Flat Spot On—Drafting Bill Lester Onto the High Banks

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 18 2021

Lester was the first Black driver to win a pole in the Truck Series.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

ATLANTA, Ga. – Every racing person I know has been a road warrior, going to extraordinary lengths to get to the races. A case in point: When the moon and stars aligned, along with Jupiter and Saturn, I once covered the Sebring 12-hour race on a Saturday and the 500-mile NASCAR race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on the next day thanks to my trusty VW Golf. 

I didn’t get to Atlanta for the drop of the green, but as a friend in IMSA recently wise-cracked, you only had to catch the last two laps of a NASCAR race to see any action. (In fact, it was the late 1980s, before Earnhardt began cracking fenders so often the whole Cup series woke up.)

Would that I could be in both places again this weekend, except there’s no way to do that on the same day. I need to get reacquainted with Sebring in a “jones-ing” sort of way. Like so many gigs last year, the Sebring trip got cancelled along with a weekend’s worth of promotion for the book “CRASH!” Same for a planned cross-country trip to Long Beach in my Outback.

I’ve now had the two vaccines shots. Along with my trusty Stefan Johansson mask, exposure is not a problem when it comes to Sebring this year and IMSA’s well-conceived COVID-19 restrictions that allow actual coverage of the race. But how often does an author’s book title make it to the side of a vehicle competing on the Atlanta Motor Speedway’s high banks in NASCAR? 

Thanks to my co-author Bill Lester choosing to return to the Camping World Truck Series this weekend to drive the No. 17 Ford entry of David Gilliland Racing—at age 60—“#WinningInReverse” will be on the rear quarter panel. Maybe the lettering is not as big as sponsors Camping World, Ford and Tommy’s Express Car Wash. But even in my wildest imaginings, I would not have anticipated seeing one of my books on any racing vehicle in a professional series.

But this is life according to Bill Lester. Living the dream is what he does and I’m just glad to be in his draft. Bill believes success is synonymous with happiness and his lived accordingly. Now he’s happy to be scratching the racing itch once again in addition to raising two teenage sons with wife Cheryl. Maybe next year, it will be an occasion for him to return to road racing at Sebring.

Bill Lester and journalist Jonathan Ingram got out of their comfort zones to go racing.

I tend to think both Bill and I have been well outside our comfort zones in order to make our respective careers work. Getting out of one’s comfort zone in order to advance is one of the themes of the book. Every time, for example, Bill got dropped into a new car, track and situation, he was fast. This included Formula Atlantics, Indy Lights, an ARCA stock car, a Busch Series stock car, a NASCAR Truck and then a Cup car. It’s called “Winning in Reverse,” in part because this all started, initially in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, when Bill was 40 years old.

I had my own experiences of getting out of my comfort zone. About 15 years before I met Bill, for example, I was wrestling in the sand at Sebring on a Friday morning with a crossover driver named Foyt who had done a thing or two at Indy. But despite SuperTex leaving bruises on my back after trying to stuff me into the window of a nearby Porsche 935 sitting on jack stands, I don’t ever recall being unhappy about it. Besides, I think I won the verbal battle. By the evening, Foyt as well as the two instigators behind our contretemps—team owner Preston Henn and Bob Wollek—had apologized for things getting out of hand. I suspect it was out of respect for my passionate response to defending my turf and my story in On Track that led to mutual respect between the four of us by time night practice was over.

And, so it goes in racing. If you aren’t passionate and committed about the sport and what you’re doing in it, then move along. I don’t think anybody—those in the grandstands, garage or paddock—would be there without passion. In addition to getting out of one’s comfort zone, passion is another key element among the values Bill chose to highlight in his motivational memoir. It doesn’t matter if it’s the fashion industry, brewing beer, healing the sick or any other path one might choose, in the absence of passion there’s not much chance of a satisfactory ending.

Need I confess my passion was all about writing stories for a living? I couldn’t imagine any other way of going forward. In motor racing, there was an opportunity to publish programs for Road Atlanta, file stories for specialty racing publications and spread the gospel in the mainstream media. I just had to hustle and be thankful. Every time, in fact, I sold an advertisement in the Road Atlanta programs, for instance, I hung up the phone, jumped out of my chair and literally shouted, “Thank you for your contribution to the Jonathan Ingram memorial literary fund!” 

And, yes, gratitude is another of the values that Bill and I identified that helped drive his story about how he arrived at starting a professional racing career at age 40 and then sustaining it for over 30,000 laps of racing and more than $22 million in prize money. The dream began, it’s worth noting, at age seven when his dad took him to a Can-Am race at Laguna Seca. How did he get into NASCAR a little more than three decades later and then win a Grand-Am race co-driving with Jordan Taylor? (Well, you know a book plug when you see one.)

My passion began in boyhood when I started reading every magazine, and book, I could get my hands on in our house – books about dogs, murder mysteries, World War II and Henry Gregor Felson novels about hot rodding, which I found on my older brothers’ shelves. The stories just needed to engage a boyhood passion one way or the other. The pages of Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post were rife with them. American Indians were a favorite subject sourced in books whenever possible.

The David Gilliland Racing truck will carry a tribute to #Winning In Reverse.

My older brother was a talented self-taught mechanic who built street racers on our carport that could fly (and later lived his dream as a car dealer). Sometimes he took me to stock car races in Beltsville, Md. How I wish, in retrospect, we had traveled to the road races at the Marlboro, Md., track from our home in Arlington, Va. As it was, seeing Bobby Ballantine race the likes of “Rapid Ray” Hendrick at Beltsville, occasional fists flailing and helmets popped 20 feet in the air off of a car’s fender were compelling, real-life stories of passion and commitment unfolding before my eyes.

At Saturday night short tracks in the 1960s, you always knew that almost everybody went back to their job on Monday. Later, when I first started covering IMSA in the 1980s, it was often a similar gig. Guys like Al Holbert and Bob Letizinger went back to running their car dealerships on Monday mornings. This, too, had a way of underscoring the passion to do whatever it takes to go racing and everybody being in the same boat. The lucky ones were those who could do it full time and that, somewhat miraculously, included me.

I ended up writing race reports, features and opinion pieces into the wee hours on many a Monday morning in order to meet a deadline, get paid and to be ready for the next road warrior chapter in my travelogue. It wasn’t what I planned, it just unfolded this way, as did opportunities to write books. It’s still a bit puzzling to me, at times, how I have managed to write stories for a living. But at the moment, it’s a dream to think that I helped write a book whose title will be carried on the high banks this weekend in Atlanta by a co-author, one who signs “Winning In Reverse” with the all-important “Live your dreams.”

(Editor’s note: Learn more about “Winning In Reverse” at www.BillLester.com. Learn more about “CRASH!” at www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 18 2021
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