The Frontstretch: Fanning the Flames: France Was NASCAR's Guiding Force by Matt Taliaferro -- Wednesday June 6, 2007

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Fanning the Flames: France Was NASCAR's Guiding Force

NASCAR Fan Q & A · Matt Taliaferro · Wednesday June 6, 2007

 

It was a dark time for NASCAR in the early 1970s. A lag in Detroit's factory support left capable wheelmen without full-time jobs on stock car racing's premier circuit. Without top name drivers, sponsorship was drying up, car counts were down, and the ticket-buying fan had no reason to show up with the level of competition drying out. On top of all that, the nation was running dry itself, on the verge of a budding energy crisis. The problems rang through loud and clear: Big-time stock car racing was in a deep recession.

These were the conditions of the sport when Bill France, Jr. was appointed President of NASCAR in 1972. It could be joked that nepotism has its disadvantages, too. Well, in France’s case, the disadvantage was that his father had handed him the reins at a time of great need; with no time to sit and adjust to the job, the younger France had no time to waste in attempting to solve the issues of the day.

RJR Reynolds' Winston brand had come on board as the series sponsor in late 1971 and if they were to get their money's worth, the schedule had to be streamlined. Events were cut significantly to 31, as no driver had run a full slate of 48 races in the two prior seasons. Gone were the dirt tracks and 100-milers; only the big 250-mile shows were deemed marketable, anyway. With a more manageable schedule and a standard set of rules, names like Cale Yarborough and Bud Moore, as well as factory-backed Chevy and Ford teams, returned by the mid-1970s. With them came the grandstand crowds, along with a growing respect for the man appointed to be in charge of it all.

NASCAR’s escalating popularity convinced ABC to air the second half of the Daytona 500 live in '74 and CBS to air tape-delayed, edited races throughout the ensuing seasons. With the TV exposure came the sponsors; with the sponsors came the money, and with the money came promotion, advertising and competition. The transformation was complete. Bill France, Jr. had straightened the sport's four-wheel slide — without over-correcting — and had NASCAR barreling forward once again.

Of course, the events of the ‘70s culminated in a breakthrough 1979 Daytona 500. With the help of Ken Squier, France had worked a deal with CBS to televise the entire event live, the first time any network had attempted flag-to-flag coverage of the race. Well, I don't have to tell you the amazing events that transpired that Sunday. Track resurfacing resulted in record speeds, a snowstorm kept people glued to their couches, and the final-lap wreck on the backstretch led to a nation captivated, witnessing both Richard Petty's victory and the infamous fight that followed. The race was such a success that its ratings — 16 million people watched — were not surpassed until 2002.

From there, the sport never looked back.

Of course, Bill France, Jr. did not singlehandedly organize, formalize, shape or mold the sport of stock car racing into what it is. He did, however, guide it through its darkest days, only to see it emerge a more profitable, entertaining, and competitive sport. For that, we should all be grateful.

On to our questions of the week. Let's hear from ya out there. The address, as always, is matt.taliaferro@frontstretch.com.

Q: Before Casey Mears and Martin Truex, Jr., who were the last two drivers to score their first career wins in back-to-back weeks? — Ethan C.

A: I had a feeling someone would ask this. Technically, Jerry Nadeau and Michael Waltrip were the last drivers to accomplish the feat. However, Nadeau's win came while driving for Rick Hendrick in the 2000 season finale at Atlanta, while Michael Waltrip's was secured in the fateful 2001 Daytona 500.

For true back-to-back first-time victories, we have to dig back to 1999, when a 28-year-old rookie named Tony Stewart won at Richmond on September 11th and Joe Nemechek, driving the — wait for it — Felix Sabates-owned BellSouth Chevy took the checkers the following week at Loudon.

Q: Surprise, surprise…Kurt Busch shows his true colors once again! And he could not have picked a more deserving target in Stewart. The pit road altercation where he almost ran over a crewman was inexcusable. Doesn't this warrant a suspension? He used his car as a weapon! — Alex C.

A: I feel like I'm on the verge of caving on this one, but I don't believe it warrants a suspension. I think it was a stupid move on Kurt's part and he should get both the points docking and a fine, but I'm a little tired of NASCAR's over-penalizing.

Regardless of my opinion, it looks as though he will have to sit out Pocono, which is a shame considering he's been stout there over the last three races. But as the old saying goes, “Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.” It should make for an entertaining show at Eldora, huh?

Q: I was so saddened to hear of Bill France, Jr.'s death this week. Love or hate NASCAR for what is has become, you can't deny the monumental role he played in its growth from regional pastime to national obsession. — Sarah E.

A: Well said, Sarah. I never knew the man personally and I've only followed the sport since the early ‘80s, but I know what it was then and what it became by the time of his retirement as president and CEO in 2000. Therefore, I know of his legacy and admire him for his leadership and vision. I also thank him for being the driving force behind a sport that has kept me thoroughly entertained for 25 years.

Editor’s Note : For all the latest news and information concerning the death of Bill France, Jr. click here for all that Frontstretch has to offer on this immeasurable loss for the sport.

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Contact Matt Taliaferro

Recent articles from Matt Taliaferro:

Fanning the Flames: Of Daytona, Danica, Dale, and Duels
2009 Season Review: Tony Stewart
2009 Season Review: Ryan Newman
Fanning the Flames: Closing the Inbox on the 2009 Season
Fanning the Flames: The Crew Chief Carousel and Other Assorted Oddities