‘Big Bill’ tells the story of the man who started it all in NASCAR

'Big Bill' France Sr.
'Big Bill' France Sr.

You can't mention the sport of NASCAR, all of its ups and downs, all of its success and popularity or where it is today without focusing first on its founder: Bill France Sr.

Before there was Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson or Darrell Waltrip. Before there was Dale Earnhardt Sr., 100-thousand seat tracks overflowing with fans and skyrocketing success. Before there was Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano or Chase Elliott, there was Big Bill, the 6-5 giant of a man with a huge frame and even bigger dreams.

France had a vision of making NASCAR the biggest thing around. When he founded the organization in December 1947, it may have been hard to imagine the popularity and success the sport would garner. It quickly became a staple of the South with its colorful characters, big-time sponsorship with R.J. Reynolds/Winston and rapid fan support.

When he turned the business over to his son, Bill France Jr. in 1972, NASCAR was on the cusp of taking off. Again.

"Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr." is a book written by H.A. "Herb" Branham that's currently available at bookstores and online anywhere books are sold. The book tells a long overdue story of a man who moved to the South, had a dream of starting something big, and made it actually happen.

"He was in the right place at the right time. In the late 1940s, you needed someone with his type of personality and determination, flamboyant," Branham said in a telephone interview. "He was kind of a ruler, which he was criticized a bit because in a way NASCAR was a dictatorship. But it had to be. Somebody had to do it if they wanted to bring this long-lost sport into an organizational realm where it could operate efficiently. So he was the right guy for the right time."

Branham is a 1979 graduate of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Previously, he was a reporter and editor with the Tampa Tribune from January 1980-July 2001. From July 2001-July 2014, he worked in NASCAR's communications department.

He currently is Senior Manager of the ISC Archives and Research Center in Daytona Beach, Fla. He's written five books involving sports, including "The NASCAR Vault" in 2004 and "The NASCAR Family Album" in 2006. He has years of experience working with the France family, particularly Bill France Jr. Not long after Bill Jr. passed away in 2007, Branham wrote a book on him called "Bill France Jr.: The Man Who Made NASCAR" in 2010. It was a big success and gave Branham the opportunity to pen more works on the famous France family.

"It wasn't too long after I started that I started working directly with Bill's son, Bill France Jr., on various projects he had going on, including whenever he would speak publicly and some other projects," Branham said. "I did that until (Bill Jr.) passed away in 2007. So then I did a biography on Bill Jr. that was published in 2010. That kind of put me in a decent position to be considered to do something.

"Jim France, Bill's other son (currently the vice chairman of the board of directors and executive vice president of NASCAR), came to me with the idea a few years ago about doing this book on his father. It was long overdue and I was able to put together a proposal with Penguin Random House. They really liked the proposal and we were off and running."

"Big Bill" breaks down how France brought his family to Daytona Beach, Fla. in 1934 and quickly became involved in the business of racing. But there were things about the environment he didn't care as much about. It soon opened the door for him to drum up support and interest to start his own organization in the area.

After the sport got off the ground in 1947, it wasn't long before it caught on and success followed. Experienced drivers, former and then-current moonshine runners and others anxious to show their worth helped grow the sport quickly. In 1959, France built Daytona International Speedway, where the Daytona 500 is run today.

Talladega Superspeedway was later built and France landed a major sponsorship deal in 1971 with R.J. Reynolds/Winston that sent the sport to a whole new level. NASCAR went away from dirt tracks to the tracks run today. And much like the speeds those cars put up then and now, once that happened, everything just took off for NASCAR.

"Bill Jr. was the right guy to take over at the right time in 1972 and when corporate sponsorship was taking off and the sport was changing," Branham said. "Bill France Sr. keyed it up for his son, so to speak, to be able to take the sport to the next level again.

"Just like Brian France was the right guy at the right time because things were changing again with the TV contracts, corporate sponsorship was changing … a lot of things were becoming more modern. It's incredible how it all worked out. In 1972, when Bill France Sr. handed it over to Bill Jr. … perfect time. 2003, Bill Jr. handed it over to Brian France (the current CEO and Chairman of NASCAR) was perfect timing. But the whole plan was put into place because of Big Bill."

Branham already had lots of information, interviews and general knowledge of Bill Sr. from his other published works. That made doing this current book easier in a way because he knew where he wanted to take it. However, it didn't make telling the story any easier, because there are so many fascinating ones about Bill Sr.

Branham hopes that's what "Big Bill" will be: something not only the NASCAR fan can enjoy but also an incredible tale that just about anyone can pick up, read and learn from while appreciating a pioneer in the sport of auto racing.

"I was able to tap into just a lot of photography," Branham said. "Myself and Jim France's three children picked out the photography for the book. Just a treasure trove of archival documents, past interviews and newspaper stories. I had a lot of stuff at my disposal which obviously made the job a lot smoother.

"I don't want to say it made it easier. It actually made it harder because there would be so many stories. It's like the adage of making a film in that you leave a lot of stuff on the cutting-room floor. I had to leave a lot of stuff on the cutting-room floor, but with good reason." Sporting News

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