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Richard Petty famously said that auto racing began the day the second car was built. To some extent, this is true. In the first decades of the 20th century, countless auto races took place around the country. Some races took place at semi-legitimate venues, like a county fair, while others were makeshift events in backyards and on country roads. America was mad about the automobile, and auto racing seemed a logical outgrowth of that zeal. The problem was that almost all early racing lacked organization and structure. And outside of the Indianapolis 500, which held its first running in 1911, most racing and racers lacked respectability. Before the sport could truly take off in this country, it required an organization to give it some legitimacy.
Bill France, Sr. and Daytona Beach
In 1934, with the nation mired in the Great Depression, a 25-year-old mechanic named Bill France packed up his family, including his one-year-old son, Bill Jr., and headed south from the family’s home in Maryland with the hopes of finding work in sunny Florida. To finance the trip, “Big Bill” – as he was known – emptied his entire savings account, $75, and spent $50 on tools with the hope that he would use the tools to fix broken-down cars along the route in exchange for money to finance the trip to their final destination, Miami. The family would ultimately stop 250 miles short of Miami, on the famous sands of Daytona Beach, where Bill Sr. was able to find work at a local automobile dealership.
Daytona Beach proved a perfect fit for the France family. By the time they arrived, the beach’s flat, hard sands had become a favorite destination for racers who used the open expanse of beach as a platform to set what were then the fastest speeds ever recorded in an automobile. The year that France arrived, a British racer named Malcolm Campbell was racing experimental supercars at close to 250 miles per hour.
France, who had raced hot rod Model T’s at Washington D.C.-area short tracks back home, fell in with the racing crowd. But soon the land-speed record chasers had moved most of their operations to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, which offered up even more open terrain than Daytona Beach. By 1936, local leaders who were looking for a new way to attract the booming racing business staged a closed-course race that ran along the beach, then turned onto Highway A1A and then back around onto the beach. With a $5,000 prize purse, the race attracted speedsters from all over, and had a crowd that was reported to number 20,000. France ran fifth in that race.
France soon became involved in organizing and promoting the races, and by 1941 he and his partners were organizing and sanctioning four races a year on the beach course. But World War II intervened, and racing did not return to the beach in earnest until 1946.
Post-WWII America was ripe with money in a way it had never been before, and this confluence of events is widely credited with creating the car boom in this country. G.I.’s returned home with money to burn, and cars became their favorite toys. And, naturally, many of them wanted to get into racing their hot rods.
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- Bootlegging Roots
- NASCAR Lore: The Call
- The Birth of NASCAR
- The Daytona 500
- The Growth of the Sport
Latest page update: made by SillyLins
, Dec 20 2006, 8:56 PM EST
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