France, William Henry Getty, Sr. ("Bill")
FRANCE, William Henry Getty, Sr. ("Bill")
(b. 26 September 1909 in Horse Pasture, Virginia; d. 7 June 1992 in Ormand Beach, Florida), stock-car race executive and key founder of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
The patron saint of NASCAR, Bill France came from humble origins. One of three children of William H. France and Emma Graham, he grew up on a farm and relished rural life. His passion was playing and tinkering with all sorts of cars and motorcycles. At six feet, five inches tall and 230 pounds, France was of imposing stature and a dominating presence. He was an outstanding basketball player at Washington Central High; his size and build clearly helped him to be an impact performer on the court. France married Anne Bledsoe in North Carolina in June 1931, and they had two sons. Both sons have played important roles in sustaining the France legend and dynasty and in making NASCAR America's premier auto-racing form at the start of the twenty-first century.
During the autumn of 1934, the Frances decided to move their home base to Miami. However, their car broke down in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the France family settled there instead. Daytona Beach is today a symbolic home of NASCAR. It is the site of NASCAR's Hall of Fame, and the Winston Cup series begins its ten-month annual circuit with the February running of the Daytona 500, arguably NASCAR's most famous and prestigious race.
Eventually, France got a bank loan, opened a garage and service station, and began his lifelong fascination with stock cars as an innovative mechanic willing to experiment with new designs and unusual devices. He combined driving and engine tuning to good effect and, at the wheel of a 1935 Ford Mustang, earned a fifth place finish in a Daytona Beach race on a course that was more sandy beach than tarmacadam road. In 1938 he and a friend took over the promotion, organization, and publicity of the many Daytona Beach area stock-car races. In the space of only a few months, France and restaurateur Charlie Reese made a profit of more than $4,000, a considerable amount of money at a time when America was slowly escaping the economic quagmire of the depression. During World War II France worked for the Daytona Beach Boat Works and helped build motor torpedo boats.
Brad Herzog described the manner in which France's sense of vision and his sharp management acumen pointed stock-car racing in the right direction: France "saw a need to regulate promoters and assure collection of prize money, to form a standard set of rules and specifications for all drivers and automobiles, to inaugurate a national championship and then a point system, to provide insurance for the drivers, and to create a central headquarters."
As a result of France's savoir faire and his remarkable ability to avoid confrontation and achieve consensus, a meeting of Southeastern race promoters was convened by France, and on 12 December 1947 NASCAR came into being. Months later, in February 1948, NASCAR was incorporated. France possessed P. T. Barnum's critical grasp of the all-importance of staging, promotion, and publicity as strategies to establish a viable marketplace for a fledgling form of public theater.
An important feature undergirding NASCAR's eventual success was France's commitment to his dream of transforming a rough, informal, redneck activity into a structured, formal sport. As early as 1944 France restarted stock racing at Daytona Beach and then inaugurated races in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
According to Richard Pillsbury, the very first "strictly stock race" was a long distance 150-mile race held in North Carolina on Charlotte's three-quarter-mile dirt oval on 19 June 1948. "The race, which featured a purse of $5,000 was open to all comers who owned a full-size American car."
From the outset France was determined that his racing philosophy—strictly regulated, equal competition to create a "level playing field"—should be embraced by all NASCAR competitors. At NASCAR's first Grand National Championship held in Charlotte on 19 June 1949, the winner, Glenn Dunnaway, was disqualified by France. Dunnaway had used a piece of illegal equipment, and France was determined to hold to the moral high ground. Dunnaway's car owner objected and took NASCAR to court. France's court victory affirmed NASCAR's authority to set and uphold stringent standards regarding the development of stock cars. This central tenet of the France "doctrine" has been the major reason that NASCAR races, like great horse races, are won by fractions of a second and portions of a "body length" rather than by the larger, less exciting margins that have lessened the spectator appeal for Formula One Grand Prix racing.
In 1959 France supervised the opening of the Daytona International Speedway. The Biographical Dictionary of American Sports highlights some of the challenges faced by France during the 1950s when he had to carve and create race tracks out of beach terrain, a friendly site for promenading and bathing but ill textured for feisty stock cars. "France faced the unenviable task of giving order and structure to the various beach races. France had to determine in advance on what days the tide would be low at the right time to allow races to be held. Handling traffic when the tide was coming in was another tricky problem. Another problem was controlling admissions around a four-mile unfenced race track."
With the Daytona International Speedway, France transformed a dusty oval of less than a mile long into a modern amphitheater with thousands of open-air seats and a totally unobstructed view of the whole circuit, a thirty-one degree banking, and a configuration that allowed drivers to race side by side. The track was designed for high speeds and heightened drama.
France followed his Daytona success with the creation, a decade later, of the Alabama International Motor Speed-way near Talladega. Talladega was longer and steeper than Daytona. Furman Bisher said of France that he "took the car off the streets and turned it into a sport as national as the National Football League." A 1978 Sports Illustrated article noted that France "made stock-car racing a huge success by building speedways in swamps, keeping corporations guessing and unions at bay. Here is the man who brought you … bumper-to-bumper competition."
France was not always a beloved figure. In 1961 he prevented NASCAR drivers from joining the Teamsters Union, and in 1969, when the Professional Drivers Association boycotted Talladega because of safety concerns, France brought in replacement drivers, drove demonstration laps himself at 176 miles per hour, and "the show went on." Although France passed control of NASCAR to his son Bill France, Jr., in 1972, the two defining factors for France and NASCAR took place earlier. These were the creation of a genuine folk hero who came in the form of NASCAR's greatest ever driver—Richard Petty, who had won 200 races by 1984—and the setting up, in 1971, of NASCAR's Grand National Circuit, which eventually came to be known as the Winston Cup Series. In 1990 France was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the International Motor Hall of Fame. He died of natural causes and is buried in Hillside Cemetery, Ormond Beach, Florida.
At his death, France, as the father figure of NASCAR, must have taken huge pleasure in a sport that was marked by extraordinary growth. A backwoods, regional, noisy "bump and grind" chase had metamorphosed into—via the Winston Cup—thirty-one races in nineteen states with four million spectators and prize money of $25 million. France might have rubbed his eyes in disbelief had he been alive in 2000. In 1999 seventeen of the top twenty attended sporting events in the United States were NASCAR races, and NASCAR was worth $2.8 billion in television rights.
Richard Pillsbury is the doyen of NASCAR essayists and his "Stock Car Racing" in the Encyclopedia of World Sport, vol. 3 (1996) provides a factual overview of the sport. His writing on stock-car racing in The Theater of Sport (1995) is glorious. Other useful sources are Furman Bisher's piece in Sky (June 1980), Brock Yates's Sports Illustrated profile (June 1978), and an entry on France in David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports (1995). For a graphic, journalistic account of France's life and career see Brad Herzog, The 100 Most Important People in American Sport History (1995). Mark D. Howell, From Moonshine to Madison Avenue (1997), provides a well-constructed social history of NASCAR.
Scott A. G. M. Crawford