NASCAR's legacy handed down from father to son

by | Special to

Editor's note: Through Father's Day, writers will present a series of articles portraying fatherhood and sporting figures.

There is no better Father's Day story centered on the NASCAR world than the family responsible for the sport's very existence.

The France family is, was and will most likely always be NASCAR.

Bill France Sr. created NASCAR, Bill France Jr. took it to the next level and Brian France is guiding the sport into the future.

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France carries on the family business passed down from his father in 2003. (Getty Images)  
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France carries on the family business passed down from his father in 2003. (Getty Images)  
In December 1947, Bill France Sr. organized a meeting at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach to discuss the matters facing stock car racing. France had moved to Florida from Washington, D.C., and after promoting races, including events held on the famous beach course on the Daytona coastline, decided to try the impossible task of organizing big-time stock car racing.

That fateful meeting saw the creation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and on Feb. 21, 1948, NASCAR was born.

Things came together quickly. The first NASCAR-sanctioned race was held on Daytona's beach course Feb. 15, 1948, only two months after the organizational meeting. Atlanta stock car standout Red Byron won the first sanctioned event and the circuits that's now known as the Sprint Cup Series began the next year.

NASCAR went on a roller coaster journey of growth that saw the fledgling series compete around the Southeast and eventually expand to the Eastern seaboard before heading to the Midwest and finally the far western United States.

But while Bill France Sr. planted the seeds of NASCAR, it was Bill Jr. who made them blossom.

After taking the reins from his NASCAR founding father in 1972, Bill Jr. made the sport a national phenomenon and took it far beyond its roots of the Southeast.

NASCAR racing was a popular, regional attraction in the early 1970s, but few outside of the southern part of the country followed it closely.

France changed that in a variety of ways.

"Bill Jr.'s the guy responsible for putting the sport where it is," car owner Richard Childress said. "Without his vision, we wouldn't be here."

He married NASCAR with corporate America, convincing Fortune 500 companies that not only was it OK to become associated with the sport of stock car racing, but the sport could help grow their businesses as well.

The landmark deal with R.J. Reynolds, which lasted an incredible 33 years and made the term Winston Cup a national household name, paved the way for hundreds of other major corporations to throw their sponsorship dollars into the sport.

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France also knew the value of television, much as Pete Rozelle did with the NFL. Television coverage of NASCAR racing up until France's regime was spotty at best, with a two-week tape-delayed race on Wide World of Sports about all fans could find at the time.

But France convinced a variety of networks his sport would generate an audience, and finally in 1979, CBS televised the Daytona 500 live, flag-to-flag.

Thanks to a slam-bang finish, an infield fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, and a snowstorm that had most of the country locked inside in front of the television, the race was a ratings bonanza.

NASCAR had arrived as a national presence, and the sanctioning body reaped billions of dollars in rights fees while receiving exposure like never before.

As its popularity soared, France worked to take the sport outside of its primarily southern boundaries, shepherding the development of speedways in major markets like Los Angeles, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas and Kansas City.

Moving races to major metropolitan cities proved to be a success. NASCAR became a national sport, known from coast-to-coast and on par with other major leagues like baseball, the NBA and the NFL.

He cultivated the growth of the sport while all the while never taking his eye off the bread and butter, the competition on the track, where he ruled with an iron fist.

"In life, you've got rules you have to live by, and you have to have people to enforce those rules," France Jr. once said to a group of reporters. "If you don't have rules, you have chaos. Basically, we are the government in the little country of motorsports.

"Our rules are the statutes and the laws of this little country. To gain and keep the confidence of everyone involved with NASCAR, those participating need to know, as evidenced by our behavior, that the rules are applicable to everyone and are enforced fairly."

The passing of France Jr. in 2007 hasn't dimmed the impact he had on NASCAR.

"Bill made such a major legacy impact in NASCAR, just as his father," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "His legacy, and what the sport is today, and what the sport will be for generations to come, will be a tribute to him and everything he did, the way he followed his father's footsteps and carried on in building NASCAR to where it is so that tens of millions of people enjoy, and many of us make a living in, and owe our careers to him."

Now a third-generation France, Bill Jr.'s son, Brian, carries the family legacy, just as his father did with the passing of his grandfather. The bar has been set about as high as possible, and it remains to be seen if Brian can match the heights his father took the sport.

Like his grandfather and father, there will be challenges in charting the course for NASCAR's continued success and future growth. That has been a constant since the sport was created more than 60 years ago.

And through it all, there has been a member of the France family guiding the way.


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