Bill Lester: 'Stars have aligned' in making Truck Series return at Atlanta

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Zack Albert
·7 min read
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Bill Lester had just finished writing a book three-plus years in the making. He cautions that it’s not an autobiography, but more of a motivational memoir that’s meant to inspire using lessons learned from his career in racing.

That backdrop for his book — “Winning In Reverse: Defying the Odds and Achieving Dreams,” co-authored by Jonathan Ingram — got his mind spinning about what a return to that world might look like at age 60.

SHOP: Buy Lester’s memoir

“I just always in the back of my head kind of wondered what it would be like to go back and compete again,” says Lester, who made the most recent of his 142 Camping World Truck Series starts in 2007. “It just was something that was percolating, nothing that was really actionable that I felt I was really going to make any strides towards, but once I started writing my memoir, I started to get more of … I don’t know if you’d call it an itch, but more of an interest.”

If it’s indeed an itch, Lester intends to scratch that competitive urge in Saturday’s Fr8Auctions 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’ll drive the No. 17 Ford for David Gilliland Racing with the support of area Ford dealers, backer Tommy’s Express Car Wash and series entitlement sponsor Camping World — all pieces that came together after Lester announced his Atlanta intentions last month — and the desire to promote his book’s uplifting message.

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It won’t be the first time he’s defied conventional racing wisdom on age norms. In a delightful full-circle twist, Lester will be back at the Atlanta track where he made his Cup Series debut in 2006, then as a 45-year-old veteran with rookie stripes and the first Black driver to race in NASCAR’s top division in almost 20 years. He’s also back in the series that became his full-time racing home in his 40s.

“Just feel like all of the stars have aligned, so here we are,” Lester says. “I’ve always felt like I was in good enough shape to do it. I always felt like I had the desire to still race and be competitive and be fast, and we’re just going to find out whether or not that’s all true.”

**

Bill Lester finished 38th in his first Cup Series start on March 20, 2006, his No. 23 entry ending up six laps off the pace in a Monday start delayed one day because of rain. The accomplishment was in simply making the 43-car field in a competitive qualifying session that sent nine teams home.

Lester recalls that the odds may have been against him before time trials even began. He drove a Bill Davis Racing Dodge that was lacking factory support, and the best the car could manage in practice was 36th on the speed charts — all of which added to his pre-qualifying anxiety.

“It was a car that maybe wasn’t as well-prepared as most people would have thought, others in the field would have been,” Lester says, “but we kicked it out of the park.”

Jamie Squire | Getty Images
Jamie Squire | Getty Images

As his two-lap qualifying run began, the FOX Sports booth of analysts Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds had cast a degree of doubt on his prospects, based on both his practice performance and his opening lap’s corner entry. Lester proved any doubts wrong by making gains that eventually placed him 19th on the starting grid. Play-by-play broadcaster Mike Joy’s voice went up a notch after Lap 1, with Waltrip remarking “holy schmoly” under it before giving Lester his due.

His times were nearly identical, registering 29.102 seconds on his first lap and 29.104 on the second. A pep talk by his crew chief, Ricky Viers, had helped, but so had his determination in pushing the car to its limit.

“I just wanted to not leave anything on the table,” Lester recalls. “I just wanted to make sure I had that accelerator pedal down pretty much as hard as I could, for as long as I could. I barely breathed it going into Turn 1, barely breathed it going into Turn 3, and was back on the mat as hard as I could, as quickly as I could. As it turned out, it wound up being two pretty astounding laps.”

Lester celebrated with his family after becoming the first Black driver since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 to earn a Cup Series start. He had scored two top-five finishes and three pole positions in his Truck Series career to that point, but Lester looks back and still considers his underdog top-20 qualifying effort in NASCAR’s big leagues as one of his proudest highlights.

“For me it was all about making that race with all the hoopla and fanfare made around the fact that this was the first time in so many years a Black driver has raced at the top level of NASCAR,” Lester says. “I definitely did not want to go home.”

**

Lester made one more Cup Series start that year at Michigan, then came up short in qualifying at Auto Club Speedway in California. He rounded out his driving days in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, a road-racing stint highlighted by teaming up with Jordan Taylor for a class win at age 50 in 2011 at Virginia International Raceway.

Since then, Lester says he’s spent his time tapping into his entrepreneurial side, staying active as a real-estate investor living in Atlanta’s north side, becoming an author, but also holding down what he calls “Mr. Mom” duty in helping to raise his two teenage sons, Alex and Austin, with his wife, Cheryl. “I’ve just wanted to be there in their life,” he says. “When you’re racing, you’re on the road, you really don’t have a lot of time to really be present in their lives.”

Mike Zarrilli
Mike Zarrilli

The NASCAR he returns to is in some ways different from the one he left. The sport underwent a reckoning on race during a tumultuous 2020 and redoubled its efforts to be more inclusive, including banning the Confederate flag last June. “I just … that blew me away,” Lester says. “So when (NASCAR president) Steve Phelps made that statement last year, I was so moved by it and so compelled that I sent him an e-mail message just congratulating him and thanking him for the statement that NASCAR made.”

He credits Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace, who now carries the car number 23 that he once campaigned, with being a spark for positive change.

“Their ears opened, their minds opened and with Bubba leading the charge with the platform he has, he was able to get NASCAR to see a greater picture and to reflect the inclusivity and the reflection of being America’s sport that they tended to indicate they were,” Lester says. “They put their money where their mouth was, and I was just really pleased that that was the case. So that was a great stake in the ground.”

MORE: History of the No. 23 in NASCAR

The look of the Truck Series that welcomes him back is also different. Veteran faces still dot the grid, but Lester will be the oldest driver in the field, racing against younger and unfamiliar up-and-comers aggressively working their way up the developmental ladder. “I’ve watched it and I’ve seen, from what I can tell, a whole lot of carnage,” he says with a laugh. “These guys and girls are really going hard at it.”

As for his return, Lester says he’s aspiring for a more measured approach, insisting he won’t try to be a first-lap hero from the 31st starting spot. If nothing else, he intends to satisfy his curiosities in Saturday’s start, realizing another dream with a familiar racing backdrop.

“It’s been a very fluid, dynamic situation that’s been taking place ever since I stopped racing professionally, but all that aside, it’s a big weekend coming up for me,” Lester says. “I’m looking forward to it, and I feel like I’m prepared. We’ll just see what the racing gods have in store for me.”