Since the days of his youth, Bill France Sr. had an obsession with speed and racing. Bill France Sr. was born on September 26, 1909 in Washington D.C. He raced as a teenager at a track in Laurel, Maryland, near D.C. To escape The Great Depression, Bill moved his family to Daytona Beach, Florida. Bill had several odd jobs to support his family after the move. It was in Daytona Beach where Bill's vision in racing started to take hold. Daytona was the site of several land speed records before many started to try to break those records in Utah. Stock car racing arrived in the middle 1930's, with France taking part in some of the events. But, they were far from a success. Several of the promoters who helped put on the races lost money. France raced at Daytona in the late 1930's into the 40's. All of this helped into Bill's vision which came into life late in the 1940's.
NASCAR Families Part 7: The Frances
Everywhere the sport has gone, they have led the way. The final part of this series is focused on the first family of NASCAR.
On December 14, 1947, Bill France Sr. held a meeting that began the formation of NASCAR. The talks were held at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. NASCAR formally began on February 21, 1948 at Daytona. Bill's vision was coming to life. The most famous races at that time were on the beach. Through the 50's, the sport started growing, but Bill had bigger plans. He oversaw the building of the Daytona International Speedway. It was a truly a remarkable facility that still is the site of the sport's biggest event, the Daytona 500.
Bill France Sr's vision didn't stop there. He also oversaw the building of an even faster track. Talladega Superspeedway held its first race in 1969. Its reputation of incredible speeds and fierce competition was a part of his vision. He also brought R.J. Reynolds into NASCAR to be the title sponsor of the sport's top series, becoming known as The Winston Cup Series. That relationship would last for more than three decades. He also built the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. He was part of the first class inducted on July 15, 1990.
In 1972, the reigns of the sport were turned over to the next generation. Bill France Jr began his turn as CEO and president of NASCAR. While his father watched over the beginnings of NASCAR, Bill Jr. watched over the explosive growth and expansion. Under his watch, the prize money in the sport became richer and richer. At the beginning of his tenure, the Winston Cup Champions earned about $750,000. By the late '90's, it rose to over one million dollars. He also saw possibilities in television broadcasts. Before 1979, all NASCAR races were shown on a tape-delayed basis. Bill France Jr. negotiated with CBS to broadcast races live. That came to life with the 1979 Daytona 500. The famous finish and post-race fight were a ratings smash.
Through the '80's and '90's, NASCAR went from a southeast based series to a nationwide event. Under the watch of Bill France Jr, NASCAR branched out across the nation. Races started up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Los Angeles Metro, and New England. NASCAR also did what many though would never happen: Race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. France Jr. was also a very clever marketer. He took NASCAR to where the money was. The awards banquet is held every year in New York City. Many of the country's largest companies are involved in the sport, whether buying advertising time or putting their name on the cars. Also, TV contracts with NASCAR became richer. The TV deal that went from 2001-2006 with Fox, NBC, and TNT was worth an incredible $2.4 billion. That also under Bill France Jr.'s watch.
Bill France Sr. passed away in 1992. But under the watch of his son, the sport was in great hands. NASCAR continued it's growth into the new century. Two more big markets got into the sport by hosting races: Kansas City and Chicago. In 2000, Bill France Jr. turned over the role of CEO to the third generation, his son Brian. He has carried on the vision from his father and grandfather, while introducing new concepts into the sport. After R.J. Reynolds left the sport in 2003, Brian brought in telecommunications giant Nextel to sponsor the top series. Brian also introduced a "playoff" type format in 2004, Nextel's first year of sponsorship, called "The Chase for the Championship". Brian has also watched over the introduction of the "Car of Tomorrow", which made it's debut at the Spring Bristol race in 2007. Brian was named by The Sporting News as one of the five most powerful sport executives in 2005
The France Family also founded International Speedway Corporation. Today, the company owns 13 tracks that hold most of the races on the Nextel Cup schedule. Jim France is the CEO of ISC and Lesa France-Kennedy is the president of the company.
The year 2007 has been a tough one for the family. On June 4th, Bill France Jr. died of complications of cancer. His death happened during the rain delayed Autism Speaks 400 at Dover, Delaware. On July 10th, Lesa's husband Dr. Bruce Kennedy was killed when the plane he was on board of crashed into two homes in Sanford, Florida. He was one of five people killed, including two children.
The France Family and NASCAR go hand in hand. They are truly the first family of NASCAR. Through the good times and the tough times in NASCAR, they've been there. Their influence has been there and will always be. The family has watched NASCAR grow from a southern based brand of racing to a nationwide event. By many accounts, NASCAR is the second biggest sport in the country, behind only the NFL. Everything in NASCAR has been touched in some way by The France family. And will always be in the future.
Contributing credits in this series include NASCAR.com, Fox Sports, The Wood Brothers official website, Liz Allison's official website, and Wikipedia.