Sunday 26th September 1909
Born on this day, Bill France Sr. or Big Bill, American racing driver best known for co-founding and managing NASCAR, a sanctioning body of US-based stock car racing. He is one of the most important figures in American racing history and is responsible for NASCAR’s initial survival and growth, as well as some of its controversial practices that continue to this day.
France became enamoured with racing as a youth, and he later owned and operated his own service station. In 1935 he moved his family to Daytona Beach, Florida—then the most popular site to attempt world land-speed records—and he immediately injected himself into the automotive scene. When most record seekers left Daytona behind for the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, France and other promoters continued to stage races on the beach. France both raced in the events and promoted them, doing so until World War II. After the war, he stepped out of the car and focused on promotion.
However, recognizing that drivers were at the mercy of promoters, some of whom would leave events with gate receipts while the race was still running, France began thinking bigger. In connection with several other drivers, car owners, and mechanics, France formed the organization that would later become NASCAR at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach in 1947.
Several years later, observing the success of tracks such as Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, France built a track at Daytona large enough to host the new series. Daytona International Speedway hosted its first Daytona 500 in 1959, and the 500 became one of the world’s preeminent racing events over the following years. Ten years after opening Daytona, France constructed Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, another of NASCAR’s marquee tracks.
Serving as the first chairman and CEO of NASCAR, France, along with driver Junior Johnson, oversaw the introduction of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company into the sport, a move which resulted in the renaming of NASCAR’s Grand National Series to the Winston Cup in 1971 and increased the presence of sponsorship in NASCAR to an even greater extent; after several other changes, the series became the Sprint Cup Series in 2008.
While France’s methods helped spur NASCAR’s transformation from a Daytona beachfront series to an international phenomenon, he ran the sport the way he saw fit, which included such moves as steamrolling drivers who tried to unionize in the late 1960s. France also had a way of shaping both on- and off-track rules to best fit NASCAR, an approach that, to some extent, continued decades after France’s death as the sport remained in the hands of France’s descendants. For instance, he employed the catchall rule “actions detrimental to stock car racing” (which is still in use) to justify a wide range of authoritarian decisions, such as when Lee Petty ran in an unsanctioned “outlaw” event in 1950 and France subsequently removed all of his NASCAR points, costing Petty the championship.
Nevertheless, NASCAR continued to be a multibillion-dollar attraction largely because of France’s early efforts. He was a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 2010.