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.
During almost a quarter-century at the helm of NASCAR, Bill France Sr. wrestled with driver revolts, union organizers, Detroit manufacturer boycotts, an unending series of rules disputes and other more mundane problems that accompany growth in almost every business.
Through it all, he stood out as “Big Bill,” the nickname he picked up not only because of his stature but also because of his dynamic and often intimidating presence.
“We needed somebody to take hold of the sport, and I guess Bill France was as good as anybody we could have gotten,” said the late driver Jack Smith, a NASCAR pioneer, in a 1997 interview. “Whatever you do, you have to do it the best that you can and hang with it. He did.”
One of France’s biggest tests came on what should have been one of the highlight weekends of his career. After the success of his huge speedway project in Daytona Beach in 1959, he sought to build an even bigger and even faster track as a sister facility. After a couple of other sites didn’t work out, France settled on a huge tract of land in eastern Alabama for what would be NASCAR’s biggest track, a 2.66-mile, high-banked monster that would produce stock car racing’s fastest speeds.
Unfortunately for France, his new track, originally named Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway), was too fast – at least too fast for the tire technology of the time. Drivers running practice laps saw their tires fail in only a few trips around the facility, and, as the day for the first scheduled race approached, tensions mounted.
Eventually, despite negotiations involving France, drivers, team owners and other officials, most of the sport’s leading drivers – including big names like Richard Petty and Bobby Allison – decided to boycott the race. France stood his ground. At 60 years old, he drove onto the track and reached speeds of 175 miles per hour to “prove” that the racing surface was OK.
He absorbed the financial losses that came with running the first race with a field mostly made up of unknown drivers and moved on. Tire builders eventually caught up with the speeds, the Professional Drivers Association that leading drivers had formed to deal with the Talladega situation dissolved, and France had “won”.
It was the sort of battle in which he was determined to prevail. A decade earlier, he had told drivers who had signed on with the Teamsters Union that they would never race at one of his tracks and that he would enforce that authority with a pistol, if necessary.
“I remember all that well,” long-time team owner Bud Moore said. “We were running a race at Winston-Salem (North Carolina). France called us all in. All the drivers were there. He got up and said, ‘Now, I’m going to tell you. You can unionize or whatever you want to do. But I can tell you one thing – if you’re a union man, you’re disqualified from NASCAR right now.’ And he meant it, too. That stopped the union right there.”
NASCAR historian Buz McKim said France “could be a tyrant if he had to be. He was incredibly protective of his baby. Curtis Turner tried to unionize the drivers, and France didn’t go for anybody trying to horn in.”
The working partnership between Bill France and his wife, Anne, is legendary. During the early years, she worked the “back gate” at tracks, collecting entry fees from drivers as they pulled their race cars on site. Later, as her husband wandered the country promoting and running races, she stayed in Daytona Beach, minding the store and keeping the finances flowing.
“I’ve seen a series of photographs that were framed in Bill’s office,” McKim said. “They were shots of Bill and Anne in the pits at Darlington in 1986. There’s a little gold plaque on it that says that was the first time she had ever been in the pit area at a race track.
“She held things together financially. She was really brilliant with the money.”
FRIDAY: France Rides Into The Sunset
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.