Meet Tia Norfleet, The First African American Female NASCAR Driver
While the jury is still out on whether or not we live in a "post-racial" society, the argument could be made that the color lines are beginning to blur.
For much of its existence, the most colorful things about NASCAR have been its logo and the flashy cars barreling down race tracks. NASCAR's fan base is most closely associated with the southern portion of the United States, creating an almost unavoidable association with the rebel flag in the minds of many outsiders to the sport.
But recent efforts over the past ten years have given NASCAR's image a much needed tune up. The auto racing body's first attempts at diversity included creating the Executive Steering Committee for Diversity and making basketball legend, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the committee's co-chair. And the efforts didn't stall there. NASCAR continued its drive to promote inclusion; opening the door for people like Tia Norfleet, the first African American female racer in NASCAR history.
Daughter of former NASCAR driver, Bobby Norfleet, Tia got interested in racing by following her father around. By age 14, she was already competing in kart racing events.
Earlier this year, after shooting though the amateur ranks, Norfleet became the first black woman to ever earn a NASCAR racing license.
In August 2012, she competed in her first race as a NASCAR driver and is looking forward to paving a new road for others.
Loop 21 caught up with Tia and her father to talk about her career and her future.
Loop 21: So, how did racing and NASCAR even become a big thing in the Norfleet household?
Bobby Norfleet: I raced every day of my life. I'm 63 and I never played any sports. All I ever did was race bicycles as a kid and graduated to drag racing. Growing up, Wendell Scott--the first African American to ever drive in NASCAR--was my mentor and that's how I ended up in the sport.
Tia Norfleet: I guess when I was really young. All I ever saw my dad do was race, so when I was five, he got me a Barbie corvette and took out the batteries and put two car batteries in it to make it go faster. That was the initial thing that made me think this is what I wanted to do.
Loop 21: How do you nurture a child's interest in racing--it's not like with baseball, football or basketball where you can just find an open field or court.
Bobby: She would come with me to events and be around when I was working on a car. It wasn't too hard, but it was hard from a financial point. When you're a basketball or football player, all you have to do is find a court, field or place to play. In motor sports, you have to find a lot of back roads, or a racetrack.
Loop 21: How and where do you practice?
Bobby: We have to go and rent tracks all around the country. Usually it's one similar to the one we're about to race on. You can't rent the track you're scheduled to race on because it gives you an unfair advantage. You basically pay to use it, test your car and do what you have to do.
Tia: You have to rent a track. It's almost as intense as a race. Only difference is there's not as many cars out there with you. You may be out there alone some days, but you're basically just testing your car out. You could be out there from sun up to sun down some days. You also spend time communicating with your crew chief because they are your eyes and ears. When you're in the car, you can't look left or right or behind you, so you learn how to listen to them more.
Loop 21: Growing up, were you a loner as far as your interest in racing was concerned? Did you have friends who were doing it too?
Tia: I was pretty much a loner, but my family always supported me. They were always there. I was the only one who wanted to participate in motor sports growing up. As I got older, some of my male friends got more interested in drag racing and street racing. They would collect cars, but I was pretty much by myself.
Loop 21: You finally competed in your first NASCAR race earlier this month. You got a lot of attention, and some criticism, even before your tires met the track. Was it a relief to get it out of the way?
Tia: It was exciting. It was a breath of fresh air, like, it's finally happening. I know we came a long way, but we have a long way to go as well. But finally being in the car, being at the track with my family and support team and actually experiencing it was exciting. It was a blessing that I was actually there. As far as criticism, I don't really pay attention to what people say about me. I just do me. I was a little nervous before the race. But once I got in the car, started the engine and got the smell of the rubber--I was in my element.
Loop 21: You are being heavily promoted as the first black female NASCAR driver. Is that something you set out to do? Is it a burden at all?
Tia: It's not a burden; it's something I love to do. I'm a racer. I'm a driver. I just happen to be an African American female. It's nothing we set out to do, I just like to race. But we are trying to expose a different demographic to the sport. I'm just pleased to be a part of the situation.
Loop 21: From the outside looking in, it still doesn't look like a lot of black people are involved or interested in NASCAR. Is that the truth?
Bobby: The sport is changing. It's not like it was when I first got in. You are seeing more minority participation in the sport. NASCAR is doing more to promote inclusion. They are trying to show people that it's not like it was 20 years ago. NASCAR is big business, and in order to succeed in big business, you have to include everybody. I've seen rapid growth in the last six years. They are trying to come up with new ways to get more people involved in the sport. Keep in mind, NASCAR is 60 years old and this is all brand new to them, but they are making an assertive effort.
Loop 21: Lastly, do NASCAR drivers get a lot of speeding tickets?
Tia: Well, I don't want to incriminate myself, but I speed anyway. But, no, I don't have a lot of speeding tickets. I can only speak for myself though.
Bobby: Actually, I drive below the speed limit. After you're spending all this time in these cars where it can get 160 degrees inside, the last thing you want to do is drive, let alone speed. You want to chill on a back porch somewhere and chill.
Find out more about Tia Norfleet and her community work at TiaNorfleet34.com