Lester, Bill 1961–
Bill Lester 1961–
Race car driver
In a sport that has traditionally appealed to white athletes and fans, Bill Lester has become one of the most successful African-American drivers of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit. In 1999 he was the first black American to compete in the NASCAR Busch Grand National series. In 2003 Lester was the only African-American race car driver competing in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions and he became only the second African-American driver in history to win the pole position in a major NASCAR series. Lester has been most successful driving in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series, but he hopes to be able to compete in the prestigious Winston Cup series before the end of his career.
William Alexander Lester III, known simply as Bill Lester, was born on February 6, 1961, in Washington, D.C. Soon thereafter his family moved to California and Lester grew up in the San Francisco area. He was raised in an upper-middle class academic family. His father had a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from Catholic University and Lester’s childhood was filled with science, math, and computers. “I can definitely lay credit to my role model being my father, “Lester is quoted as saying on the African Americans in Motor Sports website.” “He’s a very strong man, a very strong African-American, and a very accomplished man at the same time.”
No one could have guessed that a child from an academic background would become a professional race car driver. Lester’s career choice was even more unusual because African Americans are not well represented in the sport of auto racing. Wendell Scott was the first African American to race for NASCAR in 1962 and Willy T. Ribbs was the first African American to qualify for the prestigious Indy 500 race. Bill Lester has since joined the ranks of these African-American racing pioneers.
When Lester was eight years old, his parents took him to the Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, California. From this experience Lester fell in love with the sport of racing. As soon as he got his driver’s license as a teenager he put his passion into practice. Since his parents did not want him racing the streets of San Francisco, they encouraged him to channel his desires
At a Glance…
Born William Alexander Lester III on February 6, 1961, in Washington, DC; married Cheryl Lester; children: William Alexander Lester IV. Education: University of California, Berkeley, BS in electrical engineering and computer science, 1980s.
Career: Hewlett-Packard, software engineer and project manager, 1982-98; professional race car driver, 1998-.
Memberships: NASCAR Diversity Council.
Awards: SCCA Northern California Region Rookie of the Year Award, 1985; SCCA GT-3 Regional Road Racing Championship, 1986; RDC Four-Hour Endurance Race Championship, 1989 and 1991.
Addresses: Home—Atlanta, CA.
into amateur racing. Lester took their advice and attended the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) driving school.
Lester’s family considered racing to be a hobby for their son rather than a career. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He then landed a job as a software development engineer for Hewlett-Packard. Lester worked for the company for 16 years, working his way up to the position of research and development project manager. He continued to pursue amateur racing on the weekends.
In the 1980s Lester competed in amateur races for the SCCA. In 1985 he won the SCCA Northern California Region Rookie of the Year Award and a year later he won the SCCA GT-3 Regional Road Racing Championship. Lester participated in his first professional race in 1989 for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) at the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California. Lester raced in a 650-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro and finished in 12th place. He also joined two other drivers in the Racing Drivers’ Club (RDC) Four-Hour Endurance Race and won in his debut appearance.
In 1990 Lester competed in two more SCCA Trans Am Events at the Portland International Raceway and the Mid-Ohio Race Track. In the latter race he finished highest of any independent driver. In 1991 he repeated his win at the RDC Four-Hour Endurance Race at the Sears Point Raceway. In 1996 Lester competed in four SCCA World Challenge events placing third, fourth, sixth, and 12th, respectively. During most of the 1990s, Lester struggled to hold a full-time professional job and pursue a part-time career in racing. Since he did not have a corporate sponsor, he needed his job at Hewlett-Packard for financial security. However, he was increasingly unhappy juggling the two careers. “When I was at Hewlett-Packard and in the high-tech community, I was just hating life,” Lester told Chris Jenkins of USA Today in April of 2002. “As soon as I left the office, I was thinking about racing.”
In 1998 Lester decided to take a leave of absence from Hewlett-Packard to pursue racing full-time. After 16 years in a corporate job Lester was free to dedicate his time and energy to fulfilling his racing dream. That year Lester participated in the 24 Hours of Daytona race as part of a four-driver team that finished in fifth place. Lester’s driving talents were generating attention from the driving world, but he was still unable to find a sponsor. “There was some resistance from corporate America. Everyone talked about diversity and equality of opportunity, but companies were never ready to commit to me,” Lester explained to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post in May of 2002.
In 1999 Lester repeated his run at the 24 Hours of Daytona and finished in tenth place. Later that year he had a chance meeting with Ed Rensi, the former president and chief executive officer of McDonalds USA and a race car team owner. Rensi invited Lester to drive for Team Rensi Motor sports at a NASCAR Busch Grand National (BGN) race. This was a momentous occasion for Lester. The Busch series is the second tier of NASCAR racing, just behind the prestigious Winston Cup series. Lester became the first African-American driver to compete in a Busch race in the 17-year history of that series. Lester finished 21st in that race.
In 1999 Lester also participated in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) African-American Driver Development Program, which aimed to increase opportunities for African Americans in the racing world. Lester performed well in the test races but was still unable to secure a sponsor. A year later, while racing at the 24 Hours of Daytona, Lester gained the attention of a General Motors representative and earned a personal services contract with the company. In 2000 Lester participated in two endurance races for the Motorola Cup Series. He also drove in his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck race for Team Rensi Motorsports at the Portland International Raceway. Lester finished in 24th place in that race, but he did well enough to get the attention of racecar owner Bobby Hamilton.
In 2001 Lester joined Hamilton’s team, which was supported by Dodge trucks. Racing trucks was a bit of an adjustment for Lester. “Sports car racing is more conservative, with a gentlemanly approach,” Lester explained to J.J. O’Malley of Auto Racing Digest in 2002. “I find the trucks to be no-holds-barred racing.” Lester adapted to the rugged trucks rather quickly. In 2001 he participated in five NASCAR Craftsman Truck races, with his best finish of 18th place. His record improved the following year when he finished 17th in the points rankings and he had eight top-15 finishes.
Lester continued to gradually improve his performances in the truck races. In 2003 he became only the second African American to win a pole position in a major NASCAR series with a qualifying speed of 175.593 miles per hour for the Hardee’s 200 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The first African American to accomplish this feat was Wendell Scott in 1962, nearly 40 years prior to Lester. Lester also had his first top-ten finish in 2003. His racing successes have led him to endorsement deals with Winner International and Strauss Discount Auto. In 2003 he was also the first African-American race car driver and the first NASCAR truck driver to grace the cover of a cereal box when he struck a deal with General Mills for Honey Nut Cheerios.
Lester has become a role model for African Americans in racing. He has been compared to Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams in his efforts to open the door for African Americans and other minorities to participate in a sport that has traditionally excluded minorities, much like golf and tennis had in the past. Auto racing has a strong fan base in the South where it is not unusual for Confederate flags to fly during races. Lester has often been stared at and jeered by fans as the sole African-American racer in NASCAR. He has gotten used to this attention as time has passed and he has not shied away from the pressures of being a role model for the African-American community. “My main objective is to be the best race car driver I can be,” Lester explained to Rick Minter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March of 2002. “But if I am indeed in a position to be a catalyst for change and to open this sport to inclusion of race and color, it’s all the better. I’m happy to fill that role.”
Although Lester’s racing career developed slowly, he still has high hopes to accomplish even more than he already has. Lester would like to compete in the first tier of NASCAR racing, the Winston Cup series, and he hopes that the Craftsman Truck series will be a stepping stone for him. At age 42 it is unclear how much longer Lester will continue driving. He and his wife, Cheryl, just celebrated the arrival of their first child, William Alexander Lester IV, known as Alex, in 2003. Despite the changes in his family and his age, Lester hopes to drive a few more years to achieve his goal of competing in the Winston Cup. He also plans to continue encouraging other African Americans to consider race car driving as a sport through his participation on the NASCAR Diversity Council. As Lester explained to Doug Carlson of the Tampa Tribune in February of 2003, “[Racing] is considered to be America’s sport, but it’s not inclusive of color. It doesn’t reflect the diversity in this country.” Bill Lester is working to change that.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 15, 2002, p. 15D.
Auto Racing Digest, June-July 2002, p. 14.
Boston Herald, July 19, 2002, p. 92.
Brandweek, July 28, 2003, p. 6.
Daytona Beach News Journal, February 11, 2003.
Jet, August 25, 2003, p. 50.
Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2003, p. 8.
Tampa Tribune, February 14, 2003, p. 11.
USA Today, April 4, 2002, p. 11C; July 31, 2003.
Washington Post, May 24, 2002, p. D01.
“Bill Lester,” Ascend Sportmanagement, Inc., www.sportmanagement.com/motorsports/clients/blester.html (September 21, 2003).
“Bill Lester,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (August 18, 2003).
“Bill Lester,” Bobby Hamilton Racing Official Team Website, www.bobbyhamiltonracing.com/blester.htm (September 21, 2003).
“Bill Lester Biography,” African Americans in Motor-Sports, www.aaiml.com%20web2/Web%20pages/Lester%20Biography.htm (September 21, 2003).
“Bill Lester chosen for Indy Lights test as part of CART’s African American Driver Development Program,” Auto Channel, www.theautochannel.com/N/news/date/19991116/news003229.html (September 21, 2003).
“Bill Lester: Driver Profile,” NASCAR, www.nascar.com/drivers/dps/blesterOO/ct/bio.html (September 21, 2003).
“Bill Lester Hoping to Turn Luck Around After Atlanta Motor Speedway Test,” Atlanta Motor Speedway, www.atlantamotorspeedway.com/news/news_flash/355982.html (September 21, 2003).
“Bill Lester No. 8 Strauss Auto Parts,” NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, www.truckseries.com/2003/03rl5-Nashville/0805031ester.htm (September 21, 2003).
Bill Lester Racing, www.billlester.com (September 21, 2003).
“Keep on truckin’” Sports Illustrated, sportsillustrated.cnn.com (September 21, 2003).
“NASCAR’s Bill Lester: A Love for Engineering, A Passion for Driving,” Black Engineer, www.blackengineer.com/artman/publish/article_60.shtml (September 21, 2003).
“NASCAR Driver Bill Lester Featured on Honey Nut Cheerios Package,” General Mills, www.generalmills.com (September 21, 2003).
“NASCAR’s Bill Lester: A Love for Engineering, A Passion for Driving,” That’s Racin, www.thatsracin.com/mld/thatsracin/archives/5871196.htm (September 21, 2003).
—Janet P. Stamatel
"Lester, Bill 1961–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lester-bill-1961
"Lester, Bill 1961–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved January 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lester-bill-1961
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