Tia Norfleet is used to breaking barriers. She's used to being overlooked, and she well knows the low odds and risks involved. None of this matters though.
Norfleet, 24, loves what she does and she'll stop at nothing to make it.
Racing ... is her life.
Growing up the daughter of a minister and a professional racecar driver (Bobby Norfleet), Tia was introduced to the sport at a very young age. In a predominately white, male sport, she is the exception to the rule. Female drivers are rare enough, but an African-American as well? It's never been done.
Norfleet is trying to become the first to make it into the NASCAR circuit. It's a goal she's been aiming toward for quite some time. According to Norfleet, she has been successful at drag racing and on the unofficial shorter tracks circuit similar to NASCAR's Late Models class, where she claims two top-15 finishes. She has not yet qualified for the longer distance tracks such as Daytona and Talladega.
"Around the age of 14 is when I really, really knew that this was what I wanted to do for a living; this was my passion," she told me during a phone interview.
"My finest memory of my racing experience would be when I was about 5. I had a little Corvette car, and my dad put two car batteries in it. I literally drove that car until the wheels fell off. Ever since then, I've just been so enthused about racing, [or] any kind of motor sport."
Tia hails from the South -- Suffolk, Va., to be exact (she lives in Georgia now) -- where racing is not merely a hobby; it's a way of life.
Bobby was a fairly prominent driver himself throughout the '90s, and is credited with helping the sport gain traction in the African-American community. He lists his three mentors as NASCAR champion Wendell Scott, Hall of Fame driver Alan Kulwicki and singer Gladys Knight, who told him: "Whatever I do for you, you better be willing to do it for somebody else."
Taking that advice to heart, when his daughter began to take a keen interest in the sport, he in turn shifted his focus.
"As a young girl I knew she had the desire to do it," Bobby says. "I sort of stepped back on myself and my driving to spend the time on her."
"The talent, that has to be groomed but [she had] the drive and the ambition to do it. [It was] nothing I or her mom ever pushed her into, so that's half the battle right there. The rest of it is being taught the racing business, and then being taught the discipline of racing. Because racing is not just getting in the car and driving."
And for that, Tia is grateful.
"I look up to my dad," she says. I've seen the good and the bad through his eyes."
The "bad" can mean anything from leeches to fake promises to non-sports crises.
To fully reach the pinnacle of sport -- for any athlete -- the on-field aspect is only one component. Oftentimes, it's the off-the-field issues that plague athletes and dramatically alter their careers. There are countless examples to choose from: Gilbert Arenas, Barry Bonds, Magic Johnson, Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Mickey Mantle, etc. The bottom line is that any athlete, in any sport, has to properly conduct themselves in all facets of life to maximize both talent and career.
Bobby saw the sheer importance of this firsthand through his own career and has in turn educated his daughter the right way.
"She understands what not to do," he says. "She understands who not to be around and the nightmares of the sport. She understands that this is a business like any other business."
Of course in racing, you can do all of the right things and it just takes but one instance -- just one split second -- for it all to slip away. With the risk of concussions, spinal injuries and even fatality, this is one of the most dangerous professions a person can choose.
Car-accident-advice.com clearly states that: "NASCAR Safety Regulations do not always prevent accidents at race tracks." The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has had 56 deaths alone, so merely understanding safety equipment doesn’t guarantee safety.
For Tia though, the fear factor simply doesn’t exist.
"I don't focus on getting hurt," she says. "I don't pay attention to the crashes. I believe in God and that everything happens for a reason. I say my prayers, I thank him and I just go for what I know."
Safety is a vital element to any driver, really. But in the case of Tia and her father, it plays even more of a role. Bobby is quick to point out that while she is his driver (for Bobby Norfleet Racing), she's also his child, and that he always errs on the side on caution when possible.
"We still have the father-daughter," he says.
With that in mind, Bobby and Tia have begun to build something very special together, a two-man team that extends far beyond the track. Despite her hectic schedule of school (she's finishing up her engineering degree) and racing, the duo remains extremely active in the community, with the sole purpose of educating and inspiring youth.
"Most drivers think it's 80 percent on-track and 20 percent off-track," Bobby says. "But we have adopted a theory of 20 percent on-track and 80 percent of what you do off-track."
The Norfleets are committed to an array of programs, including and not limited to entrepreneurship for at-risk youth, United Nations World Food Programme, the American Kidney Program, and Driven to Read, which teaches kids the importance of reading and its kinship to racing. All in all, the two will make anywhere from 80 to 100 community appearances annually.
"We will make time for any program that's positive," Bobby says.
Tia's goal is to teach young people -- especially females -- that it can be done, and "it" is not solely limited to racing either. Her motto, "Get right or get left," as she proudly exclaims to me, is a daily motto, not merely a clever tagline.
Tia's team of three -- Gina Iacovou, agent Allan Ellison and publicist Rachel Charles of pitch Ink media -- realize just how special their young protege is. "She's a pioneer, she's that trailblazer," Charles says. "She understands the gravity of what she's about to do and how she can help others."
Cathy Rice is the GM of the South Boston Speedway and is a 39-year-vet of the industry.
She too comprehends what's at stake.
"I can remember when females were not allowed in the pit garage and now you are seeing more and more of the sport being family surrounded which is a wonderful thing," she says in an email. "Having a first female African-American driver would be awesome."
While Tia's team certainly celebrates her heritage, at the same time, they don’t want to be solely identified with it.
"She's a chick that can race like a bat out of hell that just happens to be black," Charles says. "We don't want to be [only associated] with ethnic background. She has no fear of anything and is very knowledgeable about the sport. NASCAR is behind her 100 percent."
NASCAR's Managing Director of Corporate Communications is Ramsey Poston. While he remains eager for Tia to help diversify the sport, he's also realistic of the challenges and pitfalls that she -- like any young prospect -- will surely face.
"The chances of success for any driver are always tough. These are the best drivers in the world. It's like any other professional sport."
Poston however, is also cognizant of a key and distinct advantage Tia has.
"When you grow up in the sport and you have the guidance and tutelage of a father figure to explain to you the right path to take for success, than it's always helpful."
While Tia has learned to live in the moment, she realizes the implications of her career and will stop at nothing to earn her NASCAR stripes. Even though she's the only black female in the sport, she doesn’t hesitate. In fact, she accelerates.
"I like to hang in there with the guys," she says eagerly. "I really love to compete."
"At that moment [when I was 14], when my adrenaline was rushing and I was just so into it I realized that this is something I could actually do for free."
Racing, after all, is her destiny.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to make if clear that Norfleet has only claimed top-15 finishes in races not sanctioned by NASCAR. Since this story was initially published, she ran in her first NASCAR-sanctioned event, a Late Model race in Virginia in 2012, where she finished last in a field of 23. Race participants at this level purchase a license from NASCAR but only obtain race approved from a local track official. NASCAR does not approve drivers for races until the sports higher levels, including the touring series and the national series.