The NASCAR Hall of Fame will induct the five members of its inaugural class May 23. Leading up to the hall’s induction ceremony, SPEEDtv.com is profiling the first five racing legends chosen for this unique honor.
After Bill France Sr. successfully promoted the first race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series in June 1949 in Charlotte, N.C., top drivers quickly tied their futures to the series. And to France, who moved with speed in NASCAR’s first decade – the 1950s – to create a strong foundation.
Bigger and better tracks were added to France’s circuit, and the sport took a giant leap in 1950 with the opening of Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. For the first time, NASCAR racers competed on an asphalt surface and in a race that lasted 500 miles. The first Southern 500 established the idea that France’s Strictly Stock race cars could withstand long-distance events and that his drivers could compete on high-speed, difficult race tracks.
“The opening of Darlington was a big turning point,” said NASCAR historian Buz McKim. “It was the first time they ran on asphalt, and they had such a big crowd, and the cars made it through 500 miles. I really think that’s when the wheels started turning. NASCAR was solid at that point.”
One of France’s early tests was caused, oddly enough, by NASCAR’s quick success. Wisconsin businessman Carl Kiekhaefer charged into the sport with zeal, bringing a war chest of money and a super organization into NASCAR’s top series. He hired the best drivers and mechanics and provided them with the best cars and equipment. Kiekhaefer had the sport’s first true “team,” and his drivers and employees showed up at tracks with huge trucks to haul cars and equipment and in crisp white uniforms at a time when racing was still largely primitive.
Hotshots Tim Flock, Buck Baker, Speedy Thompson and Herb Thomas drove Kiekhaefer’s cars. In the 1955 and ’56 seasons, the Kiekhaefer team won 52 of 90 races, including 21 of the first 25 in 1956. Victory Lane became mostly a memory for other teams, and some stayed home rather than challenge the new giant. Soon, France found his race fields shrinking.
“All of a sudden, we were running fifth, sixth and seventh to Kiekhaefer,” said long-time team owner Bud Moore, whose NASCAR operation was based in Spartanburg, S.C. “We couldn’t compete. We were racing for about $125 for fifth place. I just parked my team, and the first thing you know, eight or 10 more teams did that.
“France flew into Spartanburg. He came over to the shop. He walked in and turned around and said, ‘Bud, what’s wrong with those race cars?’ I said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with them.’ He said, ‘Well, why ain’t you running?’ I said, ‘Well, France, we got a problem.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘We can’t run for fifth place. I can’t outrun Dodge and Kiekhaefer. How can I do that? I don’t have a prayer.’ ”
Before France left Spartanburg, he and Moore had worked out a financial deal that returned Moore’s cars to the track. It would not be the last time that sort of transaction occurred. Often working behind closed doors, France made deals that kept the sport moving along and kept most of its participants happy most of the time. If that took some “deal” or “tow” money, he produced it.
“He knew exactly when and how to change things when they needed changing,” Moore said. “It wasn’t only with the meetings with the car owners and drivers to help take NASCAR along. He had a lot of meetings with the promoters.
“There are only a few of us who were around when he started the sport who are still here. Not that many people remember all of it. But he catered to all the teams real well. He’d come to you and ask about different things, things he could do to help the sport.”
The France process became known as a benevolent dictatorship. He ruled things with a strong arm but knew that he needed successful team owners, drivers and track promoters to make things work.
“He was pretty charismatic, and he could schmooze you pretty good,” said McKim. “He knew he had to take care of the guys putting the show on. He would slide them a little money under the table to get them home from a race.
“Being a former driver, he knew what the guys went through. In his own way, he was kind of sympathetic toward them. He had a way of getting a lot of loyalty out of people around him.”
As France would find out, however, that didn’t always work.
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Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame Grand Opening is set for May 11, 2010. Outdoor Opening Ceremonies are May 11th from 9 to 10 am ET free of charge, open to the public. Outdoor festivities including driver appearances and concerts May 11th from 10 am until 8 pm ET open to the public, free of charge. Tickets to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame are on sale now at www.NASCARHall.com or by calling 877-231-2010. The countdown to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is on! Visit www.NASCARHall.com/50days for daily updates about the NASCAR Hall of Fame.