Some little girls play with dolls. Others take up sewing. But for a five-year-old Tia Norfleet—now 24—it was a battery-operated toy Corvette that held the most appeal.
It wasn’t an obsession that was too surprising to her dad, NASCAR racing pioneer Bobby Norfleet. But now that he’s retired from the sport, Tia is looking to fill his patch-covered racing jumpsuit and helmut as the first African American female NASCAR driver. BE Next sat down with the Suffolk, Virginia, native—and the first woman to ever be issued a license by NASCAR—to discuss her plight as she looks to move beyond drag racing and qualify for the longer distance tracks, such as Daytona and Talladega.
BE Next: What do you love about the sport?
Norfleet: I love it all, especially the adrenaline rush—I’m sort of a adrenaline junkie. I love the speed, the competitiveness and the fact that my family—particularly my father, my first mentor—is participating in my dream.
Have you ever had any close calls out on the track?
There are always those gasping moments, those close calls. But so far nothing too serious. I think the key to not getting hurt is to remain fearful of the car you’re driving. When you get too relaxed or too comfortable with it, that’s when something goes wrong.
What is it like to be such an anomaly in NASCAR, a sport that is overwhelmingly made up of White men?
I don’t really think too much about being the first of my kind. I just consider myself a race car driver who happens to be a Black female. So far most of my experiences have been good but occasionally I’ll come across a naysayer, someone who will try to tell me I shouldn’t do this and that I should leave [this sport] to the guys. They try to discourage me from living my dream and reaching my goal. I just tune them out.
What do you need at this point in order to officially become a NASCAR driver?
Money, and lots of it! NASCAR is an extremely expensive sport. Our truck and trailer alone costs about $600,000—a majority of it is paid in endorsements. It costs $10,000 just for me to test [for a race]. Then, consider the fact that it takes anywhere from $5-30 million a year just to operate your team, if you’re going to be competitive. You also have to have a new or different car at every race track. A new engine costs $75,000 and you can go through 20, 30, 40 of them a year. All of this is why my team and I spend so much time appealing to my potential investors, Fortune 500 companies that pour literally millions of dollars into the sport each year. For them, there’s a huge payoff: while they can’t put branding all over Lebron James’ jersey they can plaster my jacket and my car. It’s a very lucrative situation for them since there are hundreds of thousands of spectators at any given race.
How are your fundraising efforts going?
It’s not been easy but we do have support. We have some investors as well as endorsements that are currently being considered and negotiated.
How many Black folks do you normally see up in the stands? Do you see the sport growing in popularity among people of color?
The number of African American fans stands at around 8.8 percent right now. That’s a lot better than it was 10 years ago when it was probably 1.1 percent. We love the sport—we’re into the fast cars, painting our cars like NASCAR drivers and going to see movies about it (i.e. The Fast and the Furious franchise) but we need more role models in it. I think it will really take off for us when [Black people] see people who looks like them racing, kinda like how it was with Tiger Woods and golf. That’s where I hope to come in.
What is your take on the recent Obama/NASCAR snub flap?
I don’t know the specifics of that situation but let’s just say if I were ever invited to The White House to meet President Obama I would go.
What is your message to young women who want to follow your lead?
Follow your heart and your passion and don’t let anyone discourage you from being who you were meant to be.