The 1960s: Building tracks from Charlotte to Alabama
Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live
"Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr." is the first official biography of the man who organized the sport. In the third of four excerpts that will appear over the next four weeks leading up to March 3, the publication date of the book, author H.A. Branham addresses France’s stand against the Teamsters and building Talladega Superspeedway.
Curtis Turner, the hard-drinking, fast-driving black-hat hero, would forever be a good news-bad news proposition for Bill France Sr. He was daring. He was colorful. He was talented. He was also a pain in the ass.
And he was a pilot, giving him something in common with Bill Sr. But that road likely forked when stories surfaced about Turner landing his plane on a road near a liquor store, jumping out to go grab a bottle or two, and then getting back into the cockpit to take off again.
On the subject of his undeniable talent: Turner was credited with approximately 360 race victories in a variety of series, with 22 wins coming in 1956 in NASCAR’s short-lived Convertible Division and another 17 in NASCAR’s headlining Grand National Division. His biggest victory came in the 1956 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
In 1960, Turner, partnered with Bruton Smith, sought to capitalize on the sudden appeal of bigger race tracks by building Charlotte Motor Speedway. In ’61, Turner was tossed out as the track’s president via a coup of sorts staged by the facility’s board of directors. To get back in, Turner needed money he didn’t have. He approached the Teamsters Union, which could provide large loans, albeit with significant interest charges coming down the pike. Turner’s need for a loan coincided with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa’s quest to unionize professional sports in the United States. Turner got the loan; as part of the deal he was required to recruit drivers to a union — the Federation of Professional Athletes, which promised drivers more money, a pension, and insurance. Drivers thought this sounded good, and overdue.
Bill Sr., suffice to say, did not approve.
NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Curtis Turner was known as the ‘Babe Ruth of stock car racing’
To battle the initiative he went to the top, talking his way into a meeting with the attorney general of the United States, Robert Kennedy (a pain in the ass to Jimmy Hoffa in those days of Camelot). A young attorney named John Cassidy — Bill Sr.’s "inductor" at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010 — worked in the Department of Justice for RFK. He recalls the day of Bill Sr.’s visit as if it was yesterday. It actually was 1961, only months into the Kennedy administration.
How did Bill Sr. get a meeting with Kennedy in the first place? With the passage of years, Cassidy isn’t absolutely certain, but he thinks the access likely can be attributed to Bill Sr.’s relationship with the controversial South Carolina Democratic congressman Mendel Rivers, who stood alongside whatever hawkish tendencies the Kennedys had but firmly against even the slightest move toward improved civil rights. Much like Bill Sr.’s friendship with Alabama Governor George Wallace, his relationship with Rivers benefited from the relative lack of media attention accorded NASCAR at the time.
"The Teamsters were trying to organize the drivers," Cassidy said, "because they figured if they could control them and all the teams from motorsports … they had set up a professional athletes division of the Teamsters that was heavily committed to organizing the NBA, the NFL, and motorsports."
Motorsports — that especially made sense. The Teamsters unionized truck drivers. Auto racing was a sport that truck drivers loved.
"The Teamsters knew what they were doing," Cassidy said.
"Senior knew he was in the battle of his life, and he was really viewing it as a battle for survival because if he lost the battle [over unionization] he would have lost control of NASCAR. One of the keys to Senior’s thought process was always a straight-line approach. How to solve the problem? One way was to attack Hoffa, who Senior believed to be corrupt. What better place to go for help than the U.S. Department of Justice? It just so happened that he and Bobby Kennedy were on the same wavelength."
With Cassidy advising at the behest of RFK, Bill Sr. also enlisted the help of two of his valued lieutenants, Pat Purcell and Ed Otto, to collectively beat back the beast of the Teamsters. It was a multi-level response to the threat, and it started in dramatic fashion when Bill Sr. imposed a lifetime ban from NASCAR on Turner, former champion Tim Flock, and Fireball Roberts, three central figures pushing for unionization. Turner’s involvement had especially infuriated Bill Sr. because it included an additional push to have betting at race tracks. After all he had done to cleanse stock car racing of its unsavory past, Bill Sr. was not about to let NASCAR regress.
Roberts was reinstated when he pulled out of the fledgling union after a long, Scotch-fueled come-to-Jesus discussion with Purcell. Other drivers defected following an impassioned Bill Sr. speech prior to a race in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in which he appealed to the drivers’ basic values. "Auto racing," Bill Sr. told them, "is one of the few sports which has never had a scandal. Do you want to be the ones who changed that?"
Despite the defections, Flock and Turner stood their ground. So did Bill Sr., which meant they were gone from NASCAR — permanently. They tried to have their bans overturned repeatedly in the courts, to no avail. In NASCAR’s corner during these legal battles was a precedent dating to 1951, when Otto had helped a Long Island race track overturn a judgment resulting from the deaths of two drivers. The state of New York originally decreed that the drivers were in effect race track employees; the reversal placed the drivers in the category of independent contractors. That distinction provided an additional roadblock to unionization in NASCAR’s case; the drivers were not employed by NASCAR but rather by the individual teams.
The footnote: Bill Sr., pressured by track promoters in 1965, would grudgingly end up lifting the bans on Turner and Flock. Turner tried a half-hearted comeback. Flock stayed away for good.
Richard Brickhouse takes the checkered flag to win the 1969 Talladega 500. Bobby Isaac, in the No. 71 car, was a lap down and finished fourth.
Daytona’s initial success and steady climb in relevance whetted Bill Sr.’s appetite for yet another project: a track that would be even larger and faster than Daytona, the world’s largest oval track. The fact that his proposed site was in the middle of nowhere was a slight obstacle, but Bill Sr. was accustomed to overcoming obstacles.
Talladega, Alabama, 50 miles east of Birmingham, 105 miles west of Atlanta. That was the site Bill Sr. chose for a 2.66-mile monster tri-oval with 33-degree banks — two degrees steeper than Daytona’s.
Ground was broken for Talladega on May 23, 1968, and that ground was on the site of the old Anniston Air Force Base, just outside the small burg of Lincoln, Alabama. Again, as with Daytona, it was a rush job, with the Moss-Thornton Construction Company of Birmingham the builder. The target date for the first race was September 14, 1969 — the 44th race on the 54-race Grand National schedule.
Amazingly, it was built in time to host one of the most historic weekends in NASCAR history, a confluence of events that served as a collective metaphor for the changing times surrounding the sport. Old was giving way to new. Alabama International Motor Speedway — the track’s name until 1989’s switch to Talladega Superspeedway — was definitely new. And for many drivers, it was absolutely frightening when tires started to fail at high speeds on the high banks.
And when the tires did start to balk, so did the drivers, with the specter of unionization resurfacing for the second time in the decade.
As it just so happened, earlier that season, drivers had semi-organized once more, forming the Professional Drivers’ Association (PDA), with Richard Petty as an especially tenuous president. The Talladega situation facilitated a coming-out party for the group.
Soon, talk of boycotting the very first Talladega event was in the air — rapidly gaining momentum. The way the weekend transpired is well-documented:
The growing discontent among drivers; the laps run around the track by a then-59-year-old Bill Sr. and his son Bill Jr. in an attempt to assuage the drivers — an effort discounted as a publicity stunt, with the drivers pointing to the Frances’ lap times as being far under what they would be turning in actual race conditions; Bill Sr. telling the drivers that if they were scared they could feel free to go home; drivers enraged at that remark and leaving en masse; and LeeRoy Yarbrough, feeling his oats during the most successful season of his career, flat-out cold-cocking Bill Sr. in the jaw, putting an end to a tumultuous meeting in the garage.
The boycott proceeded, putting Bill France Sr. in a serious bind.
A boycott was one thing. A cancellation was something altogether different, and Bill France Sr. was not about to let that happen.
Bill Sr. pieced together a patchwork field of drivers who weren’t involved in the boycott plus others from the Grand American Division, which raced the day before the premier series event. And so, on September 14, 1969, a crowd of 64,000 gathered at the gigantic new facility, with many fans attending thanks to free tickets France dispensed. Richard Brickhouse — who withdrew from the PDA to take advantage of what he called a "golden opportunity" — won the first Talladega 500, the triumph coming despite "competition cautions" every 25 laps to enable teams to inspect and change tires if needed. Those cautions belied the fact that competition was fierce, with 37 lead changes, and transpired without a serious incident.
Bill France Sr. congratulates Richard Brickhouse in Victory Lane following the first premier series race in 1969 at Alabama International Motor Speedway, now known as Talladega Superspeedway.
Yes, by God, the race was run. The great Indy-car racer A.J. Foyt, who through the years became one of Bill Sr.’s closest friends in racing, was not surprised.
"I really admired that he told everybody to kiss his ass, that that race was going to run," Foyt said.
The end game, as far as racing, was that the drivers returned only four days — FOUR DAYS ! — later to compete in Columbia, South Carolina. Bobby Isaac won the Sandlapper 200, with Petty running second. And the following year, Bill France Sr. welcomed full fields to not one, but two Talladega events — April and August, both won by Pete Hamilton, also the Daytona 500 champion in 1970.
"Bill Sr. knew we had to go racing and we knew we had to go racing," Bobby Allison said. "We knew we didn’t want to have to go out and get newspaper routes or gas-station jobs, that’s for sure."
And so another end game was played and won, with memories left brewing in the heart and soul of Bill France Sr. Jousting over the unionization concept while having his authority challenged so severely did not sit well with the man who had started NASCAR. He had taken a hard hit, several hard hits: professionally, personally, and publicly. One newspaper headlined the United Press International report from the event as "Brickhouse Wins Talladega as Czar’s Empire Crumbles."
Twelve days after Richard Brickhouse became the answer to the ultimate NASCAR trivia question, Bill Sr. turned 60 years old.
It is likely that he felt much older.