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Hall of fame's first class: Bill France

ThatsRacin.com
Sunday, Oct. 04, 2009

William Henry Getty France, called “Big Bill,” spearheaded NASCAR from its beginning and directed it to its present status as the world’s largest stock car racing organization.

William H.G. France,
one of NASCAR's founders

William Henry Getty France, called “Big Bill,” spearheaded NASCAR from its beginning and directed it to its present status as the world’s largest stock car racing organization.

In 1936, he helped lay out the first beach/road course in Daytona Beach, Fla. In the first race on the course he finished fifth. Starting in 1938, he helped promote races on the sands of Daytona Beach.

And in 1947, France became the driving force behind the establishment of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. NASCAR, it was called, resulting from a famous meeting at the Streamline Hotel on State Road A1A in Daytona Beach.

Tom Higgins on 'Big Bill' France
Motorsports writer and historian Tom Higgins shares a standout memory of each of the 10 nominees we're featuring as we count down to the NASCAR Hall of Fame vote and announcement.

Talladega, Ala. – Sept. 13, 1969

Amidst a torrent of anger pouring toward him, Bill France Sr., stood as solid as a granite boulder at Alabama International Motor Speedway, near Talladega.

Facing France in the confrontation were the top stars of NASCAR, the stock car racing sanctioning body he’d founded in 1949 and led with an iron will until his retirement in 1972. Richard Petty was there, along with David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Buddy Baker and the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie, and others.

The issue was tires. They were shredding at France’s ultrafast new 2.66-mile track, now known as Talladega Superspeedway. The tires couldn’t handle speeds approaching 200 mph.

The drivers wanted France to postpone the 188-lap race until a safer tire compound could be developed.

He steadfastly refused.

“We run tomorrow,” said France. “If you don’t want to run, then load your cars and go home.”

“They’re loaded,” said Petty.

France then addressed Yarbrough:

“LeeRoy, you’re a pilot who flies his own plane. Consider your race car an airplane and this track the weather, a storm. When you’re in your plane and encounter bad weather, you adjust. You slow down and go around it or over it. Do the same in your race car here. Slow down and adjust to conditions.”

Shot back Yarbrough: “Bill, when the weather is as bad as this damn race track, I don’t even take off.”

The other drivers whooped at LeeRoy’s zinger.

France’s face flushed with anger.

“What you hot dogs do is your business, but quit threatening the boys that want to race.”

The “hot dogs” did leave.

But France cobbled together a field of 36 cars and the show went on.

Recriminations were expected against the drivers who boycotted. However, they were back on Sept. 18 for a 100-mile race at Columbia Speedway in South Carolina, and it was as if a walkout had never happened.

As always, when threatened, France had won. He never was challenged so directly again.

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