As the only third African American driver to race at the top level of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series, in the last 50 years, Bill Lester is not your typical race car driver. The fact that he achieved this at 45 years of age makes this feat even more impressive. But Bill’s professional racing career is atypical in many ways. He didn’t grow up in the sport. He does not come from wealth. He is not a second or third generation driver. He didn’t even grow up in the south. Bill is an anomaly.
Born in 1961, Bill grew up in Northern California with a love of fast cars. But it was his father who first took him to a professional sports car race that sent him on his path to being a race car driver. That single event set the hook and laid the foundation for a pursuit that would take Bill the majority of his life to achieve.
While excelling at stick and ball sports through adolescence, once Bill got his driver’s license it was truly “game on”. He was street racing and doing things with cars that were frowned upon by the law. When encouraged to take his high speed driving obsession to the race track, Bill realized that he would need an occupation that could sustain his ambition.
Bill attended and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science degree. He then went straight to work for the Hewlett-Packard Company and, for the most part with his first pay check, bought a race car.
After winning the prestigious “Rookie of the Year” award in his first year of sports car competition, and winning the championship for his division the next, he then entered his first professional sports car race. However, there was a dilemma. He was also excelling in this formally trained profession. In four years, Bill was promoted from Software Development Engineer to Research and Development Project Manager. So while his passion was racing, his reality was Corporate America.
Bill led this dual life as both a full-time white collar professional and as a part-time weekend warrior for about a decade. However, he felt he was successful by everyone’s definition but his own. Bill defined success as happiness, not by what sort of title you held, how many people you managed, or even how much money you made. He felt he was given a gift and had discovered a passion, and that was to race cars, not manage software engineers.
After a 15 year career in the high tech industry, and with his wife’s blessing and support, Bill committed to pursuing his true passion – racing cars. He beat the pavement, sacrificed, and used all of his contacts and influence to create opportunities for himself in the racing industry. His perseverance and persistence would pay off, for four years after leaving the comfort of his corporate job, Bill’s ship came in. He was selected to race in NASCAR as a full time driver in the Camping World Truck Series, a feeder division to Sprint Cup.
Bill was finally doing what he felt he was born to do. He competed in the Truck Series for over 5 years establishing many records and, in 2006, made history when he raced in the Sprint Cup Series.
Bill would return to professional sports car racing after his stock car career came to a close. He raced in the NASCAR owned Rolex Grand-Am professional sports car series and again achieved success. After a number of close finishes, in 2011, Bill would win at Virginia International Raceway and become the first African American driver to win a Rolex Grand-Am race.