Bobby and Tia Norfleet: A Win for All
Like father, like daughter. They’re setting the pace for equality on and off the track.
Bobby Norfleet is in a race without a finish line. As a retired NASCAR driver, he is no stranger to competition, overcoming obstacles, and achieving one’s goals, but his drive wouldn’t let him stop after his laps were done. Norfleet is now retired, but as one of the pioneer African American NASCAR racers, he says he’s obligated to introduce more African Americans to the joys of NASCAR racing. He vowed to not let injustice, ignorance, or bigotry stand in his or other African Americans way as they pursue the sport. Instead, he’s gone full-throttle to help NASCAR become more inclusive by mentoring other African American drivers. And, his most prized protege — his daughter Tia Norfleet — is on her way to her victory lap.
Getting off the Back Roads
Born in 1960 in Savannah, Georgia, during the Civil Rights era, Norfleet heard about protests and sit-ins to overcome ideologies associated with white supremacy, black inferiority, and segregation. Norfleet remembers watching his brothers street race with other African Americans on the back roads of Savannah, and wondered why all people of all races couldn’t come together for the love of the sport.
Norfleet took note of the racial tension in his environment and pushed for racial progress in all aspects of his life. But watching his brothers ignited another fire inside of him — he wanted to race. He became fascinated with how vehicles work, their speeds, angles, and physics. The passion didn’t stop there, and Norfleet went on to graduate from the Maryland Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering. After college, Norfleet hoped that NASCAR was next, but getting accepted wasn’t easy.
On Your Mark, Get Set, Go
At a loss when it came to finding sponsors, Norfleet asked for help. A family friend happened to know singer and songwriter Gladys Knight, Hall of Fame race driver Alan Kulwicki, and a representative from So So Def Records, who all believed in Norfleet’s mission. Together they were willing to sponsor the $400,000 a week or $15 million a year Norfleet needed to practice and compete. “They invested in me and they had never seen me race,” Norfleet said. “But they knew what I stood for, that I was motivated and I wanted to help others succeed in the sport.”
Luckily, Norfleet learned about the sport first-hand from Wendell Scott, the first ever African-American NASCAR champion. Scott became Norfleet’s mentor and guided him on how to overcome the racial barriers in the sport. But like any experienced driver knows, the road to success isn’t easy, and as Norfleet found, with darker skin, it’s harder to get the sponsors required to race.
Despite struggling to get sponsorship in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Norfleet made a comeback in 2005 with Bobby Norfleet Racing, a motorsport company, designed to help other African Americans enter NASCAR. He retired the following year due to physical and political aspects of the job. “Many people don’t know about the physical part of NASCAR,” he said. “It’s really tough on your body, when you’re going over 200 miles per hour, the G-force on the car can be up to three times your bodyweight.”
The heat inside the car adds another dynamic, “In the summer, you can lose up to ten pounds of water racing, the heat in the car can easily reach over 100 degrees… it’s just something that people don’t think about,” he said.
Norfleet shares all his experiences, stories, and lessons with his daughter, Tia, in hopes that she will be able to overcome the obstacles he did quicker and easier. As a woman of color, Tia understands that she’s a minority on the NASCAR track, but just like her father, she’s determined to not give up. “She’s persistent and patient,” Norfleet said of his daughter. “She’s been black belt certified since she was nine, so she’s been kicking butt for a long time and will continue to do so in whatever she does.”
Tia’s love for racing started with Barbie. “My dad bought me a Barbie car when I was 4 and tricked it out to ride fast, and then I was hooked,” she said. Her father also let her drive the car at the young age of eight, as long as they didn’t tell her mother. While Bobby Norfleet may have opened Tia’s eyes to racing and NASCAR, he did not force her into it. “Tia got into this on her own, she really has a passion for it and is good. She can handle the pressure that comes with driving,” he said.
When she turned 14, she realized that racing was what she wanted to do with her life. And like her father, she wants to break down barriers as she goes. “Most women don’t venture into this sport because of the fear factor associated with it,” she said. “But women need to embrace the risk, remain safe, and focus on winning, rather than crashes and getting hurt.”
Bobby and Tia Norfleet’s dedication to racial equity extends beyond the NASCAR track. They are actively involved in improving their local communities and the lives of African Americans. “We have adopted a theory of giving 20 percent on-track and 80 percent off-track. We’ve noticed that it makes our lives more complete to see our community doing better.”
In addition to racing, Bobby and Tia are members of The National African American Drug Policy Coalition to help reduce drug abuse in minority communities. “It’s a cause that we are really passionate about,” Tia said. While their days are spent racing and zooming around the track, Bobby and Tia Norfleet have learned that the most important thing in life is to slow down and embrace the moment.