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Bill Oursler on remembering Bill France, Jr.

It seems like only yesterday, but in fact it was nearly 28 years ago that I saw Bill France, Jr., drive his last, and perhaps first road course event. The place was then newly opened Talladega International Speedway, and the occasion was the second ever weekend of racing by the equally new International Motorsports Association.

As a young photographer and writer, I had gotten to know IMSA’s founder and president John Bishop, and because I was a reporter for the local newspaper, the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Post, found myself invited to fly down to Talladega with the two Frances on their twin Commander for the weekend.

Pretentiousness was not part of the family equation; the elder France bowing to the call of nature by relieving his urges against the side of the Fixed Bas operations building before joining his son, who was piloting the aircraft for the long taxi out and wait to take to one of Newark’s overcrowded runways.
What I didn’t find out until later was that even though they were part of Talladega’s upper management (very upper, indeed), the were heading to Alabama to actually drive in the inaugural GT race that was the featured part of the card.

Of course, I really shouldn’t have been surprised because two months previously when all of the NASCAR’s regular drivers walked out on the track’s debut event because of constantly shredding tires, Bill, Sr., at more than 65 years of age, had strapped himself into a Ford Torino and posted a time that would have comfortably put him within the top ten on the grid.

A gutsy man was he, as was his son.

While most of us think of the Bill, Sr., as the guiding light of NASCAR, in point of fact it was Bill, Jr., who was truly responsible for transforming the relatively regionally-oriented stock car organization into today’s motorsport powerhouse that dwarfs all other forms racing in the United and arguably is on par with Formula One for its profitability and clout in the racing universe.
Under Junior’s and his brother Jim’s leadership (the latter heading the publicly traded, but France family dominated International Speedway Corporation during this period) what the English call “tin top” competition took off to the point that currently the Nextel Cup’s Brickyard 400 enjoys far higher television ratings than its much older open wheel Indy 500.counterpart.

That was all in the future, though, when we landed on the private strip behind Talladega that November evening in 1969 and were met by Bishop and his wife, Peggy. The existence of IMSA has do, in large measure to the visionary intelligence of the two Frances, who saw in the establishment of IMSA a chance to break the monopoly the Sports Car Club of America then held over North American road racing, including the annual Daytona 24 Hours – an affair that was one of their pet projects. Ironically the elder France had approached Bishop, who had been responsible as the Executive Director of the SCCA for putting the club in that position, after Bishop had been ousted from the post that February in what amounted to a palace. Financed largely by the Frances and some of their friends, Bishop had launched IMSA in the summer of ’69 against great opposition from the SCCA.

But, the Frances ultimately more clout than Bishop’s former employers, and while IMSA would struggle in its early years, by the mid 1970’s it had eclipsed the SCCA to become the dominant player in its field in North America. However, for this second ever IMSA weekend, the Frances maintained their low key public persona. Where one might have expected them to appear on the grid with a pair of perfectly prepared automobiles, they instead took to the track in what looked like two refugees from the Saturday night short track wars. These Ford Cortinas had been rescued from the junkyard by NASCAR mechanical wizard Tom Pistone after their roofs had been crushed by heavy seas during the boat trip from their native England to the United States. Indeed, all Pistone had done was to hammer the roofs out quickly and crudely, check the fluids, add a few racing stickers and tires, and turn the still battered machines over to their drivers. Still, their was a touch of humor to “Team France,” both cars wearing a combination of Goodyear and Firestone rubber (one brand to the rear, the other to the front). Additionally, while Bill France, Sr.’s Ford was sponsored by the local judge, Billy Jr.’s had the backing of the local Sheriff. Ultimately, in a race won by Gaston Andrey’s Alfa Romeo sedan (which was protested for an illegal engine, but which remained atop the finishing order nevertheless, thus starting an IMSA tradition of sorts), the elder France crossed the line well outside the top, earning $170 for his efforts. As for his son, Bill, Jr., brought his Cortina home ninth collecting  $210 for his afternoon behind the wheel.

With virtually no spectators present, only those of us who were on the track, on in the pit area, still harbor the vague memories of the moment. Yet, after he took over from his father, Bill France, Jr. not only changed the fortunes of NASCAR, but, similarly exerted a tremendous influence on North American road racing, an influence that can be seen today in the presence of the Rolex Grand American Sports Car Series that he and his brother Jim helped create. Whatever one might think of Bill, Jr., and his family, the positive part of his legacy can not, and will not be ignored. Rest in peace.

                                                                                            Bill Oursler
                                                                                             June 2007

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No. Class Team Drivers Car Sponsors
0 DP Tuttle Team Racing Brian Tuttle, West Palm Beach, FL; Jonathan Cochet, France BMW Riley Tuttle Team Racing
01 DP CompUSA Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates Scott Pruett, Auburn, CA; Luis Diaz, Mexico City, Mexico Lexus Riley CompUSA
3 DP Southard Motorsports Shane Lewis, Jupiter, FL; BMW Riley Southard Motorsports
4 DP Howard - Boss Motorsports Andy Wallace, England; Butch Leitzinger, Rebersburg, PA Pontiac Crawford The Boss Snowplow
04 GT Sigalsport BMW Gene Sigal, Los Angeles, CA; Peter MacLeod, Bellevue, WA BMW M3 Motul/ enVista/ OMP
5 DP Essex Racing Rob Finlay, Charlotte, NC; Michael Valiante, Vancouver, BC Canada Ford Crawford Make A Wish/ Z-Line Designs/ Finlay Motorsports
05 GT Sigalsport BMW Matthew Alhadeff, Los Angeles, CA; Bill Auberlen, Redondo Beach, CA BMW M3 Alhadeff Motorsports/ Motul/ enVista
6 DP Michael Shank Racing/ Mears Motor Coach Mike Borkowski, Miami Beach, FL; Antoine Bessette, St Bruno, QC Canada Lexus Riley Michael Shank Racing/
7 DP Tuttle Team Racing Brian Tuttle, West Palm Beach, FL; Jonathan Cochet, France Pontiac Riley Tuttle Team Racing
8 DP Synergy Racing Burt Frisselle, Kihei, HI; Brian Frisselle, Kihei, HI Porsche Doran GlycoMax
09 DP Spirit of Daytona Racing Doug Goad, West Bloomfield, MI; Larry Oberto, Seattle, WA Pontiac Crawford Spirit of Daytona Racing
10 DP SunTrust Racing Wayne Taylor, Apopka, FL; Max Angelelli, Italy; Jan Magnussen, Denmark Pontiac Riley SunTrust
11 DP CITGO Racing by SAMAX Milka Duno, Venezuela; Marc Goossens, Belgium Pontiac Riley CITGO
12 DP Lowe's Fernandez Racing Adrian Fernandez, Mexico City, Mexico; Mario Haberfeld, Brazil Pontiac Riley Lowe's
14 GT Autometrics Motorsports Cory Friedman, Charleston, SC; Gordon Friedman, Charleston, SC Porsche GT3 Cup Mill And Textile Supply/ Mac Papers
17 GT SAMAX Robert Bell, England; Porsche GT3 Cup SAMAX
19 DP Playboy/ Uniden Racing Guy Cosmo, West Palm Beach, FL; Michael McDowell, Monroe, NC Ford Crawford Playboy/ Uniden/ Palms
21 GT Matt Connolly Motorsports Jeff Altenburg, Ellicott City, MD; John Angelone, Bridgewater, NJ; Matt Connolly, Bethlehem, PA BMW M3 23 DP Alex Job Racing/ Emory Motorsports Mike Rockenfeller, Monaco; Patrick Long, Las Vegas, NV Porsche Crawford Ruby Tuesday Championship Racing Team
24 GT Matt Connolly Motorsports Bill Cotter, Seattle, WA; Todd Hanson, Atlanta, GA BMW M3 Matt Connolly Motorsports
31 DP Team Cytosport Greg Pickett, Benicia, CA; Scott Sharp, Tequesta, FL Pontiac Riley XCYTO Energy Drink
38 GT Bernheim Racing Steve Bernheim, Beverly Hills, CA; Dwain Dement, Laguna Hills, CA Porsche GT3 Cup
39 DP Crown Royal Special Reserve/ Cheever Christian Fittipaldi, Brazil; Eddie Cheever Jr, Orlando, FL Porsche Crawford Crown Royal Special Reserve
40 DP Derhaag Motorsports Chris Bingham, Clyde Hill, WA; Randy Ruhlman, Greensboro, NC Pontiac Riley PLP/ Preformed Line Products/ Coyote Closures
41 GT Team Sahlen Eric Lux, Amherst, NY; Charles Espenlaub, Lutz, FL Porsche GT3 Cup Rembrandt Charms/ HRPworld/ GOJO/ Hawk
47 DP TruSpeed Motorsports Charles Morgan, Little Rock, AR; Rob Morgan, Ladera Ranch, CA Porsche Riley Querencia Golf Club/ Wright Motorsports
50 DP Rocketsports Racing Paul Gentilozzi, Lansing, MI; Tomy Drissi, Los Angeles, CA Ford Crawford X-MEN 3 The Last Stand the Movie
56 GT Beachman Racing Bruce Beachman, Woodinville, WA; Rick Delamare, Snohemish, WA Corvette Beachman Racing/ Sunset Chevrolet
57 GT Stevenson Motorsports Tommy Riggins, Jacksonville, FL; Vic Rice, San Rafael, CA; John Stevenson, Swansboro, NC Corvette Stevenson Automotive
58 DP Red Bull/ Brumos Porsche David Donohue, Westchester, PA; Darren Law, Phoenix, AZ Porsche Fabcar Red Bull/ Brumos Porsche
59 DP Brumos Racing Hurley Haywood, Ponte Vedra, FL; JC France, Ormond Beach, FL Porsche Fabcar Brumos Porsche
60 DP Michael Shank Racing Mark Patterson, Bronxville, NY; Oswaldo Negri, Aventura, FL Lexus Riley Flight Options/ Nett App Lexus Riley
64 GT TRG Paul Edwards, Nipomo, CA; Kelly Collins, Newport Beach, CA Pontiac GTO.R TRG
65 GT TRG Marc Bunting, Monkton, MD; Andy Lally, Dacula, GA; RJ Valentine, Braintree, MA Pontiac GTO.R TRG/ F1 Air
70 GT SpeedSource David Haskell, Plantation, FL; Sylvain Tremblay, Coral Springs, FL Mazda RX-8 Mazdaspeed Motorsports/ Mazda USA
71 GT SAMAX/ Doncaster Racing Greg Wilkins, Toronto, ON Canada; Dave Lacey, Toronto, ON Canada Porsche GT3 Cup Minestar Solutions/ Tim Hortons72 GT Tafel Racing Robin Liddell, England; Wolf Henzler, Germany Porsche GT3 Cup NEC
73 GT Tafel Racing Jim Tafel, Alpharetta, GA; Andrew Davis, Bogart, GA Porsche GT3 Cup NEC
75 DP Krohn Racing Tracy Krohn, Houston, TX; Nic Jonsson, Sweden Ford Riley Krohn Racing
76 DP Krohn Racing Jorg Bergmeister, Germany; Colin Braun, Ovalo, TX Ford Riley Krohn Racing
77 DP Feeds The Need/ Doran Racing Terry Borcheller, Gainesville, GA; Harrison Brix, Campbell, CA Ford Doran Kodak/ Amp'd Mobile/ Sirius
80 GT Shoes for Crews/ Synergy Racing David Murry, Cumming, GA; Leh Keen, Dublin, GA Porsche GT3 Cup Shoes for Crews/ Synergy Racing
81 GT Synergy Racing Steve Johnson, Bristol, VA; Robert Nearn, England Porsche GT3 Cup Comfort Systems USA/ Johnson Commercial Development
89 DP Pacific Coast Motorsports Alex Figge, Vail, CO; Ryan Dalziel, Orlando, FL Pontiac Riley Playboy/ Vonage/ Palms Casino
97 DP CyberSpeed Racing Tony Ave, Mooresville, NC; Skip Cummins, Houston, TX Pontiac Riley CyberSpeed Racing
98 GT Pacific Coast Motorsports David Empringham, Toronto, ON Canada; Ross Thompson, Phoenix, AZ Pontiac GTO.R Pacific Coast Motorsports
99 DP Gainsco/ Blackhawk Racing Jon Fogarty, Portola Valley, CA; Alex Gurney, Irvine, CA Pontiac Riley Gainsco Auto Insurance