“I’m looking forward to the time when racing is about racing – not race.”
– Bill Lester
Just Another Good Driver
Under ordinary circumstances, qualifying 19th for a NASCAR Nextel Cup race is hardly newsworthy – and finishing 38th among 43 competitors won’t land a driver on the section front of the sports pages.
But the circumstances of Bill Lester are hardly ordinary.
Lester, the first black driver to make a Cup field in 10 years, went wire-to-wire at Atlanta Motor Speedway March 20 in what amounts to an audition. A regular in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Lester hopes a limited 2006 Cup schedule will be a springboard to a full ride in the sport’s top series.
“It was actually really cool to be out there with the best drivers racing in a stock car,” Lester says. “I don’t really deserve the attention I’m getting. I’m looking forward to the time when racing is about racing – not race.
“But it was really exciting to have the opportunity to live my dream and race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, my hometown track. It has been indescribable. Racing 500 miles with the fuel and tire run was a good experience for me. I was able to bring it home in one piece, and I’m looking forward to running more races.”
Driving a Waste Management-sponsored Dodge for Bill Davis Racing, Lester will also attempt to qualify for the events at Michigan and California, as well as continue his regular schedule in the truck series. More dates could be added to the Cup schedule if his performance warrants it.
“I can only hope,” he says. “I kept my nose clean for the most part. I ran a smart race. I wasn’t out there in contention, but that was the first time I drove a Nextel Cup car. So I hope that everyone keeps that in mind.
“I didn’t get a top 20 like I wanted, but these drivers have been racing for a long time. I got a late start in my career, and I’m trying my best to catch up as quickly as I can.”
The 45-year-old is attempting to break into Cup racing at an age when some drivers are planning to break out. And his career path has been an interesting one.
Lester was born in Washington, D.C, and raised in Atlanta. He earned a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from California-Berkeley in 1984 and parlayed his education into a job with the Hewlett-Packard Company.
While on the job, he raced as a hobby and won the SCCA Series Northern California Region Rookie of the Year title and the SCCA GT-3 Regional Road Racing Championship in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Three years later Lester began racing in the International Motor Sports Association’s GTO Series and several other sports car series in the United States.
By the mid 1990s, Lester had made four starts in the 24 Hours of Daytona and competed several times in the SCCA Trans AM Series.
While serving as project manager for Hewlett-Packard was a solid, well-paying job, Lester wanted racing to be his profession.
After going over the pros and cons with his wife, he decided to concentrate solely on motorsports.
In 1999, Lester got his first taste of NASCAR when he started 24th and finished 21st in a NASCAR Busch Series event at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
He made five starts in the truck series in 2001 and entered the series on a full-time basis a year later.
In 2004 Bill Davis Racing signed Lester to drive Toyota Tundras on the truck circuit, and that led to a foot in the door with Nextel Cup racing.
Lester says his goal in his first Cup race was to gain the respect of the 42 other men on the track.
“There were opportunities for me to take chances that I don’t think would have been worth it,” Lester says. “I got four tires and fuel and could have passed Mark Martin, but chose to stay out of the way. I didn’t want to cause an incident and make the other drivers fearful of racing with me. I want them to feel comfortable around me.
“Some of the most important things I learned out here were the driving characteristics and tactics from the drivers I competed against. That’s information I’m going to carry with me to future races.”
Lester battled handling problems most of the day on the slick surface.
“I had a couple minor scrapes with the wall, wearing off Goodyear on the side of the tires,” he says. “I learned a lot about the surface. It got slicker and slicker as more rubber was put down. The thing that was cool was racing with these guys and learning some tricks of the trade.”
Although a late bloomer, the advent of Toyota into Nextel Cup could open doors even wider for Lester. Although his Waste Management deal is with Dodge, he has a history with Toyota in the truck series.
“The fact of the matter is I want to gain experience in the Nextel Cup series so that I can be considered for a ride,” Lester says. “I’d like nothing more than to drive a Toyota car in Nextel Cup.”
If and when that day comes, Lester says he simply wants to be known as a driver – period.
“I represented myself,” he says. “I’m doing this for my family and myself. I’m glad that the minority community took an interest. However, I’m driving for myself. At the end of the day, if it wasn’t for me, I wouldn’t be here.”
TMC returns to racing
TMC Transportation, the largest privately-held open-freight transportation company in the United States, has returned to the racing world as the presenting sponsor with a motorsports driver development program called Rising Star.
Rising Star Driver Development offers a one-stop, comprehensive training and marketing resource for young, talented drivers.
Michael Annett, a Rising Star driver, will field the TMC black and gold No. 12 Ford Fusion in the 2006 ASA North season. Annett is one of three drivers in the Rising Star program for 2006. In 2007, one lucky driver will receive a full scholarship to enroll in the RSDD program, courtesy of TMC.
Tomorrow’s Car Today
NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” tested in March on the track where it will make its official debut next year and received high marks from both NASCAR and the drivers who participated.
Three NASCAR Nextel Cup Series teams – Richard Childress Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, and Roush Racing – along with NASCAR’s own prototype, tested for more than seven hours at Bristol Motor Speedway, the site where the Car of Tomorrow will run the first of 16 scheduled races for the 2007 season. Previous Car of Tomorrow tests were held at Talladega Superspeedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.
At the March test, Brett Bodine, NASCAR director of cost research, drove the Car of Tomorrow. Cup drivers who participated included Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Reed Sorenson.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, says the test was a great opportunity for the teams to learn and adjust, and at the same time provide important feedback to NASCAR.
“The primary goal for today’s test session was to see how the cars would handle both in single car runs and in traffic,” says Pemberton. “It was a real positive for us, as we were able to get a close look at how the cars would run here, listen to the drivers and their team members, and have a good exchange of information.”
Pemberton says the addition of the rear wing, which would replace the conventional spoiler, is in the “95 percent window of certainty” as being a new feature on the car. The wing is a bolt-on aerodynamic piece that can be adjusted so the car’s handling can be tailored to different tracks. It is just one aspect of the Car of Tomorrow that will allow for reduced costs in the teams’ overall car inventory.
“The general consensus is that the wing is the way to go, and we continue to get positive feedback from it,” says Pemberton. “It’s economical and has become a great option for us in this new design. It should be a real advantage for the teams in helping to control their costs.”
Burton says the Car of Tomorrow will allow a driver’s talents and abilities to become even more prevalent than they are today.
“Even though technology and engineering become bigger and better every year, the great thing about our sport is that you’ve got to have the driver in order to compete, and NASCAR does a great job of seeing to it that technology doesn’t take over,” Burton says. “With the Car of Tomorrow, there’s no doubt in my mind that the driver is really going to come into play.”
As the test progressed, Burton says he became more and more comfortable with the car’s handling and with the wing.
“When we first tested with the wing, we weren’t that comfortable with it, but we made a couple of adjustments, and we became very comfortable with it,” he says. “The great thing about the wing is that you shouldn’t pick up as big of an aero push when you get behind a guy, so when you catch a guy, you might actually be able to pass and go by him.”
NASCAR focused on the car’s balance during the morning portion of the test and spent the afternoon working on the car’s aerodynamic features.
“We made some real significant progress here today,” says Bodine. “The drivers and teams gave us some positive feedback on what they liked and what they didn’t like, and that’s what this is about – to refine and improve what we have.”
The Car of Tomorrow is the culmination of a five-year design program by NASCAR’s Research and Development Center. Of primary significance are safety innovations, performance and competition, and cost efficiency for the teams. The new car will begin competition in 2007 at the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway and will race at 16 different events next season. The 2008 Car of Tomorrow implementation schedule includes 26 events. Teams will run the entire 2009 schedule with the Car of Tomorrow.