The murmurs are sure to come when the driver climbs into the No. 34 ARCA series car on Feb. 16 and fires up the engine.
Tia Norfleet is used to the double takes and the whispers. It comes with the territory of being the first and only African-American woman in NASCAR.
“I get a lot of attention,” said Norfleet, a 2004 graduate of Harlem High and Augusta resident. “When I’m in full uniform they say, ‘OK, what is she doing?’ They’re probably thinking I should be working on a team. Then when they see me get in the car they’re like, ‘Ohhh-kaaaaay, well what is this?’”
As unconventional as it might seem to her race and gender, Norfleet was born into racing in Suffolk, Va., in 1988. Her father, Bobby Norfleet, has been involved in all forms of motorsports for more than 25 years. He briefly raced some NASCAR events himself before turning attention to his own racing shop and his daughter’s career.
When Tia was just 5, her father gave her a Barbie Corvette, replacing the toy Hot Wheels batteries in it with two regular car batteries.
“He kind of souped up the Barbie Corvette and I was like, ‘OK, I like this,’” Norfleet said. “I would race other kids in the neighborhood and of course I would win. That’s really where it initially started.”
That initial fascination advanced to go-karts and Bandeleros and drag cars. She legitimized her place in a mostly white-male world by winning 37 of 52 drag events she competed in at the local and regional level.
But it’s NASCAR where she has her sights set and where she hope to make an impact in the tire tracks first broken in by pioneers Wendell Scott and Sara Christian.
“I’m hoping to make a difference,” she said. “NASCAR is trying to make a difference as well. Everything comes at its own time. To me, no reflection on anyone in particular, but it’s bad that in 2013 I’m the first and the only.”
Norfleet made her NASCAR debut in a late-model race at the Motor Mile Speedway in Fairlawn, Va., on Aug.4, 2012. If all goes according to plan, she will open her 2013 campaign in the Lucas Oil 200 ARCA race on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway to kick of Speed Week.
“The ultimate goal would be to race in the Daytona 500, of course, but this being at the same track during the same week is just totally awesome and definitely a threshold,” she said of another barrier she hopes to cross.
Norfleet grew up in Virginia but attended several elementary schools in Augusta when her father first moved them to Georgia when she was in first grade. She bounced around North Carolina and Virginia before finally settling in the Augusta area to finish high school at Harlem and begin the focus on her professional career behind the wheel.
“It’s been a blessing that I’m having the opportunity to do what I love to do because a lot of people hate their jobs,” Norfleet said. “It’s been a challenge and a long road and I know that I have a long road to go. Above it all I see people whose lives are touched by my story and say that I have motivated them and encouraged them to be more than anyone expected them to be. They see that anything is possible.”
The challenges aren’t minimal in a sport where women are scarce and blacks almost non-existent. Her father’s inspiration was Scott, the only African-American to ever win a race at NASCAR’s highest level and whose experience was immortalized by Richard Pryor in the movie Greased Lightning.
Scott won his only race in what’s now the Sprint Cup Series in 1964 at Jacksonville’s Speedway Park. Despite lapping the field two times over, he passed the finish line twice without a checkered flag that was finally raised for Buck Baker. It was Baker who kissed the race queen and was presented the trophy before hours later NASCAR announced the mistake and credited Scott with the victory. Scott’s family finally was presented the trophy in 2010.
Norfleet was only 2 when Scott died in 1990, but she’s met his children and rides the No. 34 that was both Scott’s and her father’s.
“It’s just symbolic to represent the struggle and history behind it all,” she said. “He paved the way for people like my dad. Because of him, my dad had it a lot easier than he did and I have it a lot easier than my dad.”
Being that first and only presents its own challenges in a circuit so deeply rooted in the old South.
“Taking away the color of skin, just being a woman in general brings a lot of things that come your way in racing,” Norfleet said. “On top of it being an African-American woman doing something that’s never been done, yeah it’s been a lot of hurdles and lot of challenges. But believe it or not I get so much positive feedback and positive support and NASCAR is making a concerted effort to change the way people think about their sport.
“A lot of people of color don’t watch because they have things set in their minds that it’s one way and it’s really not. But they don’t see that because they don’t have anyone to identify with. NASCAR is making so many efforts to diversify the sport and I think that’s great. But being a woman in general is hard enough.”
Norfleet says that for the most part she is accepted wherever she goes, with the occasional “idiot” who tries to drag her down. She ignores the negativity.
“Had other leaders that came before me listened to what people said when they told them they wouldn’t be anything, they would have never made the impact they did in the world,” she said. “I just go for what I believe in and try to stay positive as possible and surround myself with positive people.”
Norfleet hopes to lock up a major sponsor and run a full NASCAR schedule this season between a mix of ARCA, Nationwide and Late-Model Stocks.
“I want to be at a track every weekend,” she said. “ARCA is going to put me on the platform where I can go run bigger tracks. It’s a stepping stone to my ultimate goal of the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. It’s making me one step closer to those bigger leagues.”
Norfleet’s dreams are big, but her determination bigger.
“I think I can go to the top along with any other driver,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to compete in the Daytona 500. I’m a competitive person. Of course I see myself going all the way to the top.”
Delivering on her plans for Saturday’s ARCA race is a message that the 25-year-old is on the right path.
“Everything is not in vain,” she said. “I’m almost there. I’m so excited and honored just to have the opportunity to even be amongst some of the people who are going to be there.”