France biography profiles NASCAR architect

Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service Thursday, Mar 05 1908

Tuesday's national and international release of H.A. Branham's biography "Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr." signifies far more than the appearance of the long-awaited chronicle of the life and work of the man who transformed stock car racing.

For those relatively new to the sport of NASCAR racing, it provides essential background knowledge of the man whose relentless vision led directly to the sport we know today.

And in a more general sense, "Big Bill" is the story of a man and a family who turned difficult circumstances into the realization of the American dream.

"The real history of this sport is Bill France Sr.," says Branham, who artfully weaves his own prose with the words of Bill France Sr., as well as with extensive interviews of principal figures in NASCAR racing, past and present. "I guess what I would hope people would get out of this is that sense of the great American success story that this whole thing really is.

"Think about this. In October 1934, in the throes of the depression, they rolled into Daytona Beach -- he and (wife) Annie B. and little Bill Jr. -- putting down roots, talking his way into a part-time job at the old Sax Lloyd car dealership here in town, and all of a sudden, two years later, when they started racing stock cars here in Daytona, he was right in the middle of it."
And that was just the beginning.

"The whole thing continues to grow into what we have today," says Branham, senior manager of International Speedway Corporation's Archives and Research Center in Daytona Beach. "The timeline is unreal: come here in '34, found NASCAR in '47, build Daytona in '59, Talladega in '69 -- and here we go.

"And it all just started with a guy and his wife and little boy coming into a nondescript Florida town in the middle of the depression. Like I said, the ultimate American success story."

The book project was conceived and driven by Bill France Sr.'s son, Jim France, executive vice president of NASCAR and former CEO of ISC.

Branham, who worked for NASCAR for 13 years after a 21-year stint as a sportswriter and assistant sports editor for The Tampa Tribune, spent roughly two and a half years researching, interviewing and writing "Big Bill," which includes a foreword by seven-time champion Richard Petty.

Branham spent countless hours talking to family members and to racing luminaries about NASCAR's founding father, and one interview in particular made an indelible impression.

"Without a doubt -- and not to diminish anyone, of course -- the best one by far was A.J. Foyt. When I was a journalist, he was one of those guys I did not like to interview. I covered auto racing a good bit, but I didn't cover it race by race. I would cover maybe 10 to 15 races a year, and I would see A.J. maybe twice a year. So it wasn't like he really knew me like the others, and I always found him to be intimidating beyond belief and not super cooperative.

"Well, times have changed. I met with him last year at Long Beach, and we talked for an hour. I could have listened to the old man talk for five hours weaving these great tales about his personal feelings for Bill France Sr. He really kind of looks back and talks about Bill Sr. in the same sort of affection and vein as he does about his father. He talks about the things Bill Sr. did to facilitate his driving in the sports car races down here -- the Rolex 24 -- and in the NASCAR events."

Branham was taken by the depth of feeling Foyt expressed when he spoke of Big Bill.

"It was really, really just an emotional interview with a guy, who a lot of people would not consider an emotional man," Branham said. "But when we got on the subject of Bill France Sr., that veneer of toughness A.J. Foyt always wore like a suit of armor melted away and was gone, and he was talking about somebody that was near and dear to his heart and weaving these wonderful tales about days of racing past and how close he had come on both a personal and professional level with the founder of NASCAR.

"It was really a special interview, to say the least."

The book features a collection of previously unpublished photographs of Bill France Sr. that are revealing in themselves. Who knew, for example, that Big Bill worked on Joel Thorne's pit crew for the 1938 and 1939 Indianapolis 500s?

"Myself and Jim France's three kids -- Amy, Jennifer and J.C. -- the four of us got together when the project was in the early stages and got in a room for a few hours and worked through the France family collection, which is just massive, and just a small percentage of those photos have been seen," Branham said. "We went through most of the whole collection and just tried to pick out the best ones that would really follow a timeline and really catch the reader's eye.

"You talk about a tough job! Myself, from a journalist's perspective and a real good friend of the family, and then with the actual family members -- they were kind of riding on pure emotion. Over the course of a couple hours there, we picked out the photos we knew would work. ... We really had a lot to choose from, but I think the ones that myself and Jim's three children settled on worked pretty well."

So does Branham's prose, which paints a vivid, cogent picture of a man who embodied the great American success story.