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France, William Henry Getty

France, William Henry Getty

(b. 26 September 1909 in Washington, D.C.; d. 7 June 1992 in Ormond Beach, Florida), NASCAR founder and head who helped turn stock car racing from a disorganized regional pastime to one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports.

France was one of three children of William H. France, a banker, and Emma Graham, a homemaker. Attending Gage Primary School and Columbia Junior High School in Washington, D.C., France took to car racing at a young age, watching races at the Baltimore-Washington Speed-way in nearby Laurel, Maryland. While a student at Central High School, France and a friend built their first race car, a wood-body, canvas-covered vehicle with a Model T engine.

On 23 June 1931 France married Anne Bledsoe, a nurse he had met at a dance; they had two sons. In 1934 the Frances left Washington, D.C., for Miami. They stopped to go swimming at Daytona Beach, Florida, and decided to stay. (The story that France ended up in Daytona Beach because his car broke down there is almost certainly apocryphal; he would have been capable of fixing a breakdown.)

France took a job as a mechanic at a local garage and got involved in the local racing scene. An Englishman, Sir Malcolm Campbell, had been using Daytona Beach’s broad, flat sands to set speed records, but by the late 1930s he had moved his operation to Utah. City leaders were looking for ways to keep speed fans coming to Daytona Beach and France, who soon owned his own service station, teamed with another local man to promote an annual race over the beach and the city’s streets.

From the time he took over the Daytona Beach race in 1938, France wanted to make it the national championship of stock car racing, but he lacked an organization of race promoters to make that a reality. In 1947 after organizing a handful of Southern races as the National Championship Stock Car Circuit, France decided there was a future in a league with rules that would allow it to name a champion, award prize money and keep records. That December France gathered promoters from across the region at Daytona Beach’s Streamline Inn to incorporate NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing. He was its president.

Like many benevolent dictators, the six-feet, five-inch tall, 260-pound France brought stability where there had been chaos. NASCAR’s simple structure and France’s absolute control and determination to make his rules stick helped him keep unruly drivers and track promoters in line. “There were track operators who said they’d put up a certain amount of money and then it wouldn’t be there after the race,” France said in 1983. “One of the aims of NASCAR was to have a purse that would be paid when the race was over.” By racing “stock” cars—cars that looked the same as those that fans saw on the auto showroom floor—NASCAR tapped into post-World War II consumer desire and a natural sponsorship market. Attendance and purses boomed and by the early 1990s, NASCAR’s top-level Winston Cup series was drawing 3.3 million fans a year and offering its champion a $1 million bonus.

In the early 1950s France started work on his other great innovation: Daytona International Speedway. By 1949 he had realized that Daytona Beach’s booming growth would inevitably mean an end to racing on the beach and began searching for a new site. Inspired by the stock car circuit’s first asphalt track in Darlington, South Carolina, France built the speedway on drained swampland due west of Daytona Beach, about three miles from the beach and the city center, selling $300,000 in stock and borrowing another $600,000 to make his vision a reality. Opened in 1959, Daytona International Speedway was two-and-a-half miles around, with banked turns and long straightaways that allowed drivers to reach the previously unheard-of speed of 140 miles per hour, and a massive grandstand with a view of the entire track. It became the model for future super-speedways.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s France resisted all efforts to loosen his control of NASCAR. He turned back two attempts to unionize drivers, one by the Teamsters and one by the drivers themselves. He was equally tough with the corporations whose sponsorships were the sport’s lifeblood, tinkering with the rules and closing loopholes to keep races competitive. When France outlawed Chrysler’s hemi engine, decreeing that the powerful hemispherical combustion chamber gave Chrysler cars an unfair advantage and thus made the race less competitive, the automaker made good on a vow to leave stock car racing, taking with it its star driver Richard Petty. France stood firm, though, and Chrysler and Petty soon returned. In 1972 France turned over everyday control of his empire to his sons Bill Jr., who became NASCAR’s president, and Jim, who became the president of International Speedway Corporation, which owned the Daytona Beach, Darlington, and Talladega, Alabama, tracks.

For the rest of his life, France remained a forceful presence in racing. He and his wife, who was also his business partner, kept offices at NASCAR’s Daytona Beach headquarters well into the 1980s. In his final years France suffered from Alzheimer’s disease; he was in poor health for the last two years of his life, and his death came shortly after that of his wife. He died of natural causes in Ormond Beach and is buried there in Hillside Cemetery.

As founder and for a quarter-century head of NASCAR, France was almost single-handedly responsible for making NASCAR’s Grand National (later Winston Cup) series the world’s most popular auto-racing circuit. With a background in both racing and race promoting, France was an honest broker between drivers and promoters who otherwise never could have worked together, while his Daytona International Speedway set the blueprint for the massive superspeedways that followed, feeding a seemingly evergrowing appetite for stock car racing.

France and his life are featured prominently in a pair of books about NASCAR by Peter Golenbock: American Zoom: Stock Car RacingFrom the Dirt Traces to Daytona (1993) and The Last Lap: The Life and Times of NASCAR’s Legendary Heroes (1998). Stories and memories of France also are in the Charlotte Observer (8 June 1992) and the “Motorsports” column in the San Diego Union-Tribune (14 June 1992). Bill Nelly wrote a remembrance of France in AutoWeek (15 June 1992), and a detailed obituary is in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (8 June 1992).

Tim Whitmire

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