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Bill France Jr.
The Man Who Made NASCAR
By H.A. Branham
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2010 H.A. Branham
All rights reserved.
City of Speed
As NASCAR has grown in terms of visibility and popularity, it has maintained a commitment to its roots, which were planted across the Southeastern United States in the late 1940s. A regional image developed and has persisted despite the fact that NASCAR holds races not only throughout the nation, but in Canada and Mexico, as well.
Along the way, the perception of the France family, front and center to the image, became regionalized, as well.
While the Frances may have made their name in the Southeast, they hail from Washington, D.C. — a simple fact that is more often than not overlooked by people charting the history of what television news personality and author Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest American Sport."
This is not to suggest a desire by the family to distance themselves from their affiliation with the Southeast. Indeed, the family still calls Daytona Beach, Florida, home. The people who run NASCAR all live only a short drive from the massive Daytona International Speedway that opened in 1959 and came to define NASCAR from a facility standpoint.
The man who came to define NASCAR left Washington, D.C., as an infant. A one-year-old Bill France Jr. was an unknowing passenger in the family Hupmobile sedan that rolled into Daytona Beach in the autumn of 1934.
To truly understand the man that toddler became, one must first understand the essence of the city where he grew up and where he worked and lived throughout his long, productive life.
His father, Bill France Sr., was at the wheel of the Hupmobile that fateful day, wife Anne was at his side — and the future was in his sights.
Hindsight and history can bring one to the conclusion that serendipity was in high gear the day the Frances arrived. Bill Sr. was an ambitious sort, a man who in time would become known for grandiose notions of success. Simply put, he dreamed big, an appropriate inclination considering he was 6'5". And in the Daytona Beach area, dreamers were welcomed.
There also was the little matter of "Big Bill" France being a big fan of the automobile. A mechanic by trade, he was intrigued by the sport of auto racing.
Make no mistake. He had landed in the right place at the right time.
Daytona Beach, still a nondescript town on Florida's East Coast in the mid-1930s, nonetheless was a town, and it owed its existence to two modes of transportation — the automobile and the railroad.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Daytona's reputation as a racing mecca already was being established. Although to be completely accurate, the community of Ormond Beach, adjacent to Daytona just to the North, was technically the true "Birthplace of Speed."
It was in Ormond, in and around what is now the intersection of State Road 40 and the coastal state highway A1A, that automobile enthusiasts from all over the world started flocking to race on the expansive, hard- packed beach and chase the land speed record. Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, Ransom Olds — names that became synonymous with American-made autos — were among the record-chasers. Many of the competitors stayed at the Hotel Ormond, just a short walk from the Atlantic shoreline.
The Hotel Ormond was a showplace owned by the great developer Henry Flagler, who was in the process of building a railroad system along Florida's East Coast, a system that eventually reached Key West in 1912, the culmination of what was then the ultimate dream, building a railway out and into the Atlantic Ocean to connect the string of islands known as the Florida Keys. At the turn of the century, Flagler's dream was briefly idling with his railroad stopped at Ormond Beach, making that area reachable by American industrialists and international racers.
What a magical period that was for racing and for America overall, a period that has been called the springtime of American ingenuity and industry. John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, had a winter home called The Casements in Ormond Beach across from the Hotel Ormond. That home still stands today as a historical landmark to those memorable years. Across the street that is now four lanes and tree lined, a small gazebo at the shore of the area's intracoastal waterway, the Halifax River, is all that remains of the once-grand wooden hotel that was torn down in 1992.
And so they came to Ormond-Daytona, the speed demons and record chasers and their entourages, exploring the limitations of the internal-combustion engine and in the process laying the foundation for what would one day be Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.
Auto racing — the need for speed, as some might say — immediately had an attraction that was easy to understand but hard to explain. The attraction was especially strong in the Ormond/Daytona area, where the annual races came to be called the Winter Speed Carnival — now seen for what it was, the ancestor of the Daytona 500, the Great American Race.
Eventually, early in the 20 century, the quest for the land speed record moved out West to Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats. Although those record chasers left Daytona, the area's foundation as a racing capital had been laid, and soon promoters were staging events that used both the beach and a stretch of highway bordering the beach — A1A.
One of those promoters was, of course, William Henry Getty France.
When the land speed record chasers headed west, their soon-to-be space-age technology went with them. The racing they left behind in Daytona Beach would be competition that the vast majority of Americans could truly relate to, with production-based sedans being souped up for weekend battles. Sometimes, the family car itself would be transformed into a race car.
This was auto racing for everyman, an approach Bill France Sr. understood and appreciated. The first true step Bill Sr. took toward making auto racing his business came in 1936 when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Daytona Beach, Florida, like much of the South, was especially suffering. Summertime temperatures approaching 100 degrees, acerbated by humidity that can best be described as hellish, served to accentuate the despair of the financially strapped.
The city of Daytona, however, had an "out" that beckoned to those astute enough to notice. Some forward-thinkers in the community recalled the not-too-distant past and became convinced that motorsports could rebound and in the process, take Daytona Beach's economy along for the ride.
Among the optimists was a man who had been there before when the sands came alive with speed, a former land speed record holder named Sig Haugdahl, who was operating a local garage. When asked for advice on a racing revival, Haugdahl conceived a plan to stage an event in 1936 that would use both the beach and a portion of State Highway A1A, the road that ran along Florida's East Coast. Bill Sr. entered the race — finishing a respectable fifth in the 250-miler — and in the process he got involved in planning and promoting the event and became a partner of Haugdahl's. Much money was lost by the city — in excess of $20,000, a serious blow considering the country was waist-deep in the Depression. But Bill Sr.'s appetite had been whetted permanently, and he began promoting beach-road races himself.
Success did not come quickly, or easily.CHAPTER 2
While Bill France Jr. obviously owed a portion of his existence to his father, he also owed so much of everything he became to Bill Sr.
Debts would include a list of examples set, principles followed, and ambitions fulfilled. Choosing the simplest terms to describe the growth of NASCAR and its "sister" company, International Speedway Corporation, one could say that Bill Sr. made it all possible, whereupon Bill Jr. expanded on the possibilities.
Or, try this:
Bill Sr. created NASCAR.
Bill Jr. made NASCAR.
Indeed, what a role model Bill Jr. had growing up. His earliest memories recalled a father of limitless energy and tireless work ethic. Whereas that first quality was no doubt tested by the exacting days of the Depression, the second quality was refined by those challenges. Bill France Sr. began building his fame and his family's fortune during the most unlikely of times in what most people would consider the most unlikely of places — a little-known coastal community in Northeast Florida.
"He laid the groundwork for everything I've been able to accomplish," Bill Jr. said in 2004. "You know ... you can't build anything successful without a solid foundation — be it a house or a business. What my father did was make sure that NASCAR would have a solid foundation. He knew the importance of that because right from the start of this thing. ... He knew we were headed toward something big. He knew that from the very beginning."
He must have. How else to explain the perseverance that outlasted the limited success of those early beach-road races?
First things first, though. Consider this an attempt to finally, permanently, dispel a portion of NASCAR lore that reappears time and again, regarding the arrival of the France family in Daytona Beach. It's not a bad story. It's just not true. The family car did not break down and in effect strand them in town. Bill France Sr. was a mechanic; he would've repaired the car and been on his way if he had so desired.
"Actually, I think Dad was on the record as telling people just that," said Bill Sr.'s younger son Jim France, now the vice chairman of NASCAR. "I think that story about the car breaking down got started by a reporter, Benny Kahn of the Daytona Beach News-Journal. I think Dad was originally planning on going to Miami, but there was something going on in Daytona car-related he had heard about, so he wanted to stop in town."
Bill Sr. started working at a local automobile dealership, Lloyd Buick Cadillac at 354 Beach St., facing the Halifax River on the mainland side of the city. The place is there today, although Buick is gone from the business' title. He and Annie B. found a rental house they could afford only a few miles away from the dealership and not far from the first house they would own, a bungalowstyle place at 29 Goodall St. in a middle-class neighborhood tucked in between the river several blocks away and the Atlantic a mile to the East.
Bill Sr., who left the dealership in time to open a service station, renewed his on-the-fly partnership with Sig Haugdahl in 1937, following Haugdahl's inauspicious '36 event. The men had to convince the Daytona Beach Elks Club to host a second event. It did better, but not good enough for Haugdahl, who was accustomed to acclaim when it came to auto racing. In 1922, he had reached a speed of 180 mph at Daytona. He was the IMCA dirt-track champion six consecutive years from 1927–32.
Besides, Haugdahl was making a solid living operating his garage. And so he backed away from the tenuous business of promoting auto races after the '37 event.
Bill Sr., of course, soldiered on.
"When the speed-record chasers stopped coming, it left a void," Bill Jr. said. "Over the first 40 years of the 20 century, the Daytona Beach area had become synonymous with speed. So it was only natural that some community activists — like my father — would try to keep that going."
Momentum stalled, however, due to World War II. Bill Sr.'s wartime contribution was working on the construction of boats that were called "sub-chasers." When the war ended, so too did Bill Sr.'s driving career, except for the occasional "one-off" appearances. Beginning in 1946, he started concentrating on promoting events. In 1946 and '47, he oversaw a series called the National Championship Stock Car Circuit. This was the forerunner of NASCAR — only with modifieds.
Bill Sr. had become determined to blanket the sport of stock car racing with an actual organizational approach — with himself at the helm, a dictator of sorts whose benevolence would manifest itself when necessary. Such semi-absolute control was essential, he felt, in order to exact fairness from all involved — both the competitors and the promoters. He committed himself to making sure racers raced as advertised and that promoters paid those racers as promised.
"Remember ... I had been racing myself, and I had put races on, too," Bill Sr. told veteran motorsports journalist Jonathan Ingram in 1983.
"There were track operators who said they'd put up a certain amount of money, and then it wouldn't be there after the race. One of the aims of NASCAR was to have a purse that would be paid when the race was over. Hospital bills weren't being paid in many cases, either. And there were small tracks all across the country with no central office keeping records of drivers' accomplishments or setting up any guidelines for the racing."
By the end of 1947, Bill Sr. was fully engaged in the founding of NASCAR.
His boy, Bill France Jr., was all of 14 years old at that point, coming of age at the precipice of history, wide-eyed at the whirlwind of activity surrounding his father, their family, and their friends in Daytona Beach, a sleepy town that was waking up and would soon be considered the world center of racing once again.
* * *
Bill France Sr. came to be known as one tough guy, a reputation his oldest son would also acquire. Along the way, though, Big Bill built many relationships that resulted in lasting loyalties. Some of those loyalties still exist nearly 20 years after his death.
Betty Faulk is loyal. The former scorer for early NASCAR great Fireball Roberts became Bill Sr.'s secretary in 1964 after several years of assisting Judy Jones, Bill Sr.'s first secretary. Faulk stayed with Bill Sr. until the late 1980s, when the advancing ravages of Alzheimer's disease ended his involvement with the business of NASCAR.
Faulk, who worked at Daytona International Speedway until 2009, remembers a Bill Sr. — who she affectionately calls, simply, "Senior" — of a different time, when he was riding shotgun on a sport that was on the move and taking advantage of the power of his planning and his sheer will.
"Senior ... he was just a giant among all of us human beings," Faulk said, almost giggling, as if it was 1964 all over again. "He knew how to handle people. He could talk people into everything, had people giving him money to build everything. He was an amazing person ... but he was also, really, a very kind person.
"Senior would walk into a room and people would just do what he wanted. I once saw the Kennedys up close, and they had that same kind of charisma. It just emanated from them. Senior was that way."
"Like meetin' a mountain," recalls Faulk's good friend and longtime Daytona International Speedway employee Juanita Epton.
Faulk also describes another side of the mountain, an endearing side.
"I remember someone would come in off the street, saying something like, 'Bill, I used to buy gas from you at your service station, but I don't have any money now and I need some help.' Senior would come over to me and say. 'Go downstairs and get him $500.'
"He never forgot where he came from. He always remembered when he was poor. He struggled to get where he was. Today's generation, they don't have any knowledge of that because they never were poor."
Betty Faulk provides us a snapshot from 40-odd years ago, shedding light on a trait that Bill Sr. surely passed on to Bill Jr. Both always wore a touch of humility on their sleeves. They appreciated what they had because of their memories of when they had little. This was apparent throughout Bill Jr.'s career. He showed a special respect for the true self-made men involved in NASCAR, people like Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt, who rose from racing short tracks to the top of the stock car world on the strength of their wills.
"Both of them were driven," Faulk said. "And Bill Jr. learned racing from the very ground up. If somebody had a problem, he knew because he'd been there. You couldn't put anything over on Bill Jr. ... Bill Sr. either.
"Bill Sr. built the sport. Bill Jr. had to work it while it was being built.
"Bill Jr. learned everything from Senior. Senior included him in everything about the business."
* * *
Bill Sr. also included Betty Jane France in the business of NASCAR, although it was in "specialized areas." In the process, she came to know her father-in-law extremely well. She became a sidekick of sorts for Big Bill, who she recalls as "almost magical" in large part because of his imposing physical stature.
"Bill Sr.'s vision for NASCAR went beyond the race track," Betty Jane said. "He wanted to develop the social part of the sport. Bill Sr. loved parties. That's where he wanted me to help, and I did. I said 'hmmm. ... that's me!'
"His wife Annie B., meanwhile, wanted me to be in the bookkeeping end of things, and while I liked that, too, I didn't want that to be my sole purpose with NASCAR.
"So, while my Bill was busy building race tracks, I was spending time with his father. My Bill couldn't have cared less about the parties; he was definitely different from his dad in that way. Bill Jr. loved being on a tractor, loved getting in the dirt to build a track; he was like a little kid out there. You know, they were a lot alike in a lot of ways, but in their younger years, I don't think they were as much alike as later on in their lives."
Excerpted from Bill France Jr. by H.A. Branham. Copyright © 2010 H.A. Branham. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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