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Woody: Frances Knew Value Of Media

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 28 2010

Bill France was not too big to do such necessary tasks as sell tickets at his race tracks. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. shared more than a vision about stock car racing. Visions are a dime a dozen, or nowadays a dollar after inflation.

More practically, they shared a knack for knowing how to turn their vision into reality and a big part of that knack involved an innate ability to master the media. I almost said “manipulate”. Probably either would be correct.

At any rate the father/son NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees always understood and appreciated the power of the press and the symbiotic relationship between racing and the media that would greatly benefit both.

When Big Bill birthed NASCAR in the 1940’s, auto racing in the U.S. meant only one thing to the mainstream media: the Indy 500.

Stock car racing? No self-respecting news organization would give a mention to a gang of semi-reformed moonshiners chasing each other around a cow pasture.

France was wise enough to know that the best show in the world isn’t worth beans if nobody’s watching. He used his savvy to attract coverage, starting by luring a handful of regional sports writers to his races and making sure they enjoyed the experience.

Later on, Bill Jr. showed similar savvy, funding a full-fledged NASCAR Media Department and encouraging each track to hire an efficient PR person.

Bill Jr. came along at a momentous moment for the sport, when corporate marketing was starting to spew geysers of gold. He understood that corporations expected media exposure in return for their investment. (Remember how he made sure R.J. Reynolds got its money’s worth? It was impossible to write about racing without mentioning Winston in the story.)

Corporate sponsorships were the wheels on which NASCAR ran, and the media kept the wheels greased.

Again, it was a two-way relationship: NASCAR’s popularity explosion was luring in more and more readers (and, later, viewers), and it was in newspapers’ interest to provide full coverage of the sport.

Once back in The Day, I was at Daytona for the 500 and mentioned to a NASCAR PR person that an interview with Bill Sr. might make an interesting mid-week story. An hour later the PR guy wandered over to my seat in the media center and said “Mr. France” was waiting for me in his office.

I scurried over, France ushered me in, and we spent a half-hour discussing the rise of the sport and his vision of its future. He never made me feel as though I were imposing on his time, just the opposite – he seemed to enjoy our chat.

Bill Jr. was equally open and accommodating during all his years in office. Never once did I request an interview – either at Daytona or somewhere on the road – that he declined. Once when I asked about getting to see him he sent word through a PR person that his schedule was full that day, but promised to make time the next day. Sure enough, next day HE called ME, apologizing for not being able to fit me in earlier.

Even after Nashville lost its two Cup races, France continued to support the track; one year he flew in to attend the regular season opener to help then-promoter Bob Harmon generate some publicity.

Granted, some of what the Frances did was self-serving – they were smart enough to know the value of publicity. But they were also always available even when it might not have been convenient.

I think the Frances appreciated what the media did for racing; and at the same time the media appreciated the two titans of racing always making sure their door was open to a sports writer who wandered by and requested a few minutes of their time.

Little things like that helped make them the giants they were.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 28 2010
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