Tia Norfleet took fast track to history
Tia Norfleet has always been comfortable behind the wheel, even when she couldn't see over it.
At the age of 4, Norfleet, the daughter of NASCAR pioneer Bobby Norfleet, hopped into her mother's minivan. The keys were in the ignition, so Tia decided to go for a joy ride. She hit the gas -- and the front porch.
A race car driver was born.
"Tia lived to drive," her father said. "When she was about 9, if she did well in her karate class, I'd let her drive home."
Bobby nurtured his daughter's talents, and she took advantage. On Aug. 4, Tia, 24, became the first African-American woman to race in NASCAR. She placed 23rd out of 25 competitors at the CMC Supply Twin 100s at Motor Mile Speedway in Fairlawn, Va.
Turns out, the little girl who drove a souped-up Hot Wheels convertible hot rod until the wheels fell off is now pushing speeds of up to 200 mph in NASCAR's late-model K&N Pro Series.
At 14, Norfleet started in go-kart racing. She graduated to drag racing, where she won 37 of 52 events. In 2004, she began driving stock cars, driving for her father's team, Bobby Norfleet Racing.
"It's crazy that blacks are still achieving firsts in sport," Tia said, "but at the same time, it's amazing to see we are evolving as a people. We can do the things we always wanted to do because our ancestors have paid the price for us to be where we are."
In 2004, NASCAR started its Drive for Diversity program to give minority and female drivers the opportunity to compete. NASCAR wants minorities and women to have other opportunities in the motorsports industry as well. The goal is to nurture diverse talent -- and broaden the sport's audience.
NASCAR's history has been peppered with specks of color, groundbreakers such as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver; Bill Lester, the first African-American driver in a Busch Series race; and Willy T. Ribbs, the first African-American Formula One driver. And Bobby Norfleet.
The Norfleets acknowledge they would like NASCAR to become more diverse but say the sport has been welcoming to them.
"I've had so many positive people supporting me, and not just black people," Tia said. "Of course, there are the negative people that say certain things behind a computer, but I don't pay attention to those things. They talked about Jesus, so I know they will talk about me."
Her father added, "Drivers and owners know me and my history with the sport, so they make an effort to make our team and Tia feel welcomed. It's like a family."
Breaking new ground doesn't weigh on Tia because, having grown up with a mother who is a minister, she has learned to use her faith whenever things seem daunting.
"I take the responsibility of being a role model and do the best that I can with it," she said. "I focus on what I have to do, and I always say, 'Lord, let your will be done and use me in the way you see fit.'"
The toughest part of her journey has been less about color and more about money. Racing is an expensive sport. With few sponsors, the Norfleets have relied on family, friends and neighbors -- in addition to selling their home -- to fund Tia's career.
"We were robbing Peter to pay Paul then turned around and took Paul's money to pay for Tia to race," Bobby said.
Some sponsors considered Tia, but the Norfleets recognized that not all money was good money.
"We've turned down lots of sponsorships because we don't do alcohol and tobacco," she said.
Luckily for the Norfleets, Tia's skills have drastically improved since her wreck as a toddler. She is sponsored by Verizon and is in talks with other companies to fund her drive into history.
"I told her from the beginning that being a driver was not going to be easy, but we are opening doors for the future," Bobby said. "Hopefully, Tia's journey will make it easier for the person that comes behind her."