Bill France: Seizing the Opportunity (Infancy)

Bill France: Seizing the Opportunity (Infancy)

During the prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s, the undercover business of whiskey running began to boom. The secret transportation quickly became more of a problem than making it. The common term for these runners was bootleggers, men who illegally ran whiskey from hidden stills to markets across the Southeast. Driving at high speeds at night, often with the police in pursuit, bootleggers were taking enormous risks.

As bootlegging boomed, the drivers began to race among themselves to see who had the fastest cars. Bootleggers raced on Sunday afternoons and then used the same car to haul whiskey on Sunday nights. Inevitably, people came to see the races, and racing cars became extremely popular in the backroads of the South.

Seizing on what he thought could become compelling sports entertainment, William H. G. "Bill" France—a driver and promoter who owned a local gas station—organized a race on the wide, firm sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, in the summer of 1938. The winner received such items as a bottle of rum, a box of cigars, and a case of motor oil (precursors to present-day sponsor involvement in the sport). France was a visionary; he realized for stock car racing to grow, an official organization had to exist to list champions, maintain statistics, and memorialize records and record holders.

Financial and Organizational Growth: NASCAR-a-Go-Go

By 1947, Bill France realized the time was right for a national sanctioning body to govern stock car racing, so he gathered influential promoters to gain their input. Over a three-day period, rules were drawn up and specifications were agreed on. The name of the organization would be NASCAR.

Through the 1950s, NASCAR began to flourish. Corporate sponsors, such as Pure Oil and Champion Sparkplugs took an active role in the sport. Even the major automobile manufacturers, such as Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler gave "factory backing" to individual drivers whereby the drivers would receive money from a manufacturer to drive its product. The car companies realized the marketing potential of racing to sell cars. In fact, a common motto for these automobile manufacturers emerged: "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday."

In 1959, because he knew the importance of properly packaging his product, France founded the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which constructed the Daytona International Speedway in 1959 and Talladega Superspeedway 10 years later. These tracks allowed France the opportunity to control the presentation of his product as he continued to methodically grow the sport throughout the South.

This marked the beginning of NASCAR's vertical integration, a business decision that served the sport well beyond its formidable years. What were once merely loosely affiliated tracks and events grew to become an extensively organized group of assets. The importance of bundling these assets, which today include NASCAR's own cutting-edge TV channel and Internet programming, was not lost on corporate America.

France realized that for NASCAR to become a booming success it needed three elements: a cohesive governing body, television exposure, and corporate support. For most businesses, this translates into leadership, distribution channels, and financing.

NASCAR's Adolescent Years

The American gas crisis in 1974 not only led to increases in gasoline prices and the need for rationing, but also led many people to believe racing wasted precious gas. So NASCAR cut back the number of miles in most races by 10 percent; therefore the Daytona 500 was only 450 miles that year. Through the 1970s, and despite the gas crisis, racing continued to grow.

It did so because the France family knew the inherent value of television rested in its ability to broaden exposure for the sport beyond the South. The first race that piqued corporate interest in the sport was the 1976 Daytona 500, the final laps of which were broadcast on ABC. This was followed in 1979 when CBS became the first network to televise an entire NASCAR race—an event that attracted an estimated 15 million viewers. However, it wasn't so much the race itself that endeared the sport to so many fans.

On the back straightaway of the last lap, Cale Yarborough attempted to pass Donnie Allison on the inside, and Allison pulled down to block him. The two cars collided and careened into the third turn wall, then spun into the infield grass and stopped. Richard Petty, A. J. Foyt, and Darrell Waltrip drove past and Petty won the race by a car length. By the time Petty crossed the finish line, Yarborough and Allison had already climbed out of their cars and started fighting. Then Bobby Allison pulled up and entered the fistfight to defend his brother—all of which happened on live national television as several safety crew members attempted to break it up.

Many racing historians credit that race and its exciting finish for helping bring NASCAR to where it is today. Arguably one of the most bizarre incidents ever witnessed in sports, this nonetheless proved to be a defining moment for NASCAR.