NASCAR was born 75 years ago today at a hotel in Daytona

Sports

December 14, 1947 was a Sunday afternoon. Yes, most of the men who gathered in Daytona Beach, Fla. on that chilly, gray day were dressed in suits. But no, it was not a church service. Far from it. There was entirely too much brown liquor on the table and cigar smoke in the air for that. However, it was a christening. The roll-your-quarters beginning of a billion dollar business, 75 years ago today. The birth of NASCAR.

That Sunday was the first of four days of meetings attended by a revolving door of nearly 40 businessmen, promoters, race car owners and race car drivers. You’ll notice that “bootleggers” is not included in that list of occupations. That’s because pretty much all of them were, from white lightning dabblers to downright moonshine titans, they just didn’t want anyone to know it.

“The way y’all remember it now was like the pictures we took, that we were this cleaned-up-looking bunch of men who knew exactly what they were doing,” recalled attendee Raymond Parks in 2007, three years before his death and ten years before his posthumous election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “In reality, we were a bunch characters all there hoping to straighten some things out. If we didn’t, fine, we’d go back to do what we were doing before. But it certainly worked out. At least for some folks it did.”

Welcome to the Ebony Room

It was a rough-hewn continental congress of racers, summoned to the space-themed Ebony Room, a rooftop lounge atop Daytona’s still-new art deco show palace known as the Streamline Hotel, a venue then best known for hosting Al Capone and his wise-guy cohorts as they migrated south during World War II.

The curious attendees showed up having accepted an invitation, really a challenge, via an advertisement placed in the de facto bible of American motorsports, Speed Age magazine. That ad had been placed by a Daytona Beach businessman and racer-turned-promoter named William Henry Getty France, aka “Big Bill”.

Recalled Parks: “That’s the nickname you get when you’re 6-foot-5 and you’re around race car drivers all the time, because race car drivers are typically little people.”

France had spent the prior decade rising from house painter and gas station owner to part-time racer and, eventually, the overseer of racing on Daytona’s famous super-fast white sand beaches. The two years after the end of WWII saw veterans returning home from Europe and the Pacific who immediately sought their post-war thrills behind the wheel. From coast to coast, they raced their street cars over country roads, around self-plowed oval racetracks and yes, on the beach course operated by “Big Bill”.

France, frustrated by what he perceived as condescension from AAA and the IndyCar crowd, went so far as to start his own sanctioning body in 1947. He called it the National Championship Stock Car Circuit, or NCSCC, racing under his penned phrase “Where The Fastest That Run, Run The Fastest.” Problem was, all of those racers scattered all over the nation had also started their own stock car series, from the American Stock Car Racing Association to the National Stock Car Racing Association to the poorly titled Stock Car Auto Racing Society — SCARS.

Every one of those series employed their own convoluted points systems and every rulebook was different, but none of that mattered because rules were essentially unenforceable. A spaghetti pile of names and cars, run by an unintelligible alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies, ensured constant chaos that allowed shady track promoters to rob racers blind and kept any would-be race fan from having any clue as to who, what and where they should be watching.

“Every track and every area has a ‘national champion’ of every type of racing,” France declared to the Ebony Room as his guests took their seats. “This has so confused sportswriters that they give up in disgust after trying to give the public an accurate picture.”

Bill France Jr., aka “Bill Junior” and son of “Big Bill,” explained: “It was all a big mess, and my father knew it, but so did everyone else.”

He did so during Daytona Speedweeks 1998, the kickoff of NASCAR’s 50th anniversary celebration. His Winston-burned voice pushed through a tour guide’s microphone as he led a media bus ride around town. That tour had stopped in front of the Streamline, and “Bill Junior” was pointing to the rooftop.

“It didn’t take much convincing to get those guys to show up here and see if they could straighten it out,” he said. “It wasn’t the most educated, sophisticated bunch of men, but they were all smart. Smart enough to know that they could all benefit if it got organized.”

The bulk of the attendees were locals, but they also came from Atlanta and North Carolina, from New England and New Rochelle, N.Y., from as far as deep into the Midwest. The buttoned-up and the dressed-down, representing nearly every corner of the United States from the right side of the Mississippi River.

But the room was filled with as much distrust as it was smoke. There were open arguments punctuated by whispers. Group discussions laced by secret one-on-one asides. A lounge full of alpha males found it difficult to agree on what their race cars should look like or even what to call their new organization.

The man who bankrolled the meetings at the request of France was Parks, already a legendary car owner with racers Lloyd Seay, who was dead, and Roy Hall, who was in prison. But the man who’d made his fortune in real estate and cars, not to mention gambling houses and moonshining, was so skeptical of the happenings inside the Ebony Room that he initially refused to sit at the table with France and the others. Parks chose instead to sit at the bar with a couple of female students from a local charm school that “Big Bill” had brought in for the meetings.

“I wanted it to work. Heck, I paid for everyone to be there. But until I saw that everyone there was actually serious about it, I wasn’t buying in,” Parks said on the 60th anniversary of the Streamline meetings. “By the second day, Red and Red assured me that there was progress being made, so I went in there, too.”

‘Next thing you know, NASCAR belonged to Bill France’

The first Red was Red Byron, who drove for Parks. The second was Red Vogt, who built Parks’ cars. Like everyone else in the room, they were blown away at how “Big Bill” took charge of the proceedings. He’d opened the first day with a rousing call to arms.

“Nothing stands still in the world. Things get better or worse, bigger or smaller.” He kicked off day two of a hangover by setting a blue collar tone. “Stock car racing has got distinct possibilities for Sunday shows. I would allow race-minded boys that work all week who don’t have enough money to afford a regular racing car to be competition to the rich guy. It allows them the opportunity to go to a racetrack on Sunday and show their stuff and maybe win a prize …”

France wanted stock cars. Right off the street. Raced on dirt and, whenever possible, on Sundays. There was some opposition, but not much. In fact, “Big Bill” seemed to allow just enough arguing to make those in the room believe that they were making the decisions and not him. That even went for the organization’s new name. Byron suggested National Stock Car Racing Association. Vogt suggested National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, which France liked because “NASCAR” rolled off the tongue. After Byron’s name won in a 7-4 vote, France reminded that there was already a NSCRA in Georgia, and perhaps they’d like to think about it. They revoted. This time, NASCAR won.

“‘Big Bill’ should have been a politician,” explained longtime Charlotte Observer motorsports scribe Tom Higgins, himself a NASCAR Hall of Famer, in 2017, about seven months before his death. “His invitation list to those meetings was just the right mix of friends versus foes. And when they closed those meetings with officer elections, which also determined who got the most shares of ownership, who do you think convinced them to give Bill France Senior the first presidency of NASCAR and the most shares? Bill France Senior, that’s who!”

It was true. The man who would later brag, “I can hold my board meetings in a phone booth” left the Streamline Hotel on Dec. 17, 1947, with the title of NASCAR president and 50% of those shares. Not knowing yet what they had signed over, the group posed for the now-famous photo of their meeting in the Ebony Room, “Big Bill” having smoothly positioned himself at the head of the table.

As Parks liked to say with a shake of the head and he-got-me grin, “Next thing you know, NASCAR belonged to Bill France.”

A new age, a new Streamline

France’s belief in one-man rule has proven wise beyond his 82-year life, which ended on June 7, 1992.

NASCAR was formerly incorporated on Feb. 21, 1948. The winner of its first race and championship was Red Byron, driving for Parks in a car prepared by Vogt. But, oddly enough, none of that was in a stock car. The postwar lag in streetcar production out of Detroit forced NASCAR to start by racing in ’48 using fender-less Modifieds, with the Strictly Stock division finally taking the green flag in Charlotte on June 19, 1949.

“Big Bill” reigned as NASCAR chairman and CEO until handing over the keys to Bill France Jr. in 1972, having survived financial crises, gas shortages, driver strikes and the deaths of multiple superstars. As the sport raced into the 1970s, it began its so-called Modern Era and spent the next three decades on an alpine-like climb.

“Bill Junior,” who died in 2007, was succeeded by Mike Helton as president, followed by Brian France, grandson of “Big Bill,” and since 2018, Steve Phelps. “Big Bill”‘s second son, the soft-spoken Jim France, is now NASCAR chairman. He was only three years old in February 1947. His niece, Bill France Jr’s daughter Lesa France Kennedy, serves as NASCAR’s executive vice chair. Most have their eyes on her son, 30-year-old Ben Kennedy, as the heir apparent to the stock car kingdom.

On Wednesday, they will all gather at the Streamline Hotel for a Founder’s Day celebration. They will toast their stock car racing forefathers in what is now known as the Sky Lounge Bar, the space formerly known as the Ebony Room, now wallpapered with photos of the men who gathered there to burn tobacco, sip amber fluids and draw up the paperwork that started the world’s largest stock car racing series.

That series is experiencing a bit of a rebirth, a reversal of recent misfortune that is much like the Streamline itself. After decades of disrepair, the old hotel vibrates with life. Remember that ’98 bus tour with “Bill Junior”? The place was in such terrible shape that day that he refused to get off the bus and go inside because, “It might collapse on top of us.” Now, after a $6 million overhaul and one Travel Channel “Hotel Impossible” star turn, it has become a Daytona hot spot. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. launched his new vodka line last February, he did so alongside his wife on the same roof where Parks once hung out at the bar with the charm school students.

This year’s Dec. 14 festivities mark the kickoff of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary celebration, with the promise of both eyes on 2023 and beyond, while keeping one foot planted in 1947.

“How cool would it be to go back and watch a race on the beach, right? Having to make sure that you’re trying to figure out when what’s low tide? What’s high tide?” Phelps says of the view from atop the Streamline, looking across Highway A1A at the Atlantic Ocean. “Then I look out my window here at my office and I see Daytona International Speedway. The vision to be able to create this in the 1940s and ’50’s, I mean, it’s just extraordinary. This is what Bill Senior envisioned.”

NASCAR’s fifth-ever president speaks of the sport’s recent gains in television ratings and attendance and the successes of experiments such as racing at the L.A. Coliseum and the raciness — with safety work currently being done — of the new Next Gen car. He talks about the gift of guidance that is his ability to lean on the France family. Then he reminds that one of “Big Bill’s” speeches from the Streamline Hotel, the one about “Stock car racing has got distinct possibilities for Sunday shows …” is displayed across a giant wall in NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. A constant, stories-tall reminder of what happened 75 years ago this week.

“There’s a statement that I’ve heard from both Jim France and Mike Helton and that’s where we are … they always say we are stewards for the sport. We need to leave it better than when we found it,” Phelps continues. “Everything we do ladders to that, that North Star. I think that’s helpful. So, when people come to work, when I come to work, we know what’s expected. And it started that day at the Streamline Hotel.”

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