The road to NASCAR has not been fast for Tia Norfleet. Her aspirations of dominating one of America’s fastest-growing sports as the first African-American female driver has been slowed.
“I think my story is still being written from when I started, to now, I think that what I stand for is so much bigger than me,” said Norfleet. “Coming into it, I thought I just wanted to race and then it turned into ‘I have to do this to open up doors for other people like me.’”
As with any endeavor where a person is striving to become the first, there have been roadblocks. Norfleet is breaking down barriers in a sport where having sufficient finances is more of a necessity than in other sports. Practicing for races requires having access to a NASCAR quality vehicle, a mechanical crew to work on the car, proper safety gear and time on the track among other varied expenses.
“From the business side, the biggest challenge is obtaining sponsorship,” said Norfleet. “A lot of people don’t understand the dynamics of how racing actually works. They think you get a license, you get qualified and you’re going to be in every race because you’re qualified, but that’s not the case.”
Unlike sports like football or basketball, practice can be priced into the thousands for just one day.
“If I were a basketball a player, I could just buy a ball and go practice at a public court,” Norfleet commented. “As a driver you don’t have that, you have to have a financial backing to push and propel you to the next level.”
Being the first African-American woman to be licensed by both NASCAR and ARCA, the Automobile Racing Club of America, has helped Norfleet’s marketability in securing some sponsorship. Though there has been some controversy about Norfleet being the first African-American female NASCAR driver, what is undisputed is the fact that she is the first to be licensed.
“Being a Black woman in a predominantly White male sport, it’s hard because I’m a double minority and by being a woman, I’m looked at as weaker or lesser or that I’m not capable to do the things that the guys do,” Norfleet said.
Tia’s father, Bobby Norfleet, is a former NASCAR driver nicknamed “Buzzer-Beater.” Being exposed to NASCAR at a young age heavily influenced Tia’s decision to pursue driving as a career. The first time she drove a car was when she was a mere seven years-old.
It was not until age 14, that she realized she could make a career of it and so the journey began. Even with her direct connection breaking into the sport, it has been a challenged journey. In times of adversity, she remembers her predecessors that have successfully navigated unchartered territory.
“One of my biggest influences is Lewis Hamilton, even though he’s in Formula 1; he’s gone through some of the similar things I’ve gone through,” said Norfleet. “ He’s overcome all of the hurdles thrown at him, so he’s very inspiring to me because he didn’t let that stop him. They tried as hard as they could but he came out on top.”
Some of the biggest names in NASCAR these days are Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Norfleet plans to join in that company.
“If I have to take a couple hits, a couple kicks, a couple punches, then it’s worth it because this is not just for me,” Norfleet stated.
She is on a path to create history as did Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver.