In The Rearview Mirror: Bill France Sr.

Credit: The France Family/
The sport we know as NASCAR was officially launched 63 years ago this week under the guidance of William Henry Getty France Sr. To many in the NASCAR world, he was simply known as "Bill" or "Big Bill." He was born in Washington, D.C., on September 26, 1909, to parents Emma Graham and William Henry France. 

Growing up, Bill had an interest in auto racing, which led him to skip days from classes during the week while attending high school. He would race his family’s Model T Ford at a 1.5-mile board track near Laurel, Maryland, and run only enough laps so that he would make it home before his father got off from work.

As a result of his passion for racing automobiles, Bill became a self-taught mechanic which later carried over to his adult life. Although his first chosen profession was working as a banker, he knew mechanics was his true calling. 

In the early 1930s, France Sr. opened a service station near Washington, D.C., and in his free time was racing at the nearby dirt tracks. It was during this time that he met his wife, Anne, whom he married in 1931. Anne and Bill welcomed their first son, William Clifton, affectionately known as "Little Bill" on April 4, 1933. A few years later, Anne and Bill would welcome another son, Jim, to their family.

The France family, in hopes of escaping the effects of the Great Depression, moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. While settling in their new home, Bill set up his car repair shop business. At this time, Daytona Beach was struggling due to the lack of investment into the upkeep of the track. Daytona was known for its world-famous attempts at breaking the land speed records but had lost its appeal due to the track wearing down in addition to a new track opening nearby.

In March 1936, the first stockcar race was held at the Daytona Beach Road Course. The race was sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and offered a $1,700 purse for the winner. Bill competed in this event and finished in the 5th position. The race was very disorganized and turned out to be a financial loss for both the city as well as its organizers. After two more years of running this particular race and dealing with the same organizational problems, France was asked to take over the job of running the races. During this same year, France won the 1938 Labor Day race at Daytona. 

Bill continued to race and plan these events until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His wife Anne took over his job at the filling station, while Bill worked at Daytona Boat Works. Most of the racing had stopped during the war but Bill and a friend did manage to find some small tracks throughout the state that did hold weekend races. Once the war ended, Bill decided to focus on promoting races, instead of driving. In his 16 events at Daytona Beach, Bill accumulated two wins and six top-5 finishes.

On December 14, 1947, Bill had began talking with drivers, mechanics and car owners about forming a more organized racing entity. As a result, the formation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) became a reality. In that original meeting, the discussion included everything from rules to prize money and insurance coverage. NASCAR was officially launched on February 21, 1948. Bill France would serve as the chairman and CEO of NASCAR.

NASCAR hosted its first “strictly stock” event on July 19, 1949 at Charlotte Speedway. The finish put into effect NASCAR’s official competition rules. Although Glenn Dunnaway finished first, he had an illegal rear shock which lead to his disqualification. This resulted in Jim Roper being awarded the win and this event was considered to be the birth of modern-day NASCAR racing.
Bill Sr, Bill Jr and contractor work on Daytona plans
Credit: RacingOne Multimedia

After witnessing the large crowds at each NASCAR race, Bill proposed that they build their own racetrack.  He felt that they needed to build a large speedway and this resulted in the birth of Daytona International Speedway. France himself worked on the plans to design the track, working to give fans a better view of the cars as they ran along the high banks of Daytona. The ground was broken on November 25, 1957, and the speedway was finished by the beginning of the 1959 season. The first Daytona 500 was held there on February 22, 1959 with a 59-car field. 

Due to the success of the Daytona International Speedway, Bill went on to build Alabama International Superspeedway in 1969. (The track name didn't change to Talladega Superspeedway until 1989) Approximately a few years later, "Big Bill" handed over the reigns of NASCAR to his son, Bill France Jr.; however, he remained an active part of NASCAR’s headquarters, keeping an office there until the late 1980s.

Additionally, Mr. France built the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, which is located next door to Talladega Superspeedway. The Hall of Fame is for those individuals who have contributed the most to auto racing, such as drivers, owners and engineers. Nominees must be retired and are voted on by a panel of 150 members. Bill France Sr. was inducted into the first class of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame on July 25, 1990.

"Big Bill" passed away June 7, 1992, at the age of 82. He and his son Bill Jr. were inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
In The Rearview Mirror: Bill France Sr. In The Rearview Mirror: Bill France Sr. Reviewed by Unknown on Wednesday, February 23, 2011 Rating: 5