Don’t call it a comeback, because racing superstar-in-the-making Tia Norfleet has been on the path to greatness since birth. With racing blood coursing through her veins thanks to her father — race car driver Bobby Norfleet — Tia has set her sights on making waves as the first Black woman to champion the NASCAR circuit.
On her ever-evolving road to greatness, Norfleet made a pit stop at rolling out headquarters to share her story.
When did you first fall in love with being behind the wheel of a car?
As a child, your dreams change on a daily basis. Around the age of 5, my dad introduced me to the idea of driving fast. I think when I was 14 or 15 I realized I could make a career out of it and that it was one of my passions.
What was it like to grow up as a child of a NASCAR racer?
For me, it was the norm. I really didn’t pay attention to anything outside of it until it was brought into my home. My dad is a very strong individual that speaks his mind and I get a lot of my traits from him. Back then, it was just normal for me, but now when I look back on it, [I] realize there were some times when he was being judged and criticized for that particular trait.
What do you mean criticized?
A lot of people looked at him as if he should have played the part that other people wanted him to play, and he’s just not that type of person. He’s going to be himself no matter what anyone else says. He’s the headstrong, confident man that will do what he feels is right. He will go after his vision, and when people don’t agree and feel threatened by it, they try to blackball and sabotage him. I just looked at it as a lesson because I have it a lot easier than my dad, and he has it a lot easier than the people who came before him.
How did you take your dream and turn it into reality?
I listened and took heed to what my dad showed me. He taught me everything I know about motorsports. He taught me the game and encouraged me to look at it from a business standpoint.
How does one prepare to be in motorsports?
For me, it’s a little different than most because I am a nontraditional driver, so I have nontraditional opportunities.
How hard is it to break into NASCAR?
It’s very hard to break into NASCAR. It is a sponsor-driven sport and a lot of the drivers in NASCAR already come from money, so it’s not really that hard [for them] to get a sponsor. But for an underprivileged driver and regular middle-class citizen like myself, it’s harder to get into it because the money it takes to compete is not money that we normally have in our bank accounts.
How much money does it take to compete?
It depends on the class that you’re in. There are different levels to NASCAR and that’s what a lot of people don’t really understand. Sprint Cup is the highest level of NASCAR. Then you have your Whelen Series, your K&N Series, your Truck Series, your Nationwide Series and then your Sprint Series. So let’s just say hypothetically, you’re going to compete in a Sprint Series. You’re going to need on average about $7-10 million a year. That’s not a lot if you think about it, but you have to have tires, a pit crew and everything else. It gets pretty expensive.
Which level are you on currently?
I am currently licensed for the Whelen Series in NASCAR and I am trying to bring awareness to the fact that in order to move up, I have to have financial backing. I [need] a sponsor. I could be the best driver in the world, but if I don’t have the financial backing to progress to the next level, it doesn’t matter how good I am. An average race in the Whelen Series is just like any other race but they’re a little shorter compared to Sprint or Nationwide because they are smaller tracks. What I am working on is moving up to the K&N series, and then eventually branch off into Arca. From Arca, I want to go to truck and then wherever else I feel comfortable.
What has been the challenge when it comes to getting sponsors?
The struggles that I’ve had with getting sponsors aren’t necessarily because I am a Black woman, but more because a lot of people don’t want to invest in something that they don’t know. They are not familiar with why I’m doing this, so they become hesitant. In addition, having the right internal team makes a difference. If you don’t have the right people negotiating deals and getting sponsors that coincide with your brand, then it defeats the purpose. That was pretty much my struggle.
Talk about the controversy between yourself and NASCAR in regard to putting your story out.
There was some controversy, but because NASCAR wasn’t behind it, they didn’t really state anything. It was brought up by a member in NASCAR’s diversity department but to this day I have their full support.
Why did the person in the diversity program have an issue with you?
Honestly, I think their problem was that I didn’t go about it the way they thought I should have. But this is my vision and I’m going to go about it the way I see fit.
How do you feel they wanted you to handle your vision?
I think they would have preferred for me to live out the diversity program’s vision, but I would rather do it my way. Anything I have ever said was the truth. And those people that tried to put obstacles in my way are no longer there. So, I feel like what God has for me, no man can take away.
How were you able to come through the situation?
My mother is a minister and I was raised in the church, so at the end of the day that’s who I go to. I just try to stay prayed up and around people who truly have my well-being and best interest at heart. It made me realize how passionate I was about this. It hurt me to the core because I hadn’t done anything wrong for it to pan out the way it did. It bothered me, but looking back on it I’m grateful that everything happened the way it did. Timing is key, and I’m in a place where I now know that this is where I want to be.
What brought you to that place?
[In] the midst of it all I had so many supporters. I had people emailing me from Brazil and other countries. I didn’t even know that I touched that many people and for them to send me those blessings and prayers, I told myself that I’m not going to let this stop me because … it’s bigger than me. I have a purpose and I am here to fulfill it.
What is your purpose?
My purpose is to break down barriers for that little girl or that little boy [who] is not as privileged as most, [and who] has a dream that people say can’t be done. I want them to still believe that it can happen and I want them to say, “She did it, and I can do it, too.” My purpose is to be living proof that anything can be done as long as you believe in it wholeheartedly.
What’s one thing that you would tell someone that is going through a huge obstacle?
I would definitely tell them to stay prayed up and that trouble doesn’t last always. If it’s meant for you, it’s going to happen and don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Do you by all means and live life to the fullest because you only get one. Take every opportunity that is presented to you because you never know when you’re going to get that opportunity again.
When are we going to see you on the track?
I’m actually doing a testing at the Atlanta Motor Speedway soon and I am working on a couple of sponsorships that I am still sorting out the details for, but very soon.
Would racing be the best way to show sponsors who you are?
Yes, just getting out there and letting it be known that I’m not doing this for the hype. This is what I was born to do and it’s what I am going to do.
What is the response from the other drivers?
Ironically, I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement from the drivers that I have come across. I still have haters and people that feel like I don’t belong because I don’t look like them or because I’m a woman. A lot of people feel like it’s a boy’s club and that we’re not allowed. But other than the naysayers and haters, I get a lot of support.
Have you ever come across a situation where you were being judged and you just wanted to go off?
Of course, I’ve come across a lot of situations that have nothing to do with racing and I’ve wanted to go off, but I had to realize that there’s a bigger picture. Sometimes taking the humble road is just what you have to do.
What do you ultimately wish to accomplish?
I would love to compete and win the Daytona 500. I also want to create my own team and start a motorsports school, bringing up underprivileged drivers and giving them the opportunity that I didn’t have.
Facebook: Tia Noorfleet
Twitter: Tia Norfleet