The greatest entrepreneur story you never knew: Nascar founder Bill France

Growing Up Nascar
Growing Up Nascar

While Nascar racing is now one of the world's biggest spectator sports, a new series shows its founder had much in common with the average entrepreneur.

On a hot summer day in 1969 I walked with my parents through an unlocked gate into the Daytona International Speedway. (I'm old enough to remember a time when most gates were unlocked.)

When we stepped out of a tunnel under the grandstands and I saw the track I was stunned. A small dot -- a motorcycle running a tire test -- flew down the backstretch, climbed the steeply-banked turn, and rocketed through the tri-oval. I had never seen anything go that fast.

But that wasn't what really amazed me.

The track, the endless rows of seats towering above me, the infield that covered acres and acres of ground and even included a lake... it was the biggest thing I had ever seen, well beyond any youthful imaginings.

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But it wasn't beyond the imaginings of Bill France, Sr., the founder of NASCAR, who took a crazy idea and struggled and fought and cajoled and willed the track -- and NASCAR itself -- into existence.

France did what all entrepreneurs do. He turned nothing into something.

Every entrepreneurial success story starts with a person who has a dream and, against often impossible odds -- and countless skeptics and (theoretically well-intentioned) devil's advocates -- makes that dream come to life.

That's also the story of the early days of NASCAR and the focus of the first installment of NASCAR: The Rise of American Speed (the premier is May 8th at 9 p.m).

In the late 1940s, France saw an opportunity to capitalize on the growing popularity of stock car racing by eliminating some of the problems that plagued the sport and its participants, like inconsistent rules and unscrupulous promoters.

As the series shows -- using a blend of reenactment, archival footage, and interviews -- France used his incredible gift for persuasion and sheer force of will to convince a collection of rugged, headstrong individualists to become part of a group with not only a common purpose but also just one leader: himself.

That alone was a staggering achievement.

But he wasn't done.

A little over ten years later France mortgaged his house, borrowed from friends, created strategic partnerships with companies like Pepsi, and sold shares of stock to finance the construction of Daytona International Speedway. (In a move that partly foreshadows funding platforms like Kickstarter, France ran out of money and relied on future ticket sales -- for a race that would never happen if he couldn't generate more capital -- to complete the track's construction.)

The Daytona facility turned out to be a spectacular success and the Daytona 500 became the sport's most celebrated event. And the track he built 50-plus years ago still delivers finishes like this:

But France was far from done.

Ten years later he started construction on what is now known as Talladega Superspeedway, again setting a race date before construction began. (For all you startup founders who set a launch date in order to create a sense of urgency, France was way ahead of you with that motivational strategy.)

A month before the first race, Hurricane Camille delayed construction and, worse, a number of leading drivers threatened to boycott the race due to concerns about tire wear. So France took matters into his own hands, buckling himself into a race car and driving a series of test laps to prove the track was safe.

While most of the series' star drivers remained unconvinced and refused to participate -- among them the sport's superstar, Richard Petty -- 62,000 fans packed Talladega to watch the inaugural event.

Once again France's gamble had paid off. And that track he built 40-odd years ago? It still delivers finishes like this:

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Yet being a visionary may not be Bill France, Sr.'s strongest suit.

"My grandfather had a lot of great qualities," says Brian France, the current CEO and Chairman of NASCAR, "but clearly his ability to persuade somebody to go in his direction was in my view his strongest quality. Good salesmen aren't just fast talkers. They're somebody you believe in, and he was one of those guys that you believed in. That's his highest quality."

Brian is probably right, but France arguably pulled off a feat even more difficult than "just" building a business.

As many entrepreneurs hope to do, France built a family business that continued to grow and evolve. In 1972 he turned over the reins to his son, Bill France, Jr., who then handed the business over to his son, Brian France, in 2003 -- plus, a number of other family members hold senior positions in NASCAR and with International Speedway Corporation, a public company that owns tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Homestead-Miami, Chicagoland, and Michigan.

While I visited Daytona when I was nine, for years I wasn't a NASCAR fan. I became one the day I was convinced by some friends to attend this race in 1986:

Today, I'm still a NASCAR fan. You may not be, and that's okay.

But if you admire entrepreneurs -- if you admire people who take an idea and relentlessly execute until they turn their idea into a reality -- then you should be a Bill France, Sr. fan.

He's the quintessential American entrepreneur.

And you can be, too.

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Every day, would-be entrepreneurs let hesitation and uncertainty stop them from acting on an idea. Fear of the unknown and fear of failure have stopped me before, and may be what stops you, too.

Think about a few of the ideas you've had, whether for a new business, a new product, a new career, or even just a part-time job.

In retrospect, how many of your ideas could have turned out well, especially if you had given it your very best? A decent percentage have probably have turned out well -- so why shouldn't you start trusting your analysis, your judgment, and even your instincts a little more?

You certainly won't get it right all of the time, but if you never act on your ideas then you will always get it wrong.

Check out NASCAR: The Rise of American Speed. If it doesn't inspire you to try to make your dreams a reality... then you probably never will.

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Originally published