GRR

How Bill France Sr. built the NASCAR business

31st March 2019
doug_nye_headshot.jpg Doug Nye

At the forthcoming 77th Members’ Meeting there’s to be a demonstration by a batch of NASCAR stock cars from the US of A, celebrating the origins of this type of essentially oval-track racing, all those years ago, back in 1949.

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Way back at the dawn of motor sport itself the pioneering races between self-propelled vehicles on American soil were run on what had been fairground trotting tracks, in stark contrast to motor sport’s emergence in Europe.  There the focus was upon grand-gesture, city-to-city, open road races on the public highway. The participants themselves came essentially from two strata of society, moneyed toffs and company-backed trade and industry. Racing events were essentially self-funded, indulged by local politicians seeking influence, popularity and prominence. Does that sound familiar?

The situation in the US was rather different. Motor sport for sport’s sake, art for art’s sake, but money for heaven’s sake! That was more the name of the game. Few promoters saw any great attraction in running races upon open roads – how on earth could one expect that spectators would pay for access to a viewpoint? Nah, forget all that – let’s just run a race round and round a quarter- or half-mile oval track. While we’re at it, we’ll fence and screen-off any free view from the outside, and sell tickets at the gate and charge for standing terraces or grandstand seats. It had the potential to be highly lucrative, and for the most successful promoters a big business is what it proved to be.

The American way prevailed. Road racing in America blossomed, spluttered, withered away, was revived, and in variable health has survived in some form to this day. Track racing America proved stronger, its business model proved more effective, more profitable – and left-turn only, pay-per-view, confined roundy-roundy racing emerged really as the quintessential American form of the sport.

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While Indianapolis-style speedway racing evolved around tailor-made open-wheeled ‘race cars’, down in the south-eastern corner of the nation stock car – ‘stock’ in the sense of everyday production car – racing took root in the 1930s, notably from the era of alcohol prohibition under the Volstead Act. From 1920 to 1933, alcoholic drink production, importation, transportation, and sale was illegal – cue widespread criminal operations to produce, import, transport and sell ‘joy-juice’, and often ‘bath-tub brew’ moonshine. And from transporting such illicit beverage around the southern States grew the earliest glimmerings of what became US-style stock car racing… or at least, that’s what the promoters and image makers have always told us.

When the prohibition laws were repealed in 1933, much of the particularly Appalachian Mountain area moonshine business fell into decline. But the established bootlegger drivers with their hopped-up stock cars tuned to outrun the police – and drivers equally well-tuned to out-driving the police – turned from continuing to avoid booze tax by out-running “the revenue men” into pitting their cars, and their skills, against one another by racing on track for increasingly attractive cash prizes. It was sport, it was fun and – typically American in terms of its enterprising nature – it could be a profitable business.

Now, since the turn of the century automotive speed records had been set, and challenged, and broken, year on year down on the flat, firm, straight-line sands of Daytona Beach in Florida. After 1935, outright Land Speed Record pace had outstripped the beach and Bonneville Salt Flats replaced Daytona in the pure record breakers’ ambitions. The City of Daytona had seen its annual Speed Week flourish as a money-making (there’s that phrase again) attraction, and it began to host stock car racing on a 4.1-mile beach-come-road circuit – a couple of miles on the sand, then a treacherous, slippery, quickly rutted-up turn through the dunes onto a blacktop road, State A1A, then back onto the beach through another defile in the dunes.

Brian France Sr. (left), George H.W. Bush (centre), Brian France Jr. (right).

Brian France Sr. (left), George H.W. Bush (centre), Brian France Jr. (right).

Bill France was a mechanic who moved to Daytona from Washington DC in 1935 in search of work. He drove at Daytona in 1936, ran the event from 1938 and in 1947 grasped stock car racing as a genre, pulling together a core of interested participants in part to resist a number of what were portrayed as shyster promoters, running events and too often decamping with the gate money leaving participants unpaid. France founded initially the ‘National Championship Stock Car Circuit’ (NCSCC). He put up a $1000.00 cash prize for the year’s ‘winningest’ driver, and paid out to Fonty Flock who won seven of the 24 NCSCC races he entered.

On February 21, 1948, France and his associates launched the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) to organise and promote races for three distinct classes of car: Modified, Roadster, and Strictly Stock. The Roadster class was quickly perceived as being foreign to southern fans, but Modified chimed loudly, as did Strictly Stock, though initially to a lesser degree (brand-new stock production cars could be expensive and were in short supply, whereas relatively old-bangers were plentiful, inexpensive and modification know-how was burgeoning amongst both those who had been moonshine runners, and those who were just enterprising mechanics eager to get out and go racin’…). 

The 1948 schedule featured 52 dirt track Modified races but that year also saw postwar mass-production get into its stride, and on June 19th, 1949, NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock race was run on the contemporary Charlotte Motor Speedway. For 1950 NASCAR’s Strictly Stock category was renamed the Grand National division, and under Bill France’s iron - autocratic - and quite often benevolent dictatorship, NASCAR positively flourished into the modern age.

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By 1961 NASCAR had really broken free from its backwoods image. Stars had begun to emerge widely recognised beyond the immediate racing fraternity and committed fans.  New Superspeedways began to be built, and just to give something of a taste for NASCAR politics and characteristics under Bill France Sr, consider how driver Curtis Turner’s indebted project to build a new Charlotte Motor Speedway won $800,000 support from the Teamsters Union for which he was asked to unionise America’s racing drivers…

He promptly formed the ‘Federation of Professional Athletes’ seeking better purses, pension plans, improved insurance, scholarships for the children of deceased members, and even “up-graded shower and lounge facilities” at the speedways. Bill France Sr thundered: “No known Teamster member can compete in a NASCAR race – and I’ll use a pistol to enforce it!”. In a meeting with the drivers he declared “Gentlemen, before I have this union stuffed down my throat I will plough up my track at Daytona Beach and plant corn…”. 

One of Turner’s more covert plans was to introduce betting at the tracks. France Sr put out a statement reading: “A recent newspaper story suggests that I might be some rootin’, tootin’, hootin’, shootin’ cuss, waving a pistol and itching to shoot up anyone who might disagree with me. Honest, I’m nothing like that. But I am an American who believes our constitution and our laws…” – before continuing “I am suddenly confronted with the fact that a few of the boys who have grown to stature and respect in the sport as NASCAR members… engage in activity which is disruptive – and actually poisonous to the sport – I hope it’s not too hard to understand why I might be a bit mad… Organised gambling would be bad for our sport – and would spill innocent blood on our race track – (and) I’ll fight it to the end. And with the help of all decent auto racing people and their fans, we will lick it. 

And he did. NASCAR today is in many ways a world away from its homespun – and home-distilled – roots, and a long way from 1961 when as NASCAR historian Greg Fielden put it, “Curtis Turner and Tim Flock fought the NASCAR law – and the law won” – but experience these all-American NASCAR projectiles close up during our Members’ Meeting, as the ground shakes to their song – and savour a very different world of racing.

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