Book reveals ‘Big Bill’ France as true visionary

col-cathyelliott (2)It is a rare occurrence, but occasionally in the world of professional sports an individual comes along who becomes the standard bearer for his particular field of competition.

It’s generational, to some degree. My Michael Jordan may be my kid’s LeBron James, for example, or your dad’s long speeches about the genius of Fran Tarkenton may mirror your own enthusiasm for the athletic stylings of Tom Brady … although Brady may have gotten a little deflated in your eyes given current events. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

In NASCAR discussions, the names you would probably hear most often would be guys like Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and David Pearson, or Jeff Gordon, or any of the available Earnhardt or Allison options.

But the NASCAR name least likely to come up when playing our own personal version of “Celebrity Sports” is the most influential figure in the history of stock car racing: William Henry Getty France. In a new book titled Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr., author H.A. Branham tells us why.

In the interest of full disclosure, Branham has been a great friend of mine for well over a decade, occupying a permanent spot in the highest of my personal esteem levels. This lofty position is due to the fact that during one particularly memorable NASCAR Champion’s Week in New York City, Herb got me closer to Academy Award-winning actor/director Kevin Costner than any mortal woman should be allowed to go. Seriously, it was like looking into the eyes of the sun.

More to our point here, when he is not making overage fangirls’ dreams come true, Herb Branham is a terrific writer with a particular talent for taking reams of research and crafting them into biographies and compilations that read more like James Patterson novels than the Encyclopedia Britannica. In other words, they’re that thing that reading is supposed to be, no matter what that Tolstoy guy says: Fun.

“Big Bill” France – so labeled for his six-foot, five-inch stature – was the original visionary wheelman of the NASCAR world, a racer and mechanic who corralled the loosey-goosey world of stock car racing in the 1940s and ‘50s into the billion-dollar business of today. Along the way, he was targeted by Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, and met with Bobby Kennedy, who at the time was America’s attorney general, about resolving that particular problem.

He learned – or maybe even created – the art of stock car racing public relations, giving fans exciting new venues to visit and interesting superstar drivers to care about, from moonshiners to war heroes. He got a bunch of disparate people together in a Daytona Beach hotel room and, many bottles of whiskey and hundreds of cigarettes later, they emerged as a united sanctioning body called NASCAR.

With a big tract of swampland, a loan of a few hundred thousand dollars and a ridiculous 15-month deadline, he built Daytona International Speedway, now known as the World Center of Racing, and established the sport’s richest and most famous event, the Daytona 500. By comparison, Chicagoland Speedway, one of NACSAR’s newest facilities, took nearly two years to construct at a cost of $130 million.

France wasn’t one to sit in a fancy ivory-tower office and survey his empire, but instead was ready and willing to get his hands dirty when the situation warranted it. In one particularly memorable incident, fisticuffs were involved … but you’ll have to read the book for more details on that one.

Big Bill was also a devoted husband and father, planting the early seeds of the family-values atmosphere still so much in evidence in today’s NASCAR.

I bookmarked one particular line in the book as I was reading. France’s daughter-in-law, Betty Jane France, was telling the story of driving around the track at Daytona with Big Bill before the first Daytona 500 was ever run, when he made the following comment: “This is really going to be something one day.” That may be the understatement of the century.

In addition to Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr., H.A. Branham is the author of Bill France Jr.: The Man Who Made NASCAR; The NASCAR Family Album; and The NASCAR Vault. Find his work at your local bookstore, or at your favorite online retailers including amazon.com and bn.com.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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