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Lester back at Daytona, sans Cup dream

- The Orlando Sentinel
Saturday, Jul. 04, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The good news for Bill Lester: He's back, racing at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.

The bad news: His race starts at 2 p.m. EDT. He'd really rather be racing at 8 p.m.

Lester is entered in the Brumos Porsche 250 Grand-Am race, teamed with Orlando's Ryan Dalziel, a former Champ car driver, in the Riviera Beach-based Orbit Racing Dinan BMW in the Rolex series.

At 48, Lester knows he is likely to finish out his racing career where it began, in sports cars, instead of his ultimate goal: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Which, of course, takes the green flag on Saturday night, after the Grand-Am race, for the Coke Zero 400.

Lester became the first black driver to compete in the Cup series in 20 years when he made two starts in 2006 for Bill Davis Racing. Most of his NASCAR career, though, was spent in the Truck series, where he made 142 starts, won three poles and had seven top-10 finishes.

He would liked to have raced longer, and more often in NASCAR, "but I've been fortunate to be able to do what I have on the limited amount of support and funding that I've been able to find."

Lester worked as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, racing on weekends, until he decided to go for it and pursue racing full-time.

"When I left corporate America, I never looked back," he said. "I didn't want to stay there as long as I did, but it was the only way to make a stable income and pursue what I wanted to do, which was turn the wheel."

That kept him from getting the early start many drivers have had because he didn't begin amateur racing until he was 22.

And back then, NASCAR was not on his radar.

"I grew up in Northern California, and what sort of racing was I exposed to? Sports cars and open-wheel cars. That was what was sexy to me, not a souped-up family car going around in circles. But as I saw the sport grow and expand, it was all about NASCAR."

Lester lives in Atlanta with his wife, Cheryl, and two kids. Any future Lesters destined for the track?

"Well, my 6-year-old definitely knows what Daddy does for a living. He has a little go-kart he drives around in our cul-de-sac, and I took him to a quarter-midget track and had him make some laps on an oval. And while I saw the car control, and the skill and the concentration, what I haven't seen is a burning indication from him that it's what he wants to do."

Even when his driving career is over, Lester said he doesn't plan to stray far from motorsports, possibly working to fund minority drivers for the future. "I'd definitely be interested in working with a developmental project, maybe helping find the next Bill Lester, Willy T. Ribbs or Wendell Scott."

Lester will line up against 18 other Daytona Prototype cars today, including points leaders Scott Pruett and his Ganassi Racing teammate, Memo Rojas. Sixteen cars are entered in the slower GT class, including a Mazda RX-8 co-owned and driven by Patrick Dempsey, star of Grey's Anatomy .

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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