An American banking dynasty

This year will mark the 50th running of the Daytona 500, a race that has grown beyond even the ambitions of its founder and promoter ‘Big Bill’ France. By Gordon Kirby

Through most of 1958, ‘Big Bill’ France worked flat-out to build his long-planned dream of a race track called the Daytona International Speedway. France spent more than five years trying to pull together the support and finance to turn his vision of a 2.5-mile high-banked superspeedway into reality, but time and again his hopes of finding the money turned to dust. Most people would have given up, but France stuck to his guns and eventually made it happen in partnership with J Saxton Lloyd, a former president of the USA’s National Automobile Dealers Association.

In the end, France mustered only US$750,000 to spend on the project, but by working hard, side-by-side with his 25-year-old son Bill Jr, the Frances were able to get the new-style track built and ready for action in February 1959. France and his son helped clear the land, drove the bulldozers and supervised the paving operation. Midway through the building project France ran out of money and in order to complete the job he had to engineer a US$600,000 loan through Clint Murchison, a wealthy Texan.

Working uninterrupted through the winter of 1958-59, the Frances and their construction crews were able to complete the giant, high-banked oval in time for practice to begin on February 1 1959 for the inaugural Daytona 500. Nobody had seen anything quite like it. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, opened in 1909, was a four-cornered speedway with long straightaways and only nine degrees of banking in the corners. But since the demise of America’s legendary board tracks from the 1920s, no major league, high-banked ovals had been built in America. Daytona was the USA’s first modern superspeedway with a tri-oval shape and the corners banked at an impressive 31 degrees.

The NASCAR stock cars of the time – true ‘stock’ cars with safety rollcages welded to stock chassis – took to the track for the first time at 2pm on February 1 and by the end of the day local hero Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts had turned the fastest lap at 145.7mph. A new era had arrived, with the cars lapping the big track some 30mph faster than any other NASCAR track. “The only limit is on how fast the car will go and how fast you’ve got the nerve to drive it,” Roberts remarked.

The man who created the new superspeedway and ushered American motor racing into the modern era was also the driving force behind NASCAR. Bill France Sr grew up in Virginia, Washington DC. He was a mechanic and budding race driver who set out in 1934 to start a new life. France and his wife Anne drove south and settled at Daytona Beach in north-eastern Florida, a small town by the Atlantic Ocean. Almost immediately, France started racing stock cars and promoting races before taking control of NASCAR 10 years later when the organisation was founded near the end of 1947.

France competed in the first race run in 1936 on a combined beach-road course at Daytona Beach, and by 1938 he was promoting the Florida coastal town’s beach-road races as well as competing. He won one of the two races he promoted in ’38 and promoted four stock car races on the beach in 1941. World War II interrupted the string of races but France was back at it after the war and continued to promote an annual February beach race into the 1950s.

But the beach race was difficult to organise and police. Crowd control was hard to maintain and the race created horrendous traffic jams and caused more and more inconvenience for the residents of the rapidly growing little city. In April 1953, France announced his plans to build a new speedway a few miles inland. His original goal was to open the new purpose-built speedway in February 1955, but he would go through many travails before he could find the money and obtain both city and state government approvals to move ahead with his dream. Through 1958 France continued promoting the beach race, but in 1957 and 1958 he finally found the backing for the new track and got the project moving along so that he was committed to running the first Daytona 500 on February 22, 1959.

‘Big Bill’ was a tall man with a looming frame, measuring 6ft 5ins, and he knew how to use his physical presence to get what he wanted. France took control of NASCAR at its creation from a handful of other key figures involved in stock car racing across the American Southeast. One of these was Raymond Parks, a whiskey runner and gambling and slot machine operator from Atlanta. In the 1940s, Parks ran what was considered to be the first professional stock car team with legendary drivers Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, who were also whiskey runners. Parks reputedly helped save France from bankruptcy at least once and vied with France for control of NASCAR, only to find himself adroitly sidelined from having any financial or controlling interest in the organisation by France’s canny manoeuvring, legal and otherwise.

In the wild world of stock car racing in those days many small, regional sanctioning bodies promoted their own races, often in direct competition with each other. Most of these little groups, NASCAR included, were considered outlaws by the AAA (American Automobile Association), which had ruled all American motor racing since the first decade of the century with the Indy 500 as its unrivalled centrepiece.

In May 1955, France – the ‘outlaw’ stock car promoter – was thrown out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Gasoline Alley by AAA officials. France was wearing a borrowed garage area credential and some AAA people spotted the ‘outlaw’ promoter with his illegal credential and asked the chief steward to escort him out of Gasoline Alley.

France always maintained that it was the AAA, and not track owner Tony Hulman, who had thrown him out of the IMS’s garage area. Hulman and he were always on good terms, France insisted, but it was an interesting day in the life of the man whose organisation would ultimately, after his death, stage the biggest annual race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 in August each year – and whose own Daytona 500 would far outstrip the Indy 500 in TV ratings, prestige and commercial value.

Less than four years after his embarrassing moment at Indianapolis, France was fully occupied launching his new superspeedway. Fireball Roberts and his peers immediately showed that the high-banked track would produce speeds for NASCAR stock cars that were equal or better to those turned by Indy cars at the comparatively flat, four-cornered Indianapolis oval. And as practice, qualifying and the preliminary races took place for the Daytona International Speedway’s first ‘Speedweeks’ it also became clear that the track would produce a new and exciting kind of spectacle. It would earn the nickname ‘drafting’.

Legend has it that Junior Johnson discovered the ‘draft’ at Daytona a few years later but the truth is all the top drivers experienced the ‘draft’ during practice for the first Daytona 500. They discovered their cars would pick up speed while running in the slipstream of a car or pack of cars ahead and with the right timing you could pull out and ‘slingshot’ ahead of your competitor. Running at sustained speeds they had never previously experienced the drivers tried to understand the phenomenon better and take advantage of it in the race.

The first race at Daytona was run on February 20 1959, two days before the inaugural 500. The track’s maiden race was a 100-mile event for open-roofed ‘convertibles’, followed directly by another 100-mile race for ‘hardtop’ Grand National cars. The convertible race was won by ‘Shorty’ Rollins, who drafted past Marvin Panch and Richard Petty’s cars on the run off Turn 4 down to the chequered flag. The Grand National qualifier was won by Bob Welborn’s Chevrolet from Fritz Wilson’s Ford Thunderbird.

Two days later, the 500 drew more than 40,000 paying spectators, including 18,500 seated in the only grandstands along the tri-oval section at the start/finish line. The longer race turned into a grind with many front runners dropping out with blown engines or losing time because of chunking tyres. In the end, it came down to a duel between Lee Petty, the 1954 and ’58 Grand National champion who would go on to win his third title in 1959, and Johnny Beauchamp, a generally unknown driver from Iowa who raced in the Midwest IMCA stock car series. Petty and Beauchamp engaged in a furious drafting match over the final laps, joined by Joe Weatherly’s lapped car. The three cars flashed beneath the chequered flag in tandem, and Beauchamp’s T-Bird was originally given the victory. But three days later, after viewing still photos and newsreel footage, Big Bill France announced that Petty’s Oldsmobile was the winner by three feet.

The speedway’s successful debut gave NASCAR a grand, season-opening 500-mile race on a spectacular track and helped France solidify his already dominant role at the helm of NASCAR. If there were any challenges to his supremacy, Big Bill was not averse to using whatever force was required.

During the 1961 season, for example, many of the drivers, led by front runners Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts and Tim Flock, attempted to form a drivers’ union. A furious France met with the drivers and told them he would tear down his speedway and plant corn in its place before he would countenance such a thing. He handed out forms he’d prepared for each driver to sign, swearing that they would never join a union. And he told them that anyone who refused to sign would never race at his track or in another NASCAR race again. “And if that isn’t enough,” France added, “I’ll use a pistol to enforce it. I have a pistol and I know how to use it.”

Eight years later, in 1969, at the debut race of the 2.66-mile Talladega superspeedway in Alabama, no less a man than Richard Petty led a drivers’ strike which failed miserably after France banned all the strikers from running. It led to a famous race of unknowns, won by Richard Brickhouse, and since then there’s never been even the smallest whiff of the words ‘union’ or ‘strike’ in the NASCAR lexicon.

From the start in 1959, Bill Sr aggressively courted the FIA’s approval of the Daytona 500. He wanted the race to stand on the international calendar with the Indy 500 and United States Grand Prix, and as part of his quest for worldwide recognition France built an infield road course which included a good deal of the banked oval. On this road course-cum-oval in 1962, two weeks before the 500, France staged a three hour international sports car race called the Daytona Continental. Famously, the race was won by Dan Gurney in Frank Arciero’s Lotus 19, beating a NART Ferrari co-driven by Formula 1 world champion Phil Hill and young Mexican phenomenon Ricardo Rodriguez.

Jim Hall finished third in an early Chaparral, with Stirling Moss taking fourth in another NART Ferrari. Two years later the race was increased to 12 hours and in 1966 the first Daytona 24 Hours took place with a trio of Ford MK IIs sweeping the first three places.

For many years France and his sons, Bill Jr and Jim, maintained a close link between the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Daytona enduro, working with the ACO’s rule-makers as best as possible so that teams and drivers could take part in both races. All this enabled France to call his track ‘The World Center of Racing’. Today, the younger of Big Bill’s two sons, Jim, remains the quiet man behind the Daytona 24-hour race and the Grand-Am sports car series, both sponsored by Rolex.

Big Bill handed the keys over to Bill Jr at the start of 1972. Bill Jr was just as tough as his dad. He learned the business from the ground up and knew everyone in the garage area. He ran NASCAR with an equally iron fist for 30 years and his tenure at NASCAR’s controls coincided with a 33-year stint by the R J Reynold’s Tobacco Co’s Winston cigarette brand as the sponsor of the France family’s premier division. Known from the start back in 1948 as the Grand National series, it was rebranded the Winston Cup series in 1986.

In 2004, Nextel replaced Winston as the series’ sponsor and following Nextel’s corporate takeover by Sprint last year, the series becomes the Sprint Cup in 2008.

Times have changed in many ways, of course. Today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are a world away from the stock cars of 50 years ago. Today’s cars are purpose-built around tube frame chassis and the top teams spend many millions of dollars on engineering, development and wind tunnels. And the ‘slingshot’ pass has all but vanished following the introduction in 1988 of ‘restrictor plates’ for the Cup races at Daytona and Talladega. Severe restrictions by these plates on the amount of air that can be drawn into an engine have cut power from close to 900bhp for most races to a mere 450 at Daytona and Talladega.

Introduced after Bobby Allison crashed heavily at Talladega and pieces of his car flew into the grandstands, the restrictor plates are intended to keep any accidents within the confines of the race track, which they surely do. But it means the cars run around in massive packs, two and three-wide, and the only way to pass is by working with a drafting partner or three. To a man, the drivers hate restrictor-plate racing, but it produces an eye-filling show for the TV audience, including huge, multi-car accidents.

Big Bill France passed away in 1992 and Bill Jr died last year after a long battle with cancer. Bill Jr retired in 2003 and his son Brian moved into NASCAR’s chairman and CEO seats. The International Speedway Corporation is a separate, publicly traded, track-owning company, founded by Bill Sr and run now by Jim France and Bill Jr’s daughter Lesa France Kennedy. ISC owns 12 race tracks across the United States including the Daytona, Talladega, Darlington, California, Homestead-Miami and Michigan Speedways, and the Watkins Glen road course. Twenty of the 36 Sprint Cup races are run at ISC tracks.

Today, the Daytona 500 is known as ‘America’s Race’ and pulls TV ratings three and four times larger than the Indy 500, while NASCAR as a whole defines motor racing to the average American. Most of NASCAR’s 36 first division Cup races are run at Daytona-like superspeedways in almost every region of the USA and draw big crowds and strong TV ratings. NASCAR’s current television contract with the ABC/ESPN, Fox and TNT networks is worth US$4.8 billion over eight years, and in 2006 the 36 Cup races paid more than $US220 million in prize money to drivers and teams.

In the past year, a stream of former Indy 500 and F1 race winners, lured by the increasing prestige and money to be made in NASCAR, have turned their backs on open-wheel racing to tackle stock car racing – a historic first. Indeed, the dreams, ambition and drive of Big Bill France and his oldest son Bill Jr have entirely and forever transformed the American motor sports landscape.