Lester wants to take race out of racing

May 23 2011 - 4:17pm

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Bill Lester wishes it wasn't this way.

He wishes he wasn't looked upon as someone who is unique and different.

He wishes it was more about his racing and less about his race.

He wishes all of the accolades and exposure were coming because of his skill level; not his skin color.

"Throughout my career, I've been described as a black driver," says Lester, who moved to Orlando a few months ago when his wife Cheryl became a regional general manager of Wal-Mart Central Florida. "I can tell you that's not how I perceive myself. It's a label put on me by the media and the public. It's their doing, not mine. I have very little control over it."

Especially in the aftermath of Lester's historic victory Saturday when he became the first black driver to ever win a GRAND-AM Road Racing event. He teamed with University of Central Florida mechanical engineering student Jordan Taylor to win the Bosch Engineering 250 at Virginia International Raceway.

It was a checkered flag for a sport with a checkered past in the area of race relations. In the year 2011 when the United States has a president of African-American descent, it seems a bit startling that we still have a "first black man to ..." story in the all-inclusive world of sports.

But racing has always been different, especially stock-car racing in the South. Here's all you need to know: The GRAND-AM series is now owned by NASCAR, which means Lester is the first black driver to win a NASCAR event in a national series since Wendell Scott's Sprint Cup victory nearly a half-century ago. Ironically, Lester's victory on Saturday came in Danville, Va. the hometown of the late Scott, who remains a sad symbol for one of the most shameful events in major sports history.

The day of Dec. 1, 1963 will always live in NASCAR infamy. For it was that day in Jacksonville when Scott became the first black man to ever take the checkered flag at a NASCAR event, but race organizers shamefully refused to recognize him as the winner.

They instead awarded the victory to a white man, Buck Baker, who was three laps behind when Scott crossed the finish line. NASCAR claimed a scoring error had occurred, but Scott knew the real story. "Everybody in the place knew I had won the race," he told a reporter before he died in 1990, "but the promoters and NASCAR officials didn't want me out there kissing any beauty queens or accepting any awards."

NASCAR eventually gave Scott his first-place check and the points for winning the event, but, to this day, his family has never been able to locate the first-place trophy for that historic victory in Jacksonville. Lester not only knows the story of Wendell Scott, he visited Scott's old garage a few years ago, sat behind the wheel of one of Scott's race cars and later helped induct Scott posthumously into the Black Sports Hall of Fame.

"I have a huge appreciation for what Wendell Scott accomplished," says Lester, a Cal-Berkeley grad who gave up a lucrative career as an electrical engineer to follow his racing dream. "People refer to me as a role model or a trailblazer, but there's no way I could ever accept those accolades when guys like Wendell Scott had to overcome so much more."

NASCAR has progressed a million miles since the Scott disgrace and has tried mightily to overcome the image of good ol' boys proudly flying Confederate flags at race tracks around the South. There have been many diversity initiatives to try and create opportunities for minority and women drivers, but progress has been painfully slow. There are still no black drivers in any of NASCAR's three major racing circuits Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks.

Lester, now 50, once had a cup of coffee behind the wheel of a Sprint car and spent eight years in NASCAR's Truck Series. Even now, though, he says, there are many barricades to be overcome by not only NASCAR Nation but America as a country.

"Let's put it this way," Lester said of his days in the Truck series, "I wasn't universally embraced by the fans. Society has a come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. I hope one day we will be defined by our commonalities; not our differences. I wish we didn't have to use words like diversity and inclusion. I hope one day we won't be saying things like 'He was the first black man to do this or the first black man to do that.' "

But we're certainly not there yet, which is why Wendell Scott's family celebrated over the weekend when they found out Bill Lester had won a race.

"When Bill took the checkered flag, I just know Daddy was smiling down from heaven," says Sybil Scott, Wendell's daughter. "If he were alive today, he would be so proud of what Bill accomplished and have so many words of encouragement."

And maybe even a word of advice.

Sybil laughs.

"Daddy did have a sense of humor," she says. "He might have told Bill, 'Make sure they give you your trophy.' "

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