The daughter of driver Bobby Norfleet is ready to make tracks of her own in the most-segregated sport.
It doesn’t take long to understand Tia Norfleet is no pushover.
The outspoken 24-year-old says what she means and means what she says. And her stated intent is to break into NASCAR, which, as the first Black woman to ever do so, would put Norfleet into the company of Jackie Robinson as far as breaking down barriers.
“I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to do what I love to do and also make a better life for me and my family,” Norfleet said in an interview with BET.com. “But at the same time I don’t focus on making history and being the first Black female to drive in NASCAR. I love NASCAR, I drive NASCAR. I just so happen to be a Black female.”
When we think of NASCAR and its perceived association with the Confederate flag and rednecks, you have to wonder how a young lady from a much different culture finds herself chasing this particular dream. Well you don’t have to go much further than her father, Bobby Norfleet, who broke into NASCAR in the 1990s and still dabbles in stock car racing as both a driver and owner these days.
It was Bobby who first began feeding Tia’s thirst for speed when she was five years old and he put an extra battery in her Hot Wheels Barbie car to make it go faster. And while the size and speed of the vehicles have certainly changed, Bobby is still feeding Tia’s desire for speed.
“I taught her, not just in NASCAR but in drag racing, karate and everything else she has ever done, you have to do it because you want to do it,” said Bobby, whose mentor was racing pioneer Wendell Scott. “You can’t do it because I’ve done it. You’ve got to want to do it. You got to get up in the morning because this is what you want to do. You go to bed at night because this is what you want to do. Now if you want to do that, I’m behind you.”
Tia has come up through the ranks racing drag cars and running short tracks, now her goal is to hit the NASCAR circuit. So far she hasn’t entered into a race, but she and Bobby are hopeful that will happen this summer.
In the meantime, Tia has continued to test every chance she gets with an eye on hitting the track real soon.
“Everything is great,” Tia said. “I’m excited about everything. I am blessed that I am having the opportunity to do what I love to do and I am just looking forward to everything that is going to happen in the near future.”
It seems like an uphill battle in a sport that has been white male dominated for much of its existence. Black drivers in the past have faced challenges within NASCAR, among the fans and, perhaps even more daunting, securing necessary sponsorship for financial support.
But Bobby, who certainly has faced his challenges both in NASCAR and with the Bush Series, believes there has been a shift after NASCAR began its diversity initiative.
"I’ve seen a lot of changes in the last few years in NASCAR as far as trying to have inclusion,” Bobby said. “In the past, they have had a lot of things that didn’t sit well with us. But I’ve seen them try to have some diversity. Don’t get me wrong, they still have a long way to go but I think they’ve made an effort. With Tia, I think that just solidifies the inclusion part, that we can be here, we can compete on this state. When the playing field is equal and the rules are clear, we can compete with anyone.”
That certainly seems to be the case when Tia talks about her passion and desire to run NASCAR for living. She talked at length with BET.com about her love for NASCAR, inevitable comparisons to current IndyCar and NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, and her plan to get to the top of stock car racing.
BET.com: Tia, how did you figure out that racing is what you love to do?
Tia Norfleet : My father always told me if you can do something and [you'd be willing to] do it for free, then that’s your passion. I started when I was maybe 5. From then on I’ve just been addicted to it. I’ve been around racing all my life. My father was into racing, he still drives.
It wasn’t something that I was forced into. It’s something I am interested in and how it went on it just became a passion of mine. It wasn’t just because my dad was doing it. He never pushed me into anything. Anyone who knows me knows I am not going to do anything I don’t want to do. I’m kind of stubborn.
What is it about this sport you find so addicting?
I’m kind of an adrenaline junky. I love the rush. I love the speed. I love the challenge because I love when people to tell me I can’t do something because it just motivates me to prove them wrong. Of course that is in sports, but in life in general people are going to tell you can’t do it, or that I am not good enough. That just motivates me even more.
Have you experienced a lot of people telling you that your NASCAR dream isn’t realistic?
Actually it’s kind of crazy because some of the people you thought were your friends, they are the people saying those type of things. But at the end of the day I shy myself away from negativity because I’m all about positivity and empowering others. In the same sense I expect the same in return. But, of course, everyone isn’t like me.
“So I have experienced the doubters, especially in the beginning. They were telling me that they didn’t see this working for me, that I should just go to school, get a degree and work in an office somewhere. But that is not what I want to do. And for them to tell me that, it just really pushed me to drive for it even more.
How embracing have you felt NASCAR has been to you to this point?
It’s been very embracing. Either-or, I am here to stay. But I don’t feel there is any negativity towards me to this point. But I can’t speak for everyone and I can’t predict the future. But as far as right now, as far as the officials in NASCAR, I have been accepted very well.
Is there anything you can take from Danica Patrick and what she has endured and apply to your own quest?
I really don’t compare myself to Danica. I’m so proud of what she is doing and I appreciate what she is doing, hopefully that feeling is returned. I like running NASCAR, but I don’t compare myself to anyone.
How have your experiences in drag racing and running short tracks prepared you for this next step?
It’s just basically equipped me with the seat time. It’s kind of like once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, you know how to ride a bike. It just helped and gave me experience that I can use toward my future.