The Frontstretch: Potts' Shots: How Bill France Doubled Down on Daytona by John Potts -- Thursday April 12, 2012

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Potts' Shots: How Bill France Doubled Down on Daytona

John Potts · Thursday April 12, 2012

 

Reader Mustang 59965 sent us a question a few weeks back that took some research. He (or she) asked, “Who loaned Bill France Sr. the money to build Daytona International Speedway?”

While some of this has been covered in books, and in TV specials, we’re going to start at the beginning anyway. I don’t take credit for any of this story; it was all put down on paper and eventually online.

On a wing and prayer – and four times over budget, Bill France, Sr. built what was at the time believed to be impossible – Daytona International Speedway. That’s a young Bill France, Jr. at the controls of the earth mover.

In the early 1950s, France was in the garage area at Indianapolis when the American Automobile Association requested he turn in his credential. Actually, I’ve heard he was unceremoniously escorted out of the place. Apparently, France was considered an intruder because of his association with NASCAR. AAA had a stock car division, too, and NASCAR had a “speedway” division which featured championship cars with stock block engines.

As an aside, old race buffs like myself will recall that AAA sanctioned motorsports up through the 1955 season. That year was disastrous with a number of American drivers killed, including Bill Vukovich at Indy, and the accident at Le Mans which took more than 80 lives. That led to the formation of the United States Auto Club.

The incident at Indianapolis made Big Bill more determined than ever to build his own track, and he swore that it would be faster than Indianapolis. As early as 1950, the NASCAR-sanctioned Daytona Speedweeks events were run on the 4.2-mile beach and road course (two miles south on A1A, two miles north on the beach, with a hairpin at each end), but development in the South Peninsula area began conflicting with this event around 1952. “I pointed out to the city of Daytona Beach as early as 1949 that hotel development along the beach was steadily moving south, and one day there would be no room for racing,” France once told writer Brock Yates. “I suggested they should be looking toward the construction of a permanent speedway.”

In 1953, West Palm Beach offered France facilities if he would officially move the speed trials and races to South Florida, but he declined, hoping to turn his idea of building a superspeedway on the Daytona Beach mainland into a reality. Milwaukee Braves owner Lou Perini looked into the possibility of financing a proposed $1.675-million track, but decided he had his fingers in too many pies. Once again, for older sports fans, Perini was the guy who started the trend of baseball franchises moving, as he took the Boston Braves to Milwaukee.

The Daytona Beach city commissioners and Volusia County council members created a racing and recreational authority that would ultimately become the Speedway District Commission. The authority was to sell $3 million in bonds to finance the construction of the racetrack. After leases and options on a large piece of swampy land near the airport were obtained, the bottom fell out of the bond market and there was an economic downturn.

In November of 1957, the Speedway District Commission and the chamber of commerce abandoned the operation and agreed to lease the site to a corporation headed by France, which would eventually become International Speedway Corporation. France anted up the $25,000 deposit, figuring the cost to build the track would be $750,000 – it was to end up costing nearly $3 million.

With the help of Pepsi-Cola president Donald Kendall and General Motors auto designer Harley Earl – and by selling 300,000 shares of stock to the local public – construction of the Speedway began in April of 1958. ISC took out a $1 million life insurance policy, the first of its kind, on France, who was 47 at the time, to ensure the Speedway would be completed.

“The potential of racing, as a major industry here, is still in its infancy,” France said to Benny Kahn of The News-Journal in 1957. “I believe in the Halifax area and the future of racing, and am staking all that I own on this faith.”

Bill France, Sr.‘s (far right) dream of building a 2.5-mile tri-oval could have ruined him; instead it became his greatest achievement, and gave NASCAR one of the grandest stages in motorsports. Contractor Don Smith is pictured center, with Bill France, Jr. on the left in this 1957 image.

Perini had funded the initial research for the building of the racetrack, but France used the assistance of engineer Charles H. Moneypenny, who had consulted on construction of other high-profile tracks, to bring his vision to life. The plan was to build a 2.5-mile tri-oval where the straightaways would be 50 feet wide and there would be a 20-foot safety cushion around the bottom of the track. The 31-degree high banks would be constructed to enable stock cars to run – and pass – at higher speeds. There also would be a 3,000-foot long concrete safety wall on the north side and 2,700-foot-long walls on the turns.

Another aside on the “tri-oval” design. I’ve was told once back in the day that Big Bill liked the fact that spectators at the one-mile circle Langhorne track, where NASCAR had raced, were all located on a turn and had a great view of more of the action. He didn’t want a circle, but the tri-oval was his compromise.

“I know of no textbook on the subject of how to build a racetrack,” Moneypenny told The News-Journal’s Bob Desiderio. “When I began research on this track back in 1953, the first thing I learned was that most tracks are laid out strictly by guesswork.” The million cubic yards of dirt needed to construct the steep turns was taken from where the 44-acre Lake Lloyd now sits. A lighting system was installed for around-the-clock work, and an 8 1/2-inch layer of lime rock — 22 tons trucked in from Ocala — was used for the track’s binding base.

France continued running Speedweeks events but decided that 1958 would be the last year that they would be run on the beach due to crowded conditions of the expanding South Peninsula area. “There were only three avenues left open,” France told Kahn. “The first was the ideal $2.9 million project, the second was to build a lesser speedway as best we could and the third was to move away from Daytona Beach. I never wanted to carry out that third alternative.”

All of the track’s stock was sold by December of 1958, and advance ticket sales for the first Speed Weeks reached $60,000 a month later.

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