No Debate Needed Regarding Induction Of ‘Big Bill’ Into NASCAR Hall Of Fame
Debate was expected and encouraged when it came to determining the inaugural class of inductees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But there was little of that when it came to the inclusion of “Big Bill” France.
“Bill Sr. was the definitive ‘given,’ ’’ said NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter, who was part of the debate process last October that involved the 50 members of the hall’s Voting Panel. “There was never any doubt about him getting in the first year.”
And why should there have been? NASCAR’s founder and first president, Bill France Sr.’s nickname applied to both his 6-foot-5 stature and his ambitious, far-reaching vision for the sport of stock car racing.
His story has evolved into a fable of sorts but make no mistake: while it indeed reads somewhat like a movie script, it is reality-based.
France and his wife Anne Bledsoe France, having left their home in Washington D.C., rolled into the then-sleepy town of Daytona Beach, Fla. back in 1934 with a year-old son – Bill France Jr. – in tow. Having already developed an affinity for auto racing, it was only natural that France would ride no further down the coast. Daytona Beach already held a worldwide reputation as a racing haven, dating to the turn of the century when drivers flocked to the area to race on the beach in search of the land speed record.
Gradually, those quests that featured exotic cars and overly adventurous competitors, headed westward, to the salt flats of Utah. But when the speed-chasers left, a legacy remained. In the mid-1930s, stock car races began to be promoted, with France racing himself while also getting involved in the promotion and operation of the events.
“The Daytona Beach area had become synonymous with speed,” Bill France Jr. said several years ago. “So it was only natural that some community activists – like my father – would try to keep that going.”
World War II halted the activism for awhile; France’s wartime contribution was working on construction of boats that were called “sub-chasers.” In 1946, he returned to racing and oversaw a series called the National Championship Stock Car Circuit, the forerunner of NASCAR.
In December 1947, France organized the now-famous meeting at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, a meeting that created the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. NASCAR’s
first race, on the beach-road course using both the Atlantic shoreline and State Road A1A, was held two months later on Feb. 15, 1948; six days later, NASCAR became incorporated.
NASCAR resulted from France’s determination to bring an all-encompassing structure to stock car racing, structure that would include a recognized national championship, consistent payment of purses to drivers and improved safety. With organization came a litany of significant changes, with France at the helm throughout, until 1972 when he was replaced as NASCAR’s president by his son.
Here are some of the highlights worth remembering when assessing the legacy of “Big Bill.”
• In 1949, he created the Strictly Stock division, forerunner of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
• In 1950, Darlington Raceway became the first paved superspeedway to host a NASCAR race, beginning the gradual exodus from dirt tracks, for NASCAR’s premier series.
• In 1951, the first NASCAR race on the West Coast was held, in Gardena, Calif., representative of France’s hopes of making NASCAR a true national sport with a bi-coastal popularity. He called that goal “sea to shining sea.”
• In 1959, Daytona International Speedway opened, playing host to the first Daytona 500.
• In 1969, 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway opened and when regular drivers balked at racing there, France assembled a makeshift field so as not to disappoint the fans and derail his opening-day plans.
• In 1971, France sealed a deal with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to sponsor what would become known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Having set the table for the future, he handed over NASCAR’s leadership to his son in 1972, but he also remained highly involved until his later years. France died in 1992.
“My father would be amazed at how big NASCAR has become but he would certainly be enjoying it, no doubt about that,” Bill France Jr. said.
“He would like it, believe me. After all, he put a lot of hard work in to get the sport started.”
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