Bill France Sr. and the birth of NASCAR
Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR in December 1947 and today would have been his 103rd birthday. But before you sing Happy Birthday to “Big Bill”, pull a quarter out of your pocket and look at it. What can it buy today? Not much. But in 1938 you may have been able to buy NASCAR with it. Here’s the story.
Bill France was a race driver before turning to race promotion. He finished fifth in the first stock car race held on the sands of Daytona back in 1936. The City of Daytona Beach put on the event, but it was a huge failure with the city losing over $20,000. The local Elks Club put on the 1937 race and it also was a bust. The winner picked up $43.56. Racing in Daytona was dangerously close to ending due to the bad reputation of failure it was getting. Enter William Henry Getty France. He was a local gas station owner who loved to race. But racing in his hometown was in jeopardy. France got the idea to contact a fellow named Ralph Hankinson to promote the 1938 event. Hankinson was the dean of all race promoters who was based in the northeast. France knew the old gentleman would be successful with the Daytona race and he could continue to race on his beloved beach course. Hankinson wintered in nearby Orange City, Florida which was a 25-cent toll call by telephone. Remember that the nation was in the midst of a depression and France did not have the quarter to make the call. So he called collect, meaning that Hankinson would pay for the call. Not knowing who Bill France was, Hankinson refused the call.
France figured all hope was lost for continuing races on the beach. He complained to a friend named Charlie Reese who was a successful Daytona Beach businessman. Reese told France that they could form a partnership with Reese putting up the money for the 1938 event if France did the work to promote it. They split a $200 profit. France began to promote races full time and in late 1946 he had an idea. Why not gather all the sanctioning groups together and establish one set of rules for everyone, establish a point fund, guarantee a purse and crown a national champion. He invited the best drivers, owners, mechanics and promoters to Daytona Beach in December 1947 for a four day series of meetings. They hammered out a new organization known as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, aka NASCAR. Today it is the largest spectator sport in the nation with revenues in the billions. And it all started with a refused 25 cent phone call.