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Ingram: ‘Big Bill’ Beat Big Competition

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 19 2010

Bill France Sr., left, talks racing – or business – with Johnny Mantz and Alvin Hawkins at Bowman Gray Stadium. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

I always thought Bill France Sr. would make a good subject for a one-man show, the kind where an actor portrays the life of a character without much help from anything other than an extraordinary life story to tell.

Just over 100 years after his birth, “Big Bill” still looms large in the realm of stock car racing. But there are some days I don’t believe he gets enough credit. He had a lot of competition from other capable promoters, for instance, when it came to creating and running a stock car racing organization. He wasn’t the only man who saw that racing cars like those in showrooms was going to become a big sport.

To listen to the mythmakers – who are short sheeting Big Bill’s accomplishments – France saved stock car racing from unscrupulous promoters, ramshackle facilities and backwoods ignomy. He was the only man, goes this story, who saw a great sport amidst the reprobates and county fair operators who dominated it in the rural South. And from the crucible of  bootleggers, goes this story, Big Bill carried stock car racing to all corners of America.

Well, yes and no.

His accomplishments were much bigger than that, because he had able competitors who pursued similar dreams of making a lot of money as the middle men between ticket buyers and track owners. There were established organizations, such as IMCA and the AAA, that jumped into stock car racing as well. The activities of these organizations was hardly confined to the Southeast.

As a driver, “Big Bill” won his share of stock car races, often behind the wheel of Fords owned by Atlanta bootlegger Raymond Parks. As a promoter, he always found a way to stay one step ahead of the competition. Without so much as a quarter to his name, for instance, France convinced the city fathers of Daytona Beach to allow him to take over the promotion of its beach race for stock cars, the one designed to bring the same crowds to the Florida seaside that had flocked to see the first ever major stock car race at Mines Field in Los Angeles in 1934 under a AAA sanction. When the Daytona race in 1936 didn’t live up to the big crowds that had turned up in LA, it was France who got the nod to step in and promote the race on the beach.

A decade later in post-World War II America, many promoters were looking to take advantage of the appeal of racing cars off the showroom floors — just like the 1934 Ford Roadsters that had raced at Mines Field. The timing was dictated by the return to the production of cars in Detroit after the war. When France staged his first “Strictly Stock” race in Charlotte, he chose that city and June of 1949 because he wanted to beat a rival promoter by the name of O. Bruton Smith. Not to be outdone, Smith partnered with longtime Atlanta promoter Sam Nunis to draw a considerably bigger crowd to the Late Model Stock race held in front of packed hillsides at the Lakewood Speedway later that same fall.

When it came to building the first superspeedway in the Southeast, France tried to convince Harold Brasington to build his banked, paved oval in Hillsborough, N.C., site of the Occoneechee Speedway co-owned and operated by France. (This according to an interview I had with France in 1979 for a story in the Durham, N.C. newspaper.) When Brasington elected to build his track in Darlington, S.C., the original Southern 500 was promoted by a group based in South Carolina. France had to use his power of persuasion to gain a co-sanction to the event for NASCAR. The race went off on Labor Day weekend in 1950, shortly before Nunis could launch the first 500-mile race for stock car races at Lakewood.

And so it went. It wasn’t so much a question of cars, which were relatively cheap, or drivers. “Everybody thought they could out-drive somebody,” said Richard Petty of the racing in the 1950’s, which he witnessed while accompanying his father Lee to races. And it wasn’t so much a question of facilities. Anybody with a bulldozer and a prayer could build a dirt track. Heck, during the recent drought in the Southeast an old track turned up in north Georgia from the bottom of a rapidly receding Lake Lanier.

Anybody could start a stock car racing sanctioning body as well, because each was essentially a middle man between drivers and track owners. Some, such as John Caveness of Southern Racing Enterprises, or Johnny Marcum, who launched the Midwest Association for Racing Cars, were very adept. Marcum’s series survives to this day under the name of ARCA. Others, such as Dixie Auto Racing Enterprises,  or DARE, launched by a black marketeer who had done well during the War, never gained much traction.

The effort to promote stock car racing wasn’t confined to the Southeast. Established sanctioning bodies such as IMCA, which started promoting races for production cars the same year as NASCAR, and the AAA, whose first championship for stock cars began in 1950, were active in the Midwest and Northeast.

In order to broaden the scope of NASCAR, France partnered with promoters such as Ed Otto to maintain a presence in the Northeast, Midwest and Canada. It was Otto who promoted the NASCAR race at Chicago’s Soldier Field, for example. One of France’s other partners was Bill Tuthill of the New England Stock Car Racing Association. France recruited West Coast promoter Bill Barkheimer into the fold as well. Throughout the 1950’s, such divide and conquor strategies worked well for NASCAR and France, who worked ceaselessly to compete in all areas of the country against other promoters and organizations.

It was this vision for national recognition and ambition that distinguished France as well as his ability to sustain others’ belief in his organization. Plus there was a real passion for the sport that went beyond money and power.

There was also one very practical aspect to France’s ability to keep a leg up. The races on the Beach and Road Course in Daytona caught the imagination of racers as well as the public in general. Fans wanted to see the same cars and the same drivers who had raced against the tide in Daytona. Perhaps France’s biggest task was keeping these drivers competing under the NASCAR banner, which he did through offering relatively good purses (usually of $5,000), relatively better safety, some insurance and a year-end points fund. He also penalized drivers in the points if they ran in rival series, a common practice by most sanctioning groups at the time.

Another practical advantage for France was the popularity of stock car racing in the Southeast and the incredible wealth of drivers it produced. Although he had competition from promoters such as Smith, Nunis and Caveness, the southern states always provided a solid schedule of events and star drivers with gate appeal. Was France in bed with bootleggers, who helped sell a lot of tickets due to their outlaw legends as well as skilled driving? Of course. But Gober Sosebee, to name one, was recuited by promoters all over the Southeast with appearance money. France was not alone among promoters when it came to the shotgun wedding of stock car racing and bootlegging.

There was another page to the book when it came to bootleggers and NASCAR. France’s partner at the track in Martinsville was Clay Earles, and his partner at the Occoneechee dirt track – essentially a longer version of Martinsville set next to a large hillside – was Enoch Staley of Wilkes County, N.C. Both partners were known to be deeply involved in the bootlegging trade. There’s also a longstanding rumor in Atlanta that bootlegger Parks helped finance some of France’s operations in the days when renting facilities and running races almost weekly could mean a severe strain on cash flow.

Ultimately, France delivered the knockout punch by spending virtually all of the money that he made in the 1950’s to build the Daytona International Speedway. Opened in 1959, it continues to stand as consecrated crucible of speed and the ultimate test in a 500-mile race aboard a stock car due to its challenge, history and the Speed Weeks format. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that once France built his speedway by the sea at enormous personal risk and effort, his competitors faded into the background when the Roaring Sixties took off.

Except for Smith, of course, who completed the Charlotte Motor Speedway with partner Curtis Turner a year after Daytona opened. Smith decided if he couldn’t beat France, he might as well join him. Despite a lot of able competition, nobody could beat France when it came to organizing stock car racing.

Quote of the Week: Bill France Sr.: “I believe stock-car racing can become a nationally recognized sport.”

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 19 2010
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