William Henry Getty France Sr. (September 26, 1909–June 7, 1992), also known by Bill France Sr. or Big Bill, was an American race car driver. He is best known for co-founding and managing NASCAR, a sanctioning body of United States-based stock car racing.
France was born in Washington, D. C. to Emma Graham, an immigrant from Ireland, and William Henry France. France skipped school as a teenager to make laps in the family Model T Ford at the high banked 1½ mile (2.4 km) board track near Laurel, Maryland. He ran laps until there was just enough time to beat his father home.<ref name=Fleischman2>Fleischman, page 2</ref> France worked at several jobs before owning and operating his own service station.<ref name=Fleischman2 /> He built his customer base by waking before dawn and crank starting customers' cars in the middle of winter.<ref name=Fleischman2 /> France was familiar with Daytona Beach's land speed record history when he moved his family from Washington D.C. to Daytona in the spring of 1935 to escape the Great Depression. He had less than $100 (US) in his pocket when they left D.C.<ref name=Fleischman2 /><ref> Richmond Times-Dispatch, Inaccessible June 28, 2007</ref> He began painting houses, and then worked at a local car dealership. He set up a car repair shop in Daytona. Malcolm Campbell and other land speed record competitors decided to stop competing for land speed records at Daytona in favor of the Bonneville Salt Flats later in 1935 because the track was getting too rutted.<ref name=Fleischman4>Fleischman, page 4</ref> Daytona had lost its claim to fame. City officials were determined to keep speed related events, events which had been a mid-winter source of revenue for area hotels and restaurants.<ref name=Fleischman4 />
Early racing career
On March 8, 1936, the first stock car race was held on the Daytona Beach Road Course, promoted by local racer Sig Haugdahl.<ref name=Fleischman4 /> The race was 78 laps long (250 miles / 400 km) for street-legal family sedans sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA) for cars built in 1935 and 1936.<ref name=Fleischman4 /> The city posted a $5000 purse with $1700 for the winner.<ref name=Fleischman4 /> The race was marred by controversial scoring and huge financial losses to the city. Ticket-takers arrived to find thousands of fans already at the beach track. The sandy turns at the ends of the track became virtually impassible with stuck and stalled cars. Second and third place finishers protested the results.<ref name=Fleischman4 /> France finished fifth. The city lost $22,000.<ref name=Fleischman4 />
Haugdahl talked with France, and they talked the Daytona Beach Elks Club to host another event on Labor Day weekend in September 1937.<ref name=Fleischman4 /> The event was more successful, but still lost money despite its $100 purse.<ref name=Fleischman4 /> Haugdahl didn't promote any more events.
France took over the job of running the course in 1938. There were two events in 1938. Danny Murphy beat France in the July event. France beat Lloyd Moody and Pig Ridings to win the Labor Day weekend event.
There were three races in 1939. There were three races in 1940. France finished fourth in March, first in July, and sixth in September. Four events were held in 1941.
France was busy planning the 1942 event, until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. France spent World War II working at the Daytona Boat Works while his wife Anne ran the filling station. Most racing stopped until after the war, but not entirely. Bill met Jim Johnstone, Sr., in 1944, when Jim was stationed at the Navy Base in Daytona Beach, where Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is currently located. Jim had been an auto mechanic in New Jersey where his father built Indy car engines. He met Bill at Bill's filling station and became Bill's race car mechanic. They traveled with their wives and children throughout Florida on the weekends, racing at many small tracks. On April 6, 1946, Jim and Bill were testing Bill's car on the streets of Cocoa, Florida, when they were stopped for driving 74 MPH (119 km/h) in the city limits. Jim was driving and had to pay a $25 fine. When the war ended, Jim moved his family back to New Jersey to start an auto parts business but remained close friends with Bill for the rest of his life. After the war, France decided to concentrate on promoting instead of driving. In sixteen events at Daytona Beach, France had two victories and six Top-5 finishes.<ref>Fleischman, page 5</ref> Car racing returned to the track in 1946. He built the Occoneechee Speedway in 1947.
France knew that promoters needed to organize their efforts. Drivers were frequently victimized by unscrupulous promoters who would leave events with all the money before drivers were paid. On December 14, 1947 France began talks with drivers, mechanics, and car owners at the Ebony Bar at the Streamline Hotel at Daytona Beach, Florida that ended with the formation of NASCAR on February 21, 1948.<ref name=Automobile>Induction in the Automotive Hall of Fame, Retrieved August 24, 2007</ref> They discussed uniform rules, insurance coverage and guaranteed purses.<ref name=Automobile />
By 1953, France knew it was time for a permanent track to hold the large crowds that were gathering for races at Daytona and elsewhere. Hotels were popping up all along the beachfront. On April 4, 1953, France proposed a new superspeedway called Daytona International Speedway. France began building a new 2.5 mile (4 km) superspeedway in 1956 to host what would become the new premiere event of the series – the Daytona 500. The event debuted in 1959, and has been the premiere event since.<ref name=Automobile />
He later built the Talladega Superspeedway which opened in 1969.<ref name=Automobile />
He served as Chairman and CEO of NASCAR. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company became the title sponsor in 1970, a move that changed the name of the series from "Grand National" to "Winston Cup". Reynolds convinced France to drop all dirt tracks and races under 100 miles (161 km) from the NASCAR schedule in 1972, a move that defined the "modern era" of the sport. Big Bill then turned the reigns of NASCAR over to his son Bill France Jr. France kept an office at the headquarters until the late 1980s .
He built the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, which inducted France in its first class on July 25, 1990.
Bill France, Sr. died on June 7, 1992, at the age of 82, from natural causes.
- He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990.
- He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990.
- He was inducted in the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2004.<ref name=Automobile />
- He became a member of the National Motor Sports Press Association (NMPA) Hall of Fame at Darlington, South Carolina.
- He was inducted in the Daytona Beach Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame in 1992.
- He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, 2010.
- The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide by Bill Fleischman and Al Pearce, 1999.