Nearly 57 years later, another African American stock-car racer, Bubba Wallace, is leading NASCAR’s break from the lingering remnants of a past tinged with racism. And he has the full-throated support of NASCAR’s president and fellow drivers, who stood beside him in response to what appeared to be a hate crime in the wake of the sport’s June 10 ban on displays of the Confederate flag, which Wallace had advocated.
While investigators quickly determined no federal crime had been committed, the controversy that ensued after a noose was found tied to a door inside Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway last weekend landed NASCAR in national headlines at a time of heightened tension, unrest and polarization over systemic racism and the police-involved killings of unarmed African Americans.
And it highlighted an almost unbelievable narrative in stock-car racing: Scott, who financed his own team until a 1973 wreck at Talladega forced his retirement, and Wallace aren’t simply the most notable African American drivers to compete in NASCAR’s top ranks. They are the only ones to have competed full time in NASCAR’s Cup series in the sport’s 73-year history.
Several factors account for the dearth of black drivers in NASCAR, which remains the country’s most popular form of auto racing despite sharp declines in TV ratings and race-day attendance since its popularity peaked in 2005.
Retired racer Bill Lester, 59, is not a household name among sports fans. But he’s an accomplished, respected figure in motorsports, a former sportscar racer and NASCAR Truck Series regular, with 142 starts from 2000 to 2007. As part of stock-car racing’s connective tissue between the careers of Scott, who died in 1990, and Wallace, Lester well understands the barriers that have made it difficult for African Americans such as himself to make headway in NASCAR.
In a recent telephone interview, Lester distilled it to three:
- A general lack of exposure to motorsports among minority youth.
- The high cost of getting launched as a youngster, which typically requires significant family investment.
- And, most significantly, the challenge of landing corporate sponsors once launched to fund front-running equipment.
In his eight seasons in NASCAR, which included one start in its second-tier series (1999) and two in its elite Cup Series (2006), Lester learned to navigate what at times was a hostile workplace as deftly as he navigated the right and left turns of sportscar circuits, where he established himself after giving up a 15-year career at Hewlett-Packard to race full time.
As a black Californian competing in NASCAR’s Truck Series, Lester found that when he could drive his rental car directly to the competitors’ parking lot on race day, avoiding fans, it was a good day.
While other Truck racers didn’t exactly embrace him, he said he never felt overt hostility.
“They referred to me as ‘Yankee!’” Lester recalled with a laugh. “Yankee? Obviously it was because of the way I carried myself, the way I sounded, the way I talked. I didn’t have any Southern drawl or accent.”
The fact was, he said, he was as foreign to them as they were to him.
“I did everything I could to try to immerse myself in their culture,” Lester said. “I went to lunch with these guys at Cracker Barrel, which I had never even heard of before I came to the South. And they told me about Krystal [burgers].”
On the track, Lester said, NASCAR’s Truck veterans raced him hard and aggressive, and he raced them in kind — the only way a driver earns respect. He deepened that respect by winning poles and leading laps.
Lester found the reception less comfortable outside the confines of NASCAR garages — particularly at the small, rural bullrings such as Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, where drivers had to park outside the track and walk through the grounds teeming with fans to reach the garage.
“I saw conversations stop. Fingers point,” he recalled. “I heard the n-word murmured under people’s breath. It was very disconcerting and very uncomfortable for me, needless to say. And it was bad enough that I had to look at those Confederate flags.”
Lester soon learned that his biggest hurdle as a black NASCAR driver — the one that stymied his career far more than the boos he heard during prerace driver introductions for no reason other than his skin color — was convincing a corporate sponsor to underwrite an opportunity to race full time in NASCAR’s second tier or elite ranks, which was his goal.
“People don’t understand how expensive it is to race in NASCAR’s top series, its Cup series,” Lester noted. “It’s about an $18 [million] to $20 million proposition a year, per team, per car. One of the biggest disappointments of my career was a lack of support from corporate America.”
That’s not a dealbreaker in stick-and-ball sports.
At the NFL combine, a great running back can dazzle with nothing but sneakers, shorts and a scout’s stopwatch. In motorsports, money buys speed, and not even the most gifted driver can consistently win in second-rate equipment.
That’s assuming a driver is fortunate enough to get a chance at second- or third-rate equipment.
Launching a youngster in racing these days is extremely costly. Even a 10-year-old’s campaign on a national karting or scaled-down stock-car circuit can cost six figures annually, Lester said. Few families have access to that sort of capital, fewer still among African Americans.
Those are some of the barriers NASCAR has tried to address through its Drive for Diversity initiative, launched in 2004 to increase the pool of minority and female competitors.
Its early efforts were criticized as window dressing by some and well-intentioned but ineffective by others.
In 2009, NASCAR hired former entertainment lawyer Max Siegel, who had worked two years as president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc., to remake the program with the goal of broadening NASCAR’s fan base.
Siegel, who is also CEO of USA Track & Field, said he believed NASCAR’s leadership then and now is fully committed to diversity and inclusion. It became his job to help the sport get there.
“If you want to increase your fan base, fans connect to the athletes, so we needed to increase those numbers so they could connect with a driver,” Siegel said. “We had no [minority or female] pit crew nor [minority] drivers in the national series. We needed a pipeline.”
Blending his entertainment background with corporate stock-car racing expertise, Siegel launched academies to develop that pipeline. Then he developed a 2010 reality series called “Changing Lanes” in conjunction with BET, which chronicled 10 young female and minority racers in the Drive for Diversity program as they competed for four spots on an existing NASCAR team.
Among those who shined during tryouts was 16-year-old Bubba Wallace, who then went by his full name, Darrell Wallace Jr. His parents had funded his entry into racing at 9, but family assets couldn’t keep up with their son’s need for better equipment as he climbed the sport’s ranks.
“He was so hungry and so focused, and he was going to put in the work to do whatever he could to succeed,” Siegel recalled of Wallace, at 16, in a telephone interview. “He tried to win every race he could, and he’d seek out the advice of some of the Cup drivers and crew chiefs. He wasn’t trying to skip a step. He always tried to get every bit of experience, every bit of learning that he could.”
Wallace, in a recent telephone interview, credited his confidence and comfort in advocating for social change to his experience in the 2010 “Changing Lanes” cast.
“A lot of positives came out of that, on track and off track,” said Wallace, who went on to claim his first of six NASCAR Truck Series victories at Martinsville in October 2013 and started 85 second-tier series races before landing his full-time Cup ride two years ago in Petty Motorsports’ famed No. 43. “I think ‘Changing Lanes’ is where I started to learn what pressure was and what stress was, just going from emotion to emotion with a camera in your face 24-7 and not wanting to mess up on television.”
As Lester looks on from his home in Florida, he applauds NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban — something he never thought he would see — and Wallace’s role in it.
“Bubba has been fortunate enough to be on a platform where he has been able to get the ears and eyes of people across the spectrum,” Lester said. “That’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do, that [fellow African American racer] Willy [T. Ribbs] wasn’t able to do, that Wendell Scott wasn’t able to do. …
“Corporate America always talks about: ‘Is this person a good brand ambassador? Can they speak well? Do they present themselves well?’ Bubba has done a terrific job of doing that, yet his car continues to be effectively unsponsored,” Lester said, alluding to the No. 43 Chevrolet’s lack of major corporate signage.
“At the end of the day, the dollars come from corporate America. And if corporate America keeps saying ‘no’ to people of color and to women, the dynamic will never change.”