What led him to build an organization that put stock car racing on the map.
In the midst of NASCAR’s Daytona Speedweeks, it’s an ideal time to take a look at the newest book on the sport: “Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr.,” by H.A. “Herb” Branham, longtime journalist and NASCAR public relations executive who now runs the International Speedway Corporation’s Archives and Research Center in Daytona Beach.
Branham already wrote “Bill France Jr.: The Man who Made NASCAR,” so this 357-page authorized biography (Fenn M&S, part of Penguin-Random House, $27.95, hardcover) is a natural prequel. “Big Bill” is a mandatory read for anyone interested in the history of NASCAR.
Branham’s conversational style lends itself to a fast, often funny read about a man who managed to do for stock car racing what multiple other men have done for other forms of motorsports, from Ted Johnson and the World of Outlaws to Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One: Identify the available pieces, organize them in a way no one else had been able to before, and advance the package to the next level.
Bill France Sr. did not invent stock car racing, but until NASCAR was officially incorporated on February 21, 1948, it had been an essentially unorganized sport, sometimes sanctioned and sometimes not, speaking with many shrill voices instead of one basso profundo.
Overnight success years in the making
You know the annotated version: France built NASCAR, then built tracks like Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, making friends and enemies along the way. He was a dictator – and that is not a criticism – and you don’t get to dictate without hurting some feelings. And, in France’s case, making a lot of people millionaires, not the least of which himself.
Mentally, we tend to compress history, and Branham’s book helps to temper that with the truth: It took the 6-foot, 5-inch Big Bill decades to realize his dream. Born in 1909 and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, France had an older brother, James. In 1920, when James was 13, Bill 10, they were wading in a creek when James went under. He drowned. Bill seldom spoke of the tragedy, but when he did, clearly he was affected: Perhaps it helped explain his long-present need to get things done, now.
Decades later, son Jim France recalled to Branham that in the late 1980s, they’d be in the car with Big Bill behind the wheel, and began to notice that he would treat red lights like stop signs – he’s stop, look, then go. “When we told him he had to wait for the light to change,” recalled Jim France, “he told us, ‘Boys, at my age, I don’t have enough time to wait until the light changes.’”
The move south
In 1934 France, his wife, Annie B., and Bill, Jr., then 16 months old, decided to leave D.C, and move to Florida – not because of a grand plan, but because France was tired of the cold. Daytona Beach already had a strong racing history, mostly from record runs on the beach, which likely helped make the decision for France to settle in Daytona, instead of his original destination, Miami.
He brought along his love for racing, which included driving stock cars, but in 1938, discovered the world of promotion. His plans were derailed by World War II – France was ineligible for the draft due to his age, so he worked building anti-submarine boats – but by 1945, he was able to return to promoting.
The idea that would eventually become NASCAR was already in the air. The now-famous meetings in December, 1947 at the still-standing Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach was essentially the beginning of NASCAR, and of Bill France Sr.’s long reign as its head. The inaugural season, in 1948, had a stunning 52 races on the schedule.
All this is carefully chronicled in Branham’s book, along with subsequent challenges to France’s leadership, most notably the first race at his Talladega Superspeedway in 1969, where most of the name drivers boycotted out of concern than the tires wouldn’t last. France refused to cancel or postpone the race, assembled a pick-up field and put on a show, won by trivia-question answer Richard Brickhouse. From then on, few thought they could win an argument against Big Bill.
In conversations with Branham, it’s clear he had some tough choices to make – it would have been easy to devote eight chapters, instead of eight pages, to the Talladega tale, for instance. But the author did a commendable job of picking and choosing his coverage, and what emerges is an easy read about a complex figure, a bombastic dreamer who likely would have failed had his wife, Annie B., not been by his side, watching the nickels and dimes with a sensibility born from surviving the Great Depression.
If you are looking for dirt on the France family, it isn’t here – there are pimples, yes, but no warts, as this is an authorized biography. Even so, Branham provides a solid portrait of the man and his family who declined to take “no” for an answer. There’s a lot to learn from Big Bill, and his longtime central philosophy – the fans come first – continues to govern NASCAR today.