That was racing's wish-upon-a-star promotional slogan three decades ago. The so-called energy shortage, slowing national economy, high-profile speedways on the financial brink, lack of imaginative and aggressive promotion and marketing by everyone except NASCAR, the 1978 USAC officials’ airplane crash, CART splitting from USAC, and a series of headline-making fatalities (Mark Donohue, Ronnie Peterson, Bruce McLaren, Tiny Lund, Bobby Isaac, among others, plus the ‘73 Indy 500 disaster) stalled any chance for PR hope to become business reality.
I was at the Philadelphia Daily News back then. As the decade wound-down, my editor suggested I take a hard look at “What happened?” This was really inspirational on my part, but my first thought was to interview Tony Hulman and Bill France Jr. In April ’77, I asked the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR department (such as it was) to schedule time with Mr. Hulman when I was there to cover the 500. A written response informed me that Tony’s calendar “was far too-demanding” to accommodate my request for 15 minutes. (I did talk with him for a couple of minutes in Gasoline Alley, but only because Tony knew me.) This was way before IMS began worrying about such details as ticket sales and TV ratings.
The following February – five days before the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s PR director took me to meet France. The look on Bill's secretary's face told me I was in space not typically occupied by a media sort. My newspaper, though, was in geography the NASCAR president coveted. His office was nice enough but what really got my attention was what Bill said and the way he said it.
Bill Jr. told me, in a calm but confident voice, that his father always believed NASCAR and stock car racing could rank with baseball, football and basketball on a national basis. He said drivers would eventually be as well-known as the best stick-and-ball athletes; that network television coverage would increase; prize money would soar; and they would go to tracks “you wouldn’t think we’d be invited to and some that haven’t even been built in different parts of the country.”
Remember, this was 1978. (!)
My agreed-upon 20 minutes used, I got up to leave. Bill asked me if I had to go do another interview. When I said "no," he said, "Well, then, sit down. I have MORE I want to tell you!" So our talk extended to 35 minutes. I asked Bill WHY he was so confident of NASCAR's success. His answer remains clear in my memory:
"We work at it day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year."
The interview complete, we shook hands, and I went off and wrote. A colleague at a rival paper read my story and told me it was a “waste of space,” that NO auto racing series would ever be that BIG.
Bill France Jr. proved him -- and all of 'em -- wrong. To use a football analogy, he took the ball from his father -- NASCAR founder Bill France -- and ran with it. As the stock car sport's chairman, president, CEO, visionary and czar from 1972-2003, he led NASCAR to heights only his family dreamed could become true. Think about it: The day I sat down with Bill, there was no ESPN or Fox. No Brickyard 400. No California or Kansas or Chicagoland or Texas or Las Vegas superspeedways. No Waldorf-Astoria black-tie multi-million dollar awards banquet. No Internet. No significant cash-'n-carry souvenir business. Few major non-automotive sponsors.
Bill led the charge to make all of it happen and he and his brother, Jim, became billionaires -- certified by Forbes. Tributes from Wally Parks and Tony George, following Bill's death Monday at age 74, properly included the key word: Leadership.
Well done, Mr. France.
P.S. -- In January 1980, I received the Frank Blunk Memorial Award for contributions to racing journalism, from the Eastern Motorsports Press Association. It was an honor because I had met Blunk, who pioneered motorsports' coverage at the New York Times. It was special because the person there in Atlantic City, N.J., who made the presentation to me was Bill France Jr.
[ more next Tuesday . . . ]