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PART ONE: Bill France Sr. was born in Washington, D.C. and lived there until his early 20s. His father was a teller at Park Savings Bank in Washington, and his son might have followed in his footsteps with the exception that he had a fascination with the automobile and how it performed. As a teenager, Bill Sr. would often skip school and take the family car to a nearby track and run laps until he had enough time to get the car, a Model-T Ford, back home before his father got home. He held several hands-on jobs until he eventually owned his own service station. He made a name for himself and built a customer base by getting up early in the wintry mornings and going out to crank the cars for white collar bureaucrats.
In 1934 the Frances loaded up their car and headed for the south with a total of $25. Where they were headed has never been clearly established but some say Tampa and others say Miami Beach. Two days later they arrived in Daytona Beach. Rumors say that they were broke and had to settle there while some say his wife had a sister in nearby New Smyrna Beach and still others say that their car broke down and they had no choice but to settle in and stay there. However years later Bill Jr. stated that his mother did not have a sister living in New Smyrna Beach and that a broken down car would never stop his father from getting where he wanted because he was an experienced mechanic.
The hard packed sand between Daytona Beach and its northern neighbor Ormond Beach was the site of the world-record automobile speed trials. They started in 1902 and picked up speed right up to the '30s. By then the speeds were approaching 300 miles per hour along the firm and smooth inviting sand. In the spring of 1935 Sir Malcolm Campbell was taking his Bluebird rocket car to Daytona Beach in hopes of running at 300 miles per hour for yet another land-speed-record. Along with this and the weather and the smaller hospitable and more affordable area maybe this is the reason behind the Frances staying in Daytona Beach. Campbell never did get his record of 300 mph at Daytona, instead his best he could do was 276.82mph and on March 7, 1935 Campbell announced that he was moving the speed trials to Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It was the shifting winds and changing tides that made Campbell realize that he would not reach his goal of 300 mph if he kept working out of Daytona Beach. Campbell did beat the 300mph speed at Bonneville in late 1935.
Daytona Beach area officials were determined to bring in speed-related events after Campbell left and this was how Bill France Sr. got his start in race promotions in late 1935. City officials asked championship dirt track racer and local resident Sig Haugdahl to organize and promote an automobile race along a 3.2 mile course which included Highway A1A southbound from Daytona Beach and the same beach that had been used for the land speed record runs. The 78-lap, 250 mile event for street-legal family sedans was sanctioned but the American Automobile Association for cars built in 1935 and 1936. Daytona Beach posted a $5,000.00 purse, with $1,700.00 for the winner. The biggest problem was that people arrived there earlier than the ticket-takers and established their spots on the beach. The turns at each end very virtually impassable, leading to stuck and stalled cars which created scoring disputes and technical protests. Then the race was called after 75 laps with Milt Marion declared the winner. France finished fifth behind Marion, Shaw, Elmore, and Sam Purvis. Ben Shaw and Tommy Elmore both protested the race but their appeals were squashed. That was the first and last race the City of Daytona Beach ever promoted. Well how would you feel if your City lost $22,000.00 from one race promotion?
Haugdahl and France had become very good friends and were not about to give up. Together they talked the Daytona Beach Elks Club into helping promote a race over Labor Day weekend of 1937. Despite a paltry $100.00 purse and improved management, promotion, and track conditions the Elks lost money too. They also like the city lost their interest in motor sports promotion. With that Haugdahl decided that he too had enough and he bowed out of the motor sport promoting as well. This left France all to himself to try and get the area interested since he could still see a future for stock car racing, however he was a struggling filling-station operator and didn't have enough cash to cover a purse, advertise and promote the race plus pay the city to set up the course.
PART TWO . . . France was finally able to convince local restaurateur Charlie Reese, rich and well known, to post a $1,000.00 purse and let France recruit drivers and spread the word. Danny Murphy beat France in the 150-miler that generated just enough profit to convince the co-promoter to do it again. They managed another successful stock car promotion on Labor Day weekend of 1938. France beat Lloyd Moody and Pig Ridings in that race and then organized and promoted three more races in March, July, and September of 1939. They did it again in March , July 4, and September of 1940 France fared well in those three races of 1940 finishing fourth in March, first in July, and sixth in September. France was able to promote two races in March, one each in July and August of 1941 prior to the war breaking out. The war brought a stop to motor sport racing and France went to work for the Daytona Boat Works while his wife handled the family filling station.
Shortly after the war ended and things started returning to normal, Bill France left the boat works. France was obsessed with the idea that a single, firmly governed sanctioning body was necessary if stock car was to be a success. He was well aware, as a driver and promoter, that the minor-league sanctioning bodies reeked of inconsistency. France wanted an organization that would sanction and promote races, bring uniformity to race procedures plus technical rules. He wanted an association that would oversee a membership benefit and insurance fund, and one that would promise to pay postseason awards, and crown a single national champion using a clearly defined points system.
At that time there were several organizations who claimed to sanction national championship races. One was the American Automobile Association (AAA), but they were more concerned with open-wheel, open-cockpit, champ car racing. The A.A.A eventually became known as the USAC/CART league (Indy-car racing). The other groups were the United Stock Car Racing Association, National Auto Racing league, and American Stock Car Racing Association. The Georgia based National Stock Car Racing Association was only interested with-in the state and so they didn't crown a national champion. The Daytona Beach Racing Association only promoted within the city so they made no claim to a national champion either. France was so devoted to creating a racing association that would adhere to the rules mentioned above. With that in 1947 he retired from racing so he could concentrate all his time and attention to organize that body.
The first meeting of the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing was held on December 12, 1947 at the Streamline Inn Motel in Daytona Beach, Florida. The organization named Bill France Sr. as its first president. William Henry Getty France, aka, Big Bill France, gathered together a group of racing promoters, drivers, and mechanics with the dream of establishing an organization to set a standard set of rules and regulations to help promote stock car racing.
Incorporated on February 21, 1948, the organization hired Erwin "Cannonball" Baker to be the first Commissioner of Racing. The new organization sanctioned its first race on the Daytona Beach road/beach course in February of 1948, several days before it was legally incorporated. More than 14,000 fans watched that first event, a 150-miler that Red Byron won ahead of Teague, Raymond Parks, Buddy Shuman, and Wayne Pritchett.
France's original plan was for NASCAR to oversee three separate and distinct classes of cars: Strictly Stock, Modified, and Roadsters. Perhaps surprisingly, the Modified and Roadster classes were seen as more attractive to fans than Strictly Stock. As things turned out, though, the audience NASCAR attracted wanted nothing to do with Roadsters, a "Yankee" series more popular in the Midwest and Northeast. It didn't take long for France to recognize that he didn't need the Roadster.
After the war was over the big automakers had to switch production from Tanks and Jeeps back to their makes of cars. This got France to thinking that the fans would want to purchase cars when they see them winning at the races and he knew that productions were going to be slow for a while. He decided that NASCAR would run pre '40s Fords and Chevrolets plus a handful of new Buick's were allowed. The 1948 schedule covered 52 dirt-track races for modified's and Red Byron was the national champion that year.
PART THREE . . . In February of 1949, France staged a 20 mile exhibition race near Miami for his Strictly Stock division. Fearing he would lose out to a promoter in North Carolina, France decided to stage a Strictly Stock points race. This race took place in June and was scheduled as a 200-lap, 150 mile race around a 3/4-mile dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina. It carried a purse of $5,000. for 33 street-legal family sedans that had been built since 1946. Pole sitter Bob Flock led the first five laps in a 46 Hudson, Bill Blair led laps 6 thru 150 in a 1949 Lincoln, and Glen Dunnaway led the remaining laps in a 1947 Ford. After the race Dunnaway's car was inspected and failed because he had altered the rear springs. He was disqualified and moved to the back of the field and stripped him of the win and money. This moved Roper to the first place spot followed by Fonty Flock in second, Byron in third, Sam Rice in fourth, and Tim Flock finished out the top five. Hubert Westmoreland owner of Dunnaway's car sued the new sanctioning body for $10,000. however a North Carolina Judge ruled that the officials had the right to make and enforce their rules without outside interference and dismissed the suit. That mid-summer race attracted 13,000 plus fans, far more than was expected. NASCAR promoted seven more Strictly Stock races that year: two each in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, one each in Florida, New York, and Virginia. Byron won the Strictly Stock class that year in what was to become the Grand Nationals and Winston Cup series. Lee Petty finished 2nd in points followed by Bob Flock, Curtis Turner, and Jack Smith. Fifty drivers raced in at least one race each that year and between 16 and 45 drivers showed up for each race.
France wondered what was missing from his Strictly Stock division. He had to come up with a blockbuster event to draw more attention to his Strictly Stock cars. The USAC champ car circuit had the Indy 500, and NASCAR Modified and Sportsman division had their annual beach/road races in February at Daytona Beach. In 1950 Harold Brasington built a 1.25 mile, high-banked, egg shaped speedway just west of his hometown of Darlington. He stunned the racing world by paving it and saying that he wanted to someday host a 500-mile stock car race. Brasington himself a retired racer had known France from their old racing days at Daytona and other dirt tracks throughout the Southeast and Midwest. He was aware that France's new organization wanted to expand their image and he figured a 500-mile race would be the answer.
In the fall of 1949 Brasington bought a 70 acre farm from Sherman Ramsey and he began carving a superspeedway out of what had been a cotton and peanut field. Instead of developing his track into a true oval, he was forced to create an egg-shaped facility with one end tighter, more steeply-banked and narrower than the other end. You see he promised Ramsey when he purchased the land that the track wouldn't disturb the minnow pond on the property's western fringe. So that meant that Barrington could make the eastern end as wide, sweeping, and flat as he wanted but the western end had to be just the opposite because of the minnow pond.
It took almost a year to build and pave the new track. In the summer of 1950 as Sam Nunis spoke of promoting a 500-mile NASCAR race at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, Barrington and France were making the final arrangements to run a 500-miler at Darlington on Labor-day. The inaugural Southern 500 carried a stock-car record purse of $25,000. and was co-sanctioned by NASCAR and the rival Central States Racing Association. Over 80 cars showed up and it took two weeks to get them all qualified. The race started with a 75 car field aligned in 25 rows and three abreast.
After filling all 9,000 seats fans were directed to the infield where a sea of over 6,000 people watched the race. It took Johnny Mantz more than six hours to cover the full 500 miles. He drove a 1950 Plymouth owned by France, Westmoreland, and a couple more guys. Fireball Roberts finished second, Red Byron was third, and Bill Rexford was fourth. The Southern 500 was NASCAR's only paved track event in 1950. There were only four paved events in 1951 and they were two at Dayton, Ohio and one each at Darlington, and Thompson, Connecticut. Paved tracks didn't begin to gain acceptance until the late '50s. Darlington and the half-miler at Dayton each had two races in 1952. In 1953 Darlington and the new 1-mile asphalt track at Raleigh, North Carolina each had a Grand National race. In 1954 Darlington, Raleigh, and the paved road course at Linden, New Jersey Airport had a race each. In 1955 Martinsville, Virginia had one race, Darlington one race, and Raleigh had two races.
NASCAR's future began to come in focus in 1956. NASCAR sanctioned 11 paved-track races among 56 events. They had 14 out of 53 venues in 1957, and 24 out of 51 venues in 1958. Not only were they racing on oval tracks France also scheduled road course races at Watkins Glen, New York, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and Bridgehampton, New York. Suddenly, almost overnight, it seemed NASCAR racing was becoming a national series rather than a regional series, Bill France's dream was heading toward the future. *****
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