Bill France Sr. was one of the most influential figures in the history of American motorsports. France founded NASCAR and built Daytona International Speedway, the nation’s first superspeedway. While his contributions to auto racing are well documented, France was a major contributor to motorcycle racing as well. France promoted the prestigious Daytona 200 and helped keep the race going at a time when population growth and development in Daytona Beach, Florida, threatened to end the classic race. He also had the foresight to see that the days were numbered for the beach race and was able to take on the monumental task of building Daytona International Speedway in the late 1950s. The famous speedway began hosting the Daytona 200, America’s most prestigious motorcycle race, in 1961.
William Henry Getty France was born on September 26, 1909. He was raised on a farm near the Washington, D.C. area. As a teenager, France began tinkering with cars and motorcycles and became a good mechanic. After high school, France attended the Institute of Banking in Washington, D.C, and worked for a time as a bank clerk. The job didn’t suit France, although his banking background would serve him well when he became a racing promoter.
By the early 1930s, France was working as a mechanic and eventually opened a garage. He also raced stock cars on dusty dirt ovals around Maryland and Virginia. In 1931, France married his wife, Anne, who later played an important role in the family racing business by tending the books and keeping the enterprise on a solid foundation.
France decided if he was going to work on cars for a living, at least he could move someplace where it was warm year-round. So in 1934, France loaded up the family and moved to Florida. The original destination for the Frances was Miami, but the family car broke down in Daytona Beach and Bill liked the area so much he decided to settle there. After working a few odd jobs, France eventually opened a gas and service station. It didn’t take long for France to become involved in the local auto racing scene. In 1935, he raced in the traditional auto races on the beach and finished a credible fifth.
By 1937, Daytona Beach had convinced the Southeastern Motorcycle Dealers Association to move the AMA 200-Mile Championship to Daytona. The race had previously been held in Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. The City of Daytona Beach co-promoted the race in the late 1930s, but didn’t make money on the event. Both the car and motorcycle races on the beach were in jeopardy, and a group of racers asked France if he would be interested in promoting the events.
Initially, France doubted that he could take on such a major task and sought the assistance of established racing promoters in the state. When no one was willing to take the risk, France took on the job himself. First, he promoted the car race, but after World War II, he took on the task of promoting the motorcycle event, as well.
During World War II, France served his country by supervising construction of sub-chasing boats in Daytona Beach.
Promoting races at Daytona, which ran up the beach and back on a parallel two-lane blacktop road, became a major challenge. Negotiating with the city to close the main north-south road in Daytona Beach, handling crowd control, collecting admission fees and dealing with ocean tides were among just a few of the issues France had to deal with. Under France’s guidance throughout the 1940s and '50s the Daytona 200 grew greatly in importance and attendance.
France founded NASCAR in 1947. According to Lin Kuchler, who worked in prominent positions for both NASCAR and the AMA, the new stock car racing association used much of the AMA rulebook as a basis for NASCAR technical rules.
By the mid-1950s, it was becoming obvious that continuing to race on the beach course would be very difficult. The Daytona Beach area was growing rapidly and development along the beach was making it more and more complicated to run the race. France began to look for alternatives. He envisioned building a speedway on a large scale. He began to gather financing and negotiated with the city to purchase a site near the airport. In 1957, construction began on Daytona International Speedway. The track opened in 1959.
The Daytona 200 continued on the beach for a couple of years, but without France promoting the event it began to slip. He eventually convinced AMA officials to move the race to the Speedway in 1961. Early on, the traditionalists who loved the old beach race stayed away from the new race at the Speedway and attendance in the early years suffered. However, France’s tireless promotion of the 200 paid off. By the early 1970s, the Daytona 200 attracted the largest crowds of any AMA race and the event took on international prominence.
France was a man of large stature. Standing 6 feet, 5 inches tall, his nickname was "Big Bill." His relationship with the motorcycling fraternity was a close one. He often hosted racers and AMA officials at his home. France asked legendary racer turned AMA starter Jim Davis to help his son, Bill, Jr., to learn to ride a motorcycle. Sons Bill Jr. and Jim both became avid motorcyclists. Jim went on to become an amateur AMA dirt track racer.
After his retirement in 1972, France named his son, Bill France Jr., to handle the day-to-day operations of what had become a racing empire. But the elder France remained active behind the scenes until his death in June of 1992. He left a legacy of nurturing the Daytona 200 into the most prestigious motorcycle race in America.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000.