Bill Lester was a latecomer to professional racing, working in the corporate world until deciding to go racing in his 30s. Since then, he has competed in multiple different series and in multiple different types of cars and trucks. He became the first African-American to ever start a race in the now-Nationwide Series when he drove for Bobby Hillin Jr. at Watkins Glen in 1999. He raced in the Camping World Truck Series full-time from 2002-early 2007, notching two fifth-place finishes, seven top-10 finishes and three poles in 142 career starts.
In 2006, Lester became only the fourth African-American to ever qualify for a Cup race, joining Wendell Scott, Randy Bethea and Willy T. Ribbs in that department. Now age 49, Lester is competing full-time in the Grand Touring (GT) class of the Rolex Sports Car Series for Autohaus Motorsports. However, he is not necessarily giving up on his dream of returning to Sprint Cup. Lester sat down with our own Phil Allaway for a chat in Daytona.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: We’ll just start off with today, since its freshest on the mind. You were fourth quickest in the GT class in the session that just ended and ninth quickest [Thursday] morning. How’s the Camaro doing today?
Bill Lester: Well, it’s good. For myself, personally, I was trying to get used to right-foot braking. I’m a left-foot braker naturally. I did that off of [my NASCAR experience] and my years in Daytona Prototypes. But, we were trying to see whether it made more since for me to right foot brake from a fuel-conservation standpoint and efficiency on the brakes; keeping them cooler.
Unfortunately, that didn’t work out too well because we have a situation where the pedals aren’t… really positioned properly. As a result, I’m going to go back to my typical left-foot braking method.
Allaway: Are [the pedals] a little too far apart for right-front braking?
Lester: Yeah, they really are. And, its not [just] from the width standpoint, but the distance of the brake pedal and the accelerator are not the same. In other words, you would expect that they would be across the same plane, but the brake pedal is up and the accelerator is back. As a result, trying to get the car to do what I want it to do with the brake pedal situated that way has become very difficult. It’s a bit of a challenge, so I’m going back to left-foot braking.
To answer your question also, everything has been very good. Working with Autohaus [Motorsports] has been great, GM, Chevrolet and the great personnel that we have here. We’re very optimistic about this weekend; we know that with this car, we can contend for the victory. It will just be up to Jordan Taylor, Johnny O’Connell, Matthew Marsh and myself to get it there.
Allaway: Of course, with 24 hours coming up, anything can happen. What kind of difference in driving style do you have for an endurance race like this as compared to a Sprint Cup race?
Lester: It’s definitely a different mindset. Basically, you have to run to a number. What that means is that we have a target lap time that we’re trying to shoot for every lap, instead of trying to run qualifying laps like we do in Sprint [Cup] races for the most part. In those races, you run every lap at nine-tenths or 10-tenths. Here, you have to back it off a little bit in order to give yourself a buffer or margin for error.
The other thing about these endurance races is that there are many different drivers from so many different backgrounds and so many different levels of talent and ability that you think you can trust some of these guys, but you can’t. This is because they may not be used to racing at Daytona, may not be used to the car they’re behind the wheel of, or they may not be used to road racing, as opposed to a different discipline.
So, first thing you gotta do is to make sure that you finish the race. So, we’re going to set a pace that we hope to all adhere to and basically settle [the race] in hour 22 or 23 and then the checkered flag.
Allaway: How do they come up with the assigned lap time? Do they look over timesheets and determine that a certain time looks good?
Lester: No, it’s actually more of a matter of that we have a very good idea of what the pole time will probably be and we want to run within a certain percentage of what we think these cars can go. But, we don’t want to run them to the maximum. We want to have a buffer there so that we’re not burning the brakes to the ground, we’re not burning the tires up and we’re not taking risks that are unnecessary. So, we basically take the time that the fast cars can do and back it off a percentage.
Allaway: You’re very new to Autohaus Motorsports. They just officially announced yesterday (Jan. 26) that you’ll be in the No. 88 for the full season. How did this deal come together?
Lester: I was fortunate enough to be called by [Autohaus Motorsports] in, I think it was December, so this all came together very, very late. I was glad that that occurred. I had watched Autohaus perform in the past and one of the most attractive things was running the full season. The last three years that I’ve run in Daytona Prototypes, I never finished the season. Couldn’t run for the championship. Its just very unsatisfying and disappointing to end your season early when the other guys are still racing and you’re at home.
So, with Autohaus [Motorsports], their basis of operation and the talent that they bring, and the experience, the infrastructure and the fact that we’re going to run the full season.
Allaway: On Twitter, you mentioned that the Roar Before the 24 (the official test session held three weeks before the race), you were signed just for the test at first. Was the test sort of like an on-track audition?
Lester: No, it probably came across that way. The fact of the matter is that for the Roar, it was our initial “getting acquainted with each other” opportunity. But, we knew before the Roar that we were going to run the season together. We just can’t give the whole shooting match away. Gotta leave a little bit for the imagination. That’s why we announced it as late as we did. I think we made a pretty significant splash.
Allaway: Generally, what is the Camaro GT.R like to drive?
Lester: You know, coming from a Daytona Prototype, its very different. The prototype is much stiffer, it’s got a much lower center of gravity and it’s a bit more responsive. The production-based cars, like the Camaro or any others that are in GT are going to have a little bit more roll, and a little… vagueness or numbness to it.
It doesn’t respond as quickly or sharply as a Daytona Prototype. I’ve found that I have to slow myself down in terms of my inputs and my corrections and such because this car is 600 or so pounds heavier than a Daytona Prototype and its higher in terms of its mass (Writer’s note: While doing the interview, I wanted to use the term “trundle,” or “trundling” here, but decided not to).
As a result, it doesn’t reward you as quickly as the Daytona Prototype, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it. I’ve got a very strong Chevy engine and the guys at Pratt & Miller; they know their chassis and its responding like it should and I’m happy. I’m having a great time.
Allaway: Also, through your Twitter page, it was posted that you were in discussions to do some Sprint Cup races later this season. Since you’re doing the full season here in Grand-Am, how would this schedule potentially work? Would you look at the schedule and aim for races that wouldn’t conflict?
Lester: Absolutely. A member of my team was a little premature with what was put out there on Twitter. There is no commitment to doing anything in Cup at this point. There is some discussion, and you never know where that discussion might go. It would be far premature to speculate that I’ll be back in a Cup car. It potentially might happen, I’m not going to say that it won’t, I’m not going to say it will.
At this point, there is no commitment made and absolutely, my priority at this point is to race in sports cars. That is my commitment for this year. If there is anything that takes place in NASCAR, that will be secondary to what happens here. If it does happen, then it would be schedules and events that don’t conflict.
Allaway: There are at least two races on the Grand-Am schedule that are held in support to Sprint Cup [Daytona (July) and Watkins Glen (August)]. If such an opportunity came together [for those weekends], would you be up to doing the double?
Lester: Absolutely. I wouldn’t have any problems strapping on a helmet in one garage and putting on another in the other. But, that’s far down the road. It’s premature to speculate that I’m even coming back yet. Like I said, that feed was a little bit, you know, too soon.
Allaway: Staying on the whole Twitter note, last year, you were putting out what amounted to sponsored tweets promoting companies. How did that go?
Lester: That’s really a member of my team whose doing that. I really haven’t gone on there, but this gentleman knows a lot about what I’m doing. He likes to be front and center and very forthcoming with information. I think that it’s pretty cool and that he gets a lot of interest. Speculation is never a bad thing, but until you see an official release, don’t take it to the bank.
Allaway: Getting off Twitter for a moment, outside of racing, what do you generally do in your spare time?
Lester: Frankly, I consider myself Mr. Mom. I’ve been happily married for 16 years now and my wife is a full-time professional in marketing and executive ranks. We have two young sons, one is seven, one is four, and when my wife is gone, it’s up to dad to make sure that the boys are taken care of. You know, [make sure] they’re ready and dressed for school, lunches made and ready to enjoy their day.
When its time for them to come home and my wife isn’t home yet, I’m the one there to greet them, help them with their homework and that sort of stuff. Some people might think that that type of thing as fairly non-trivial, but I think it’s a big responsibility and I take it very seriously. I try to provide them with as much support and being there as I possibly can.
Allaway: That’s great. It’s very important for kids to have some kind of parental figure around to give them guidance. A lot of people don’t have that these days.
Lester: No, I hope to think that I’m as good a role model as my parents were and are for me.
Unfortunately for Lester and Autohaus Motorsports team, the weekend did not go quite to plan. The team peaked for the weekend just after the interview was conducted when they qualified second in the GT class (after Andy Lally‘s qualifying time was disallowed due to a post-qualifying technical violation). During the race, the team dropped a couple of spots at the start, but then settled into a rhythm.
Then, the issues started to mount. A flat tire resulted in a broken tie rod on the right-front corner. A long stay on pit road was required to fix the corner before resuming. In hour 12, the team had to replace a clutch. These issues dropped the No. 88 back to a 28th-place finish overall, 14th in the GT-class. However, the team will be back strong in the Grand Prix of Miami at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 5, raring to go.
About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.
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