinsville with the Truck Series where you park the haulers up on the hill and then you have to walk down to the track,” Lester said. “Man, I can tell you I remember many a time when my pace quickened because I was trying to get to the track as fast as I could because I would see conversation stop and fingers point, and it was clear I was somebody who was on people’s radar.
“But once I was in the garage, I always felt that I was part of the garage area. that I had earned the respect of the garage and fellow competitors knew I deserved to be there, and I could handle myself.”
Lester with Mike Skinner (middle) and Travis Kvapil at Kansas in 2004. “I always felt that I was part of the garage area, that I had earned the respect of the garage and fellow competitors knew I deserved to be there, and I could handle myself.” Lesley Ann Miller/Motorsport Images
To see diversity in the garage and on pit road since he’s been gone and the changes happening within NASCAR just over the last year pleases Lester. He believes it is a foundation for more equality over time, and Lester even sent a note to NASCAR President Steve Phelps last year congratulating and thanking him for being inclusive, particularly around banning the Confederate flag.
“I used to say there are lots of closet Black NASCAR fans or just people of color, but when they realized it wasn’t an inviting environment, they stayed home,” said Lester. “But now since NASCAR really is, I believe, trying to roll out the red carpet (and) I don’t know what all their plans are — I hope they have some tangible plans that they are going to show they are making progress, but I believe that things will change once we’re open as far as the COVID situation and people come back to the track.
“I really believe it will start to change, and I’m optimistic that will be the case.”