After Rolling to Stop, Frances Built Something Big
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 12, 1999; Page N7
NASCAR was started by a gas station owner who settled in Daytona Beach, Fla., after his car broke down while attempting to move his family from Washington to Miami.
William Henry Getty France, better known as "Big Bill," moved his young family into the small oceanside village in 1935 to escape Washington's harsh winters. When his car rolled to a stop, he forgot his Miami dream and called the community, which had a rich racing heritage, home.
An auto mechanic by trade, France dabbled in racing as a car owner and driver until 1938, when he promoted a stock car race on Daytona's infamous beach-road course. From that initial success he split $1,000 with a partner France built a vast motorsports empire.
In December 1947, France called together drivers, car owners and promoters, who formed the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. The group sanctioned a handful of modified races in the South in 1948, then added a class called "Strictly Stock" in 1949. The Strictly Stock division became what is known as the Winston Cup series.
France's wife, Anne, sold tickets from the back of a car and kept track of the money in the early days.
"I can readily attest that Dad certainly had vision and dreams," Bill France Jr. said. "but make no bones about it, my mom was his reality. While he was climbing high to reach his far-out goals, Mom firmly held the ladder and provided him with a rock-solid foundation. Vision, dreams and reality. This is the true legacy they left."
Bill France Sr. built the Daytona International Speedway home of NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500 on a shoestring budget. The 2.5-mile, high-banked tri-oval course was opened in 1959 under the publicly traded International Speedway Corporation (ISC) banner. Today, ISC controls or has interest in six tracks that host Winston Cup events.
In 1972, France turned NASCAR over to his oldest son, Bill Jr., who with his brother, James, took charge of ISC about 10 years later. Their father died of Alzheimer's disease in 1992.
On Wednesday, Bill France Jr., announced that he was turning over NASCAR's daily operations to Mike Helton, who has served as its vice president of competition since 1994. France will remain as president, however.
James France shuns the spotlight, but he has followed his mother's lead. He is the mastermind of NASCAR's and ISC's fiscal health. ISC has raised more than $200 million in recent public offerings and has a $70 million line of credit with FirstUnion Bank.
ISC is building a track in Kansas City, Kan., and hopes to construct another near Chicago.
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