Former NASCAR Driver On The Confederate Flag: 'I Had To ... Accept It'

Jun 24, 2020
Originally published on June 25, 2020 5:46 am

Former NASCAR driver Bill Lester, one of only seven Black drivers to race in NASCAR's top-tier cup series, wanted the Confederate flag gone when he raced more than a decade ago, but the time wasn't right, he says.

"There was no way that I could affect change during the time that I was racing," Lester says. "This is a different day."

Bubba Wallace, currently the only Black driver in stock car racing's top circuit, called for NASCAR to ban the display of Confederate flags at its races on June 8. Two days later, NASCAR did just that. It's a move that Wallace called "a long time coming."

And it's a step that Lester never thought he would ever see. He says he told plenty of people he was uncomfortable with the Confederate flag during his time racing, but his words "fell on deaf ears."

"The country was not ready to listen at that time," Lester said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition. "Due to the unfortunate circumstances of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — it has caused a Black Lives Matter movement, and it has caught the attention of everybody. And so Bubba is very fortunate that he has a platform being out there on the circuit right now that he can affect change."

Lester, who came to NASCAR after working in tech in California, says he was an "oddball" in the sport and had to do his best to understand his teammates — including their affection for the Confederate flag.

"I looked at it as that was just their culture. That's how they grew up," Lester says. "I didn't look at it as it being overt racism towards me, and I was in no way, shape or form in a position to effect any sort of change with regards to that. Because I'm a very small fish in a very big pond when it comes to Black drivers in NASCAR. So I had to basically just swallow it, accept it. But I felt that as long as they weren't waving that flag in front of my face or using any derogatory terms towards me, we were gonna be OK."

Lester's comments come just days after a noose was found inside Wallace's garage at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. On Tuesday, the FBI said Wallace was not the target of a hate crime, since the rope had been in the stall since at least October.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Now even with the FBI's findings here, this incident underscores NASCAR's long, complicated history with race. In its 72-year history, only seven Black drivers have raced in the sport's top-tier Cup Series. Before Bubba Wallace, there was Bill Lester. He is now retired. Now, NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from being displayed. This is something Bill Lester never thought he would see. I spoke with him about his experience as a Black driver and about this moment for the sport.

BILL LESTER: I came from the West Coast, the Bay Area specifically, to come to the Southeast to the Bible Belt and run around in circles, with Confederate flags lining the tracks. It was a eye-opener, but it really didn't matter to me because I wanted to be a professional racecar driver. And I wanted to race at the top level of the sport. But here I come from a background in high-tech. I have a four-year degree from Cal Berkeley in electrical engineering and computer science. I had a 15-year career at Hewlett Packard before leaving all of that to pursue my dream. I mean, I never even heard of what a Cracker Barrel restaurant was before I came to the Southeast, so that tells you a whole lot right there.

GREENE: Well, did you come to an understanding? I mean, did you accept one another? Or what was the relationship like with the fans?

LESTER: Oh, absolutely. We had to come to an understanding and an appreciation for each other's differences because what we were doing was working towards a common goal, and that was being successful as a racing team. So I was in their environment. I'm the one who's the oddball. So I had to do my level best to, you know, understand these guys and, you know, hang out and break bread with them, go out and eat and spend more time than just at the shop, trying to understand, you know, their backgrounds, learn who they were, you know, all those sorts of things that create a bond because that's what a race team is.

A race team is your family. These are the guys that build these cars for you to race at 180, 200 miles an hour. And it doesn't take a whole lot for things to go wrong. And if you're not a team, it's very easy for things to go really wrong at a high rate of speed. So at the end of the day, I wound up enjoying the Southeast, and I still live here.

GREENE: So this tight circle you had of your crew, friends, people right in your circle, did they have the Confederate flag everywhere, I mean, stickers and other stuff with that symbol?

LESTER: Yeah, I saw it. It was plentiful. And, you know, I looked at it as that was just their culture. That's how they grew up. I didn't look at it as it being overt racism towards me. And I was in no way, shape or form in a position to affect any sort of change with regard to that because, you know, I'm a very small fish in a very big pond when it comes to Black drivers in NASCAR. So I had to basically just swallow it, accept it. But, you know, I felt that as long as they weren't waving that flag in front of my face or using any derogatory terms towards me, we were going to be OK.

GREENE: What is your message to NASCAR fans today in 2020 who don't necessarily think of themselves as racist or haters and still have that symbol? What is your message to them?

LESTER: Well, I would hope to think that they realize that the flag we should be proud of is the American flag. The rebel flag, Confederate flag, is a historic symbol and one that is very hurtful, demeaning, oppressive to a very significant segment of this population. And it needs to be put in the trunk.

GREENE: I'm so interested in you saying that it wasn't your place to do something about it or change the culture. And, obviously, we have Bubba Wallace today who put a lot of pressure on the organization to very much change. Are these two different times, or are you two different people? Or is it a mix?

LESTER: Absolutely the former - two different times. I was on record many occasions with the media saying how uncomfortable the flag was for me, but it fell on deaf ears. The country was not ready to listen at that time. Due the unfortunate circumstances, you know, of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, it has caused a Black Lives Matter movement, and it has caught the attention of everybody. And so Bubba is very fortunate that he has a platform, being out there on the circuit right now, where he can affect change. There is no way I could affect change during the time that I was racing. This is a different day.

GREENE: Bill Lester, thank you so, so much.

LESTER: It's been my pleasure.

GREENE: That was retired NASCAR driver Bill Lester.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUSSEF DAYES, ALFA MIST AND MANSUR BROWN'S "LOVE IS THE MESSAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.