Tha Sports Junkies 101

Black History Month: Bill Lester


This article is part of a special tribute to African-American individuals or teams who have sacrificed and broken through various forms of restriction to achieve greatness, not solely defined within sport, but among humanity.

Many people look up to and credit the late Wendell Scott for breaking NASCAR’s color barrier with not only being the first African-American to race at it’s top level, but win a race in it. The future Hall Of Famer was part of an era of sports were becoming integrated.

But, another man should be credited for not only the unprecedented amount of African-American drivers in NASCAR, but minorities in general. Fourty-three years after Wendell’s lone historic win, a man named Bill Lester became the 6th different African-American to start a NASCAR CUP Race. His impact not only came with publicity, but NASCAR’s vigor to promote and grow it’s newfound effort at the time to promote diversity.

Lester started his racing career in sports car racing, such as IMSA and SCCA. He won his first year in 1989 at Sears Point (Now Sonoma Raceway) in an endurance race and was a mainstay in that class of racing for a decade. He competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona twice in 1998 and 1999, finishing fifth and tenth, respectively.

Bill Lester later began his NASCAR career in 1999 in a Busch Grand National Series race at Watkins Glen. He drove a car fielded by Bobby Hillin, Jr. and ran a solid effort before a late race accident placed him in 21st. He would cut his teeth into the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for the first time in 2000 at Portland, finishing 24th in a truck owned by Phil Bonifield’s Team 23 Racing entry.

Lester would then spend the 2002 season racing full-time for the first time with the late Bobby Hamilton’s Truck Series team. He had a respectable rookie season despite no top 10’s, with sixteen top 20 finishes to make up for it.  The next season, he grabbed his first career pole at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and had a tenth-place run at Kansas Speedway. He would make the switch to Bill Davis Racing’s operation the 2004 and he would see only one top 10 finish. But, 2005 was better with two straight poles and cracking the top five for the first time in his career at Kansas.

It was 2006 however where history was re-written in Bill Lester’s hands. He attempted and successfully qualified for his first career race at Atlanta in the Golden Corral 500, becoming the 6th African American to run a points paying race and the first since Willy T. Ribbs 20 years earlier. The driver and NASCAR received tons of positive press for the achievement despite the race being rain delayed to Monday. However, he would struggle and finish three laps off the pace in 38th. He would attempt two more CUP race that year, making the June Michigan race (finishing 34th) and DNQ’ing at California in September.

He would also continue to run in the Truck Series that year for the Bill Davis organization, but struggled with no top 10’s. He would move on to Billy Ballew Motorsports in 2007 and collected a best finish that year of 7th at Kentucky. However, he left NASCAR in 2008 to resume his Sports Car career in the then Rolex Sports Car Series.

But, what Bill Lester also left is an impact NASCAR and it’s fans are seeing right now. Bill Lester’s two cup starts came during a time NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program was at it’s beginning. It would provide the spark needed to bring African American names to the sport like Marc Davis, Ryan Gifford, and most notably Darrell Wallace Jr., who became the first African American to win a national division series race in 2013 at Martinsville since the legendary Wendell Scott did almost 50 years prior. It also brought notable non-African American names like Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez into household names.