As the founder of NASCAR, Bill France, Sr. was a force to be reckoned with. Physically intimidating but soft-spoken, “Big Bill” guided the growth of stock car racing with an iron hand into a powerful and popular regional sport in the 1960s. But many people don’t realize that Bill Sr. was also keen on establishing Daytona International Speedway, which he built in 1958, as a center for international motorsport.
In June of 1961, “Big Bill” and his son Bill France Jr. attended the Le Mans 24 Hour race as guests of the organizers. The sights and sounds of the cars were enticing but most intriguing were the more than 150,000 spectators filling the grounds of the track. This gave France Sr. an idea: could Daytona hold a similar style event and fill the stands? He reached out to his friend John Bishop, who was about to become the executive director at the SCCA, to help put the idea into action. As Bishop remembered: “When the SCCA went pro racing in 1961, there was an ACCUS meeting in New York City at the Drake Hotel. Bill Sr. invited me up for breakfast before the meeting and asked me: ‘Would you be interested in a new event? We’d like to get involved with the SCCA in putting on a major race in the early part of the year and we’ll call it the Daytona Continental.”
In the ensuing months, Bishop, and the two Frances had several meetings to plan what would become of the Daytona Continental that soon morphed into the 24 Hours of Daytona. The timing could not have been more perfect; the Club was just putting its professional road racing blueprint into motion and sanctioning the Daytona event would give it a much-needed leg up in that direction. Bill Jr. advocated for a 24-hour race from the start, but his father understood the need to ease into a longer event to avoid any political fallout with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organizers of Le Mans.
The 1962 Daytona Continental three-hour race for sports and grand touring cars was held in February and fully sanctioned by the SCCA. Internationally famous drivers like Phil Hill, Jim Clark and Sterling Moss competed directly with top U.S. talent represented by A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Walt Hansgen, Roger Penske and Briggs Cunningham. The race was won by Gurney, who coasted his Lotus-Climax over the finish line using only his starter motor since his engine had blown three minutes from the end of the race. In spite of a media tour held in New York the month before, attendance was light.
Fortunately, sports car racing (and Bishop) had an advocate in France Sr. He understood that it was going to take time to build an audience for this new spectacle and his vision of international recognition for Daytona intertwined with sports cars. This friendship culminated in France, Sr. coming up with the idea to start IMSA in 1969 and providing the funding to start the organization. Early IMSA races consisted of Formula cars (Fords, Vees, Super Vees) on ovals. But scary crashes and injuries in 1970 led IMSA to pivot towards sanctioning sports car races for FIA Group 2 and 4 GT cars. Aside from the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Watkins Glen 6 Hour, these cars had nowhere else to race for prize money during the season. It turned out to be the start of something big that eventually grew into the Camel GT Series starting in 1972.
One of the earliest experiments with this category happened in November of 1970 at Alabama International Motor Speedway (now called Talladega). In a show of support, both Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. entered the race in matching Ford Cortinas that had been bought used from a local dealer and outfitted for racing. The ragtag field of cobbled-together machines included the founder and president of NASCAR and his son! Ultimately the son bested the father by finishing 9th in the race, while his father finished 17th. Here are some rare photos from the event.
Bill France, Jr. (left) talks with his father, NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., before the IMSA sedan race at Alabama International Motor Speedway in November 1970. Note that Bill Sr. is wearing a dress shirt and tie under his driving overalls! Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center
It was apparently a do-it-yourself kind of weekend. Bill France, Sr. paints his name on the top of the Ford Cortina he’s about to race in the IMSA event at the relatively new Talladega superspeedway in November 1970. Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center
Bill France Sr. leads Bill France Jr. in their Ford Cortinas at Talladega in November 1970. The younger France would finish 9th, ahead of his father, who finished 17th. Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center
Bill France, Sr. comes in for a pit stop during practice for the race. Photo: IMSA collection at the International Motor Racing Research Center