The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50
2012 Column Contest Winner
Over some eighteen months, right up until the eve of his own 50th birthday, Rob Trucks interviewed more than 200 49-year-olds. This is some of what they said.
#90: Bill Lester.
BY ROB TRUCKS
Bill Lester earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Cal-Berkeley in 1984 and subsequently spent 14 years as a project manager at Hewlett-Packard. But since 2002 Lester has worked full-time as a professional race car driver. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Orlando, Florida, where he turned 50 the same day the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
I feel it’s basically a milestone or a mile marker that society places out there. It is, from my perspective, not that big a deal. I kind of look at it maybe as, if I’m fortunate, the half point in my life. But other than that, I don’t give it much thought.
The birthday that I really think was the most significant in my life was 16, because that meant that I could drive. And for a race car driver that’s everything. So 16 probably stands out as my most important birthday, or the biggest milestone as far as my birthdays are concerned. 50 is just another number.
I realized when I was eight years old that I wanted to be a race car driver. My father took me to a race when I was eight years old, and that’s when I was exposed to it and when I realized that that would be something that I would like to do. When I was seven, I was still searching around. But when I turned eight and my father took me to this race, that’s when I got bitten by the bug.
Being at that race was essentially euphoria for me. It was the coolest thing. I was most excited and enthused about what was transpiring and taking place, being that close to cars racing by me at 170 miles an hour. You know: the sound, the speed, the smell. Just the sensory overload of being that close to cars, which I had a passion for, a love for since I was a kid. And just the speed, which I’ve always had a love for ever since I was a kid, whether it be fast cars or rollercoasters. You know, anything that had to do with speed and excitement, I was all over it. And being at that racetrack, that was a turning point in my life. I knew that that was something that I wanted to pursue.
I did a whole lot of other things besides just focus on cars. I did athletics and organized sports, whether that be running track or playing football or playing basketball, but nothing gave me the sense of excitement and completion and satisfaction that my being around race cars or being in that environment, that arena, gave me. So while I was encouraged very strongly by my parents to experience as many different things as I could—and they were very good at exposing me to a lot of different things—nothing took the place of the satisfaction of being around a race car or being around cars in general, and things that went fast. So it was pretty clear to me that that direction was going to be somewhat in the field of racing. Whether it as a driver or anything else I didn’t know. I wanted to be a driver but none of the people that I grew up with were race car drivers, so I really never knew. And really the reason why I took the approach of getting into engineering, it was a tool. It was a means to an end. It was my way of getting myself the financial foundation to buy a race car.
I feel you’re only as old as you feel. And I’d say certainly concerning myself, I’m in great physical condition, still have great reflexes, and I still feel the desire to drive fast. And as far as mileage is concerned, on me as a race car driver, I’m fairly young. I didn’t start racing full-time as a professional until 2002. So by that token, you know, less than a decade. I’ve raced amateur racing, 25 years ago I began that. But I also led a life as a full-time, you know, white-collar professional in the engineering world. So I was racing every weekend, then I was a salaried employee. So 50 is a number that I will admit, when I was in my teens, seemed awfully old. But I don’t act my age, nor do people say I look my age. But I can definitely say I don’t act my age. I would say I’m a very young 50 and, you know, still have the desire to put it out there on the line. Can I race forever? Absolutely not. But I still feel that I’m a pretty young 50.
When I was eight years old, I’m pretty sure that I felt just fearless and, you know, impervious and immune to anything that could go wrong. I mean, there was no preservation of self in terms of mindset, at that age, and you were invincible.
Later on, you come to appreciate and experience that there is mortality. You know that no one will live forever, and that people that you know and that have been close to you and that you’ve been close to have passed. Whether it be in a race car or on a motorcycle or just in the regular, everyday walks of life. And needless to say, those things factor in your mortality, and in your thoughts of mortality. Now if I really had any belief that I was going to go out there tomorrow and die in a race car, I wouldn’t be doing it. I have no desire to not come home to my wife and kids. And so as a result of that, I take every precaution possible as far as my safety gear, my training and my regimen, to make sure that I am on top of my game. And I still have no reservations about driving 200 miles an hour, believe it or not, a few days from 50. I think most drivers probably get to a point where they think, It’s crazy that I’m driving this fast. You know, If I crash it could hurt. And while each of us as a race car driver understands and realizes the risk, we know what it is that we live for. We know what it is that we’ve been given a gift to do. And until I feel that I’m no longer blessed, that I no longer have that desire to go and push my body and my equipment 10-10ths, I’ll continue to do it because I love the feeling of fulfillment and completeness when I get behind the wheel of a race car, which I get nowhere else.
Genetics, I think, do have some impact in terms of your mortality. But by the same token, I am, I would say, a very atypical 50-year-old in terms of my physical presence. And what I mean by that is my athletic state. You know, when I think of a 50-year-old I typically think of somebody who is in double digit body fat and often has a hard time moving around without pain or discomfort. And I am fortunate to be in excellent physical shape and to be able to take care of myself. And this isn’t something like a crash diet or something. This is my way of life. I’ve trained myself. I’ve trained myself as a professional athlete for the majority of my life. So it’s something that I’ve continued to do. However, having said that, despite how well I might take care of myself, something could happen that I have no control over.
Is my body fat now the lowest it’s ever been? No, it’s not. But it’s still single digit. Is my eyesight right now, right before I turn 50, as good as it’s ever been? No, it’s not. I have some difficulty reading things that are too close to me. So that has occurred. But that’s not something that limits me as a race car driver. As long as I can see way down the racetrack at 190 miles an hour, I’m fine. Looking at the fine print on a menu, or whatever, it isn’t important. But having said that, I do realize that nature is taking its course, and that there are definitely signs that, you know, you’re not 18 anymore. There’s no question about that. I work much harder now than I did when I was younger, and I’m willing to put in the work.
I won my first race on Mother’s Day when I was just starting out, so I must’ve been about 22, 23, somewhere around there. And my mother got to ride around on the victory lap celebration with me in my race car, and we were so happy we were both crying like babies. That was probably the happiest day of my life.
I mean, I didn’t know what racing was going to be for me, but obviously winning that first race in my career validated that. Having my mother, who supported me the whole time, there to share it with me was tremendous. I mean, it was just the perfect scenario. I’ve just never felt the euphoria that I felt then since. I’ve had some great, high moments, you know, getting married, that sort of stuff, but that, without a doubt, is the top. That was the pinnacle.
There was a lot of discouragement, let me tell you. But I stuck to my guns. I believed in my heart that I could achieve what I wanted to achieve and be successful by my own definition. Success to me is happiness. And I’m happy at 50 because I’ve done what it is with my life that I thought I should do, not what other people thought I should do or what other people said was success, you know, money or whatever. I enjoy my life at 50.
I could’ve stayed in corporate America and lived through other people’s visions of what being successful is, but I took a huge leap of faith, and I quit to do something that I knew I was going to have spend all of my time and attention and focus to achieve. And it didn’t come together immediately. It took a period of about three or four years, but it finally came together and I made it.
I have far surpassed anything that I would’ve hoped to achieve as a professional race car driver. I’m very proud and very happy because I would’ve never thought when I first started out racing that I would race in NASCAR. And I did. And I’m one of only three black men that have ever done it on Sunday, you know, to race in Cup. I’ve influenced many people in terms of their life and their career decisions, in terms of taking risks because the rewards are so great. So it’s been a very satisfying ride.
It’s how I see myself: a race car driver who happens to be black, not a black race car driver. And what I mean by that is that, I’m Bill Lester, okay? But people put boundaries and quotes and parameters around my being black, and the significance that that plays. And I only realize it because it’s brought to my attention repeatedly.
It’s amazing to me the outpouring of support that I got from the black community when I achieved that goal. I never thought anybody knew, or was paying attention. But the black community most definitely was. And that’s all well and good, but, you know, I’m Bill Lester, a race car driver, and I’m doing this because this is what I was born to do, not because I’m a flag-bearer for my race.
You mentioned Talladega: I remember very clearly in 1990 when I went on that track to meet a potential sponsor. And I went from the suites to walk all the way down to the base of the grandstands, you know, walking down the bleachers, just so I could experience what it felt like to have 43 Cup cars come by me at 200 miles an hour. That rush of wind and that power and that thunder. And I realized on my way back up the steps just how different I was. I couldn’t believe how many people pointed fingers, how many conversations stopped, just because they couldn’t believe that this black guy was there amongst them. And I felt my body temperature go from 98.5 to about 103. I broke out in a sweat. And I probably picked up my step. I don’t remember doing it, but I’m pretty sure I picked up my step [laughs] back into the suites. It’s just the way the culture is.
I’m happy with my life.
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