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

Bill Lester prepares for the start of the Chevy Silverado HD 250 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach on February 16, 2007.
Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel
/
Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Bill Lester prepares for the start of the Chevy Silverado HD 250 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach on February 16, 2007.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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