Driving into history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 15, 2005

How far can one person go to make history? What price is worth paying to make one’s mark? Just ask Bobby Norfleet.

In his drive toward racing history, Norfleet has lost houses. He’s lost cars. He spent years hearing the word &uot;No.&uot; Time and again, he’s had to start over.

But his motto is &uot;Refuse to Lose&uot; – and he’s spent more than a decade living up to it.

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&uot;I don’t think I’d do it again,&uot; Norfleet says. &uot;But there’s been an astronomical amount of people who have helped me. Without their help, I’d have been a dot on the map. People have opened a lot of doors for me.&uot;

During his time at John F. Kennedy High in the 1970s, he laughs, &uot;I was too clumsy to play basketball, football and baseball. But I always had an interest in motorsports.&uot;

A trip to the race track in Martinsville with his brothers helped him see the action up close and personal. He saw Wendell Scott, one of the first black drivers in NASCAR history. On Dec. 1, 1963, Scott, himself a native of Danville, became the first, and thus far only, black driver to win a race, taking home the checkered flag at the Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla.

&uot;I was hooked,&uot; Norfleet recalls.

Norfleet, who befriended Scott before the trend-setting driver passed away in 1990, received a degree in mechanical engineering at the Maryland Institute of Technology.

Then, in 1991, he put his skills to work, and learned more about the business side of racing from a newfound instructor – former NASCAR Rookie of the Year and later Winston Cup champion, the late Alan Kulwicki.

&uot;I had been watching him for a long time,&uot; Norfleet says. &uot;I’d seen the struggle he had making it as a northerner in NASCAR. I just walked into his shop (in Martinsville) and went to work. He taught me about the ins and outs of driving.&uot;

Over the next few months, Norfleet learned about taking care of race cars. He learned about running a team. He learned about sponsorships. He even learned a bit about driving.

&uot;He was really close to letting me drive one of his Busch cars,&uot; Norfleet says.

On Oct. 15, 1992, Norfleet’s teacher held off Bill Elliott by 10 points after the final race at Atlanta to capture the Winston Cup Championship. Five and a half months later, he was killed in a plane crash

&uot;I didn’t know what to do,&uot; Norfleet says. &uot;I had no idea if anyone else was going to take me under their wing.&uot;

He decided to go out on his own, and formed Norfleet Motorsports, intending to compete in the NASCAR Craftsman truck series. But, the team didn’t exactly get off to a roaring start.

&uot;We still didn’t understand sponsorships,&uot; he said. &uot;About 75 percent of it was inexperience. I’d make 75 phone calls a day, and if one person said ‘Maybe,’ it was a good day. We’d ask and get sponsors, and tell other teams, and the other teams would come in and take our sponsors.&uot;

Eventually, however, someone very special came to care: Gladys Knight –

the same Gladys Knight who, along with the Pips, made &uot;Midnight Train to Georgia&uot; and &uot;Help Me Make it Through the Night&uot; household tunes. After a few years of struggling, Knight found out about Norfleet’s squad, and decided to help them out.

&uot;She told me that no man was an island,&uot; Norfleet says. &uot;I asked her what she wanted for helping me, and she told me that she didn’t want anything, just that I would be willing to help someone else like she’d helped me.&uot;

Knight, along with 40 Street Records, So So Def and LaFace Records, Ron Winan’s Chicken and Waffles and RDJ Entertainment-Florida, helped bring in millions for the team. In 1995, Norfleet started racing on the truck circuit, and stayed there for six years, making his debut on the Craftsman Truck Series in March 2000 at the Dodge California Truckstop 250 in Bakersfield, Calif.

The next year he decided to make another change, heading over to the Busch racing circuit and changing the name of his company to Bobby Norfleet Racing.

&uot;I had to learn the sponsorship game all over again,&uot; he says. &uot;I definitely went to the University of Hard Knocks. I had to secure technical and administrative people.&uot;

Eventually, he became the first black driver to compete on the Nextel Cup circuit (Winston became Nextel in 2003).

Last September, after 18 months of negotiations, FUBU (For U By Us), America’s largest urban clothes designer, announced a three-year, roughly $30 million partnership with Norfleet’s company. Online Poker also signed on for more millions.

On Oct. 1, Norfleet stepped into his team’s Monte Carlo Chevrolet (he has four teams) with FUBU-inspired logos on the side and drove to 16th place in his ARCA Series debut on the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Later this month, he’ll drive in a race in Memphis, Tenn. In February, he’ll be at Daytona Beach, Fla.

And that’s not all. MEC Universal, which is owned by NBC, is filming a reality TV series about Norfleet called &uot;Making the Team.&uot; They’ve been seen on MTV. They’ll take part in an album entitled &uot;106 and Park,&uot; and in an upcoming remake of the 1977 Richard Pryor/Pam Grier film &uot;Greased Lightning,&uot; which Norfleet called one of his inspirations for going into racing.

Norfleet plans to spend much of the next year behind the wheel. Then he’ll call it quits.

&uot;This year will be my last,&uot; he says. &uot;I’ve expended so much energy giving people the opportunity to be drivers. My team has true diversity. Blacks, whites and Hispanics work on my team.

&uot;I’ve seen true diversity in NASCAR. The last few years, I’ve seen more black executives. When I started, there weren’t any.&uot;

He’s also kept his promise to Knight.

&uot;I do appointments at schools,&uot; he says. &uot;I try to keep them away from drugs and gangs. I’ve actually had young children say to me, ‘I’ve never seen a black race car driver.’ But I never wanted to be a black man who’s a race car driver; I wanted to be a race car driver who happened to be black. I want to show them that they can be anything they want to be.

&uot;I came from a small town like Suffolk, and I had a hard road; but if it were easy, everyone would do it. If you can’t weather the storm, it’s best to stay home.&uot;