Bill Lester’s NASCAR Cup Series career only lasted three races, but if you only looked at those stats, you’d be missing out on a whole racing career dedicated to the art of going fast in anything. And that’s one of the many reasons why Lester’s autobiography, Winning in Reverse: Defying the Odds and Achieving Dreams, is an important read for any race fan. Seriously. Stop what you’re doing and order a copy right now.
Lester’s autobiography just came out at the start of February, and its title refers to the fact that he basically went backwards in his racing career. He started late because he put all of his effort into securing an engineering degree and establishing a career, which he used to fund his motorsport bent. When he took to the NASCAR Cup Series track, he was in his mid-40s and was the first Black man to race in the sport since Wendell Scott.
It’s a beautifully written story, which is a nice change of pace from some racing autobiographies that lose out on the elements of a good narrative in exchange for the ability to preserve a driver’s voice. Anyone who’s listened to Lester in an interview knows he has a way with words, and it translates onto the page in a way that’s really appealing; he has a great grasp of narrative. The book starts out with tons of definitions that a non-racing fan might be unfamiliar with, which Lester supplements in the text of the book itself in a well-integrated way. As a racing fan familiar with terms like ‘slot car’ or ‘co-driver,’ I knew what Lester meant, but the explanations provided in the text didn’t bog me down or presume the reader is dense—which is a pitfall some racing books fall into as well.
That aspect hints at Lester’s intentions with his book, which is designed with a larger audience in mind than just a racing one. Each chapter ends with a little recap of the eight skills Lester considers key to his career, things like networking or getting outside your comfort zone, so it has a slightly motivational aspect to it. But it sounds like Lester is looking to appeal to anyone who might have an interest in exploring the ways that race and racing mix.
Growing up with a well-to-do family in California, Lester is about as far from the “good ol’ boy” stereotype you expect from a NASCAR driver—and that career path wasn’t his intention. Having seen a few races as a kid, Lester wanted to be a sports car driver above all, and he did his best to achieve that goal as a teenager. But his family wanted him to pursue a more respectable career, so he went into engineering. It was, he reasoned, a lucrative way to make some money that he could then funnel into the weekends he spent racing.
And that’s how he did things for years. He established himself as a solid employee on the fast track to management and started a family. It wasn’t until he was in his late 30s that he decided to pursue racing full-time, which ultimately led him to NASCAR.
The most heartbreaking thing about Lester’s book, though, is the slow creep of racism that begins to pervade the narrative as he begins to take further steps into the NASCAR ranks. The start of the book does mention race, since Lester grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a predominantly white school. Sporting an impressive afro, he was aware that he was different from the people around him, but he never seemed to have a significant problem with it. Not even when he went through college and started working at Hewlett-Packard.
Which is what makes the NASCAR parts so hard to read. Lester entered the sport during that strange in-between time where the Drive for Diversity program was coming to the fore but yet he wasn’t part of it—but he was still under the impression that NASCAR would work hard to keep a Black face in the sport. He was wrong.
While at Bobby Hamilton Racing, Lester tried his best to befriend the team. He traveled with them in the race hauler and tried to help out behind the scenes. He knew it would be a long shot as a city boy of color, but he thought he could at least curry some favor.
He didn’t find out until after he’d left that the team stole a Black jockey statue, painted it up like Lester, and burned it. The men responsible for preparing Lester’s car to race at dangerous speeds were burning him in effigy when he wasn’t around.
It’s damn hard to read. And it only really gets more depressing from there, with NASCAR essentially cramming Lester out of the sport. He’s gracious in his choice of words, never really going so far as to condemn anyone for explicitly blocking his path. But he does note that conversations with men like Steve Phelps included a lot of the right words but ended up with very little action.
Lester ends the book with a shred of cautious optimism. Because it was published so recently, he includes a chapter on Bubba Wallace and NASCAR’s response to what appeared to be a noose in Wallace’s garage, along with the banning of the Confederate flag at races. Lester posits that NASCAR actually seems to be taking some tangible steps toward genuine equality—and it’s a beautiful way to end after so many chapters of his disappointments in the sport. It just makes it all the more painful knowing that Lester was booed just last weekend when he made his return to racing.
It’s a really fun book to read for the first half, after which point things begin to sober up. But Lester’s story is an important one, one that any racing fan needs to read.