Commentary

NASCAR founder's iron fist puts kibosh on organized gambling

Organized gambling in NASCAR? Jimmy Hoffa almost got his way back in the day, writes Ryan McGee. That is, until NASCAR boss Bill France Sr. laid down the law: "I will fight it to the end!"

Updated: August 9, 2007, 12:22 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | Special to ESPN.com

Mention the name of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy to any league executives, no matter what their sport, and the reaction will be something akin to spraying them with skunk perfume. The idea of outside muscle pulling an inside job is every sport's worst nightmare, especially when the phrase "connected to the mob" shows up.

Jimmy Hoffa
Lynn Pelham/Time Life Pictures via Getty ImagesUpon further reflection, NASCAR didn't want to have anything to do with Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters.

From the 1919 World Series to point-shaving in college hoops to Italian soccer, nearly every sport has fallen victim to a gambling scandal at one time or another.

Yet NASCAR, which travels with dozens of officials and hundreds of mechanics to each and every Cup, Busch and Truck series event, remains unscathed. Sure, you can walk into any sportsbook on the Vegas strip and put 10 bucks on Tony Stewart, but that's pretty much where the connection between racing and gaming ends -- harmless, legal fun. Your $10 isn't going to motivate Tony Soprano to have the fix put in. This despite the fact that the outcome of a race easily could be changed with one loose lug nut or bum spark plug wire.

How has stock car racing managed to keep the greasiness away for all these years? Because NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. sent a message to the mob 46 years ago, six years before Tim Donaghy was born, and the goodfellas have never forgotten it.

How so? It's a helluva story.

In the summer of 1959, NASCAR superstar and bona fide wild man Curtis Turner broke ground on a brand-new speedway just north of Charlotte, N.C., a legendary facility that eventually would become Lowe's Motor Speedway. For Turner, it was nothing but a 1.5-mile money pit.

"They got a little dirt moved and hit what they thought was a boulder," current track president Humpy Wheeler says. "But it was half a million yards of solid granite. They went from bulldozers to dynamite, and that gets expensive in a hurry."

We went down there to Daytona with all these super high-powered, high-dollar New York lawyers. And those country lawyers of Bill France's just whipped 'em. Our guys would be pouring their hearts out in the courtroom, and the judge would be sitting up there reading comic books and magazines. We never had a chance.

Tim Flock

As in more than a dollar-per-square-foot expensive. By the time the track opened for the inaugural World 600 on June 19, 1960, Pops Turner was broker than broke, so he went searching for a financial bailout. The bailer came in the form of the Teamsters Union, represented by accountant William Rabin, close friend and confidant of Jimmy Hoffa.

Told you this was a good story.

The Teamsters would gladly spot Turner his desired $800,000 loan, but in return, the aging star would have to organize a drivers' union. Turner made his pitch to his fellow racers, and they bit. And why not? On the surface, the idea sounded fair. The Federation of Professional Athletes promised more prize money, a pension plan, health and death benefits, safety advancements, even scholarship funds for the children of deceased members. Soon, every racer was on board.

France, however, was not. He felt that his league had worked hard since its inception 14 years earlier to bring in more than enough money to go around, a cash count that had risen with every passing season.

Big Bill didn't disagree with the concept of unions, but he had his reservations about this one, saying: "I believe that trade unions have a good place in American life. However, the kind those boys are working with can't do anything but hurt racing and all the nice folks who have been building our great sport."

France was referring to Hoffa. He knew that one clause of the FPA contract had been held back from the drivers to be sprung only after everyone had signed on -- the establishment of pari-mutuel horse-track-style betting at NASCAR racetracks.

When pressed, Turner admitted he already had reached agreements with "a track in the South" and was nearing a deal with "one in the Midwest." France was beyond livid. A former racer, mechanic and promoter, he wasn't going to allow the likes of Hoffa to reintroduce the kind of shady characters France had sworn to rid racing of when he created NASCAR. The kind who would go to any lengths to better their bets.

"Organized gambling would be bad for our sport," he wrote in an open letter to all NASCAR competitors. "And it would spill innocent blood on our racetrack. I will fight it to the end!"

Bill France Sr.
AP Photo/Pete Wright"Big" Bill France had strong opinions about gambling. That was one of the reasons he was opposed to his drivers organizing a union.

One by one, the drivers came around to France's point of view, helped along by a dramatic prerace speech in Winston-Salem, N.C., that reportedly included the challenge, "Auto racing is one of the few sports which has never had a scandal. Do you want to be the ones who changed that?" He gave the drivers a simple choice: Stand with me and NASCAR, or you and the mob can start looking for someplace else to race.

Fireball Roberts, one of the union's earliest supporters, was first to resign from the FPA. Fellow legends Rex White and Ned Jarrett followed, then joined France's newly formed Grand National Advisory Board, set up for drivers to voice their concerns to the league. But two racers -- Turner and two-time NASCAR champ Tim Flock -- dug in their heels, and each was banned from the sport for life. Backed by the legal horsepower of Teamsters lawyers, Flock and Turner filed lawsuit after lawsuit, the last gasp being a temporary injunction in January 1962.

"We went down there to Daytona with all these super high-powered, high-dollar New York lawyers," Flock recalled shortly before his death in 1998. "And those country lawyers of Bill France's just whipped 'em. Our guys would be pouring their hearts out in the courtroom, and the judge would be sitting up there reading comic books and magazines. We never had a chance."

Their bans upheld, Turner and Flock faded away (although Turner did make a small driving comeback in '65), as did Rabin, Hoffa and any talk of at-track gambling or the mafia. Charlotte Motor Speedway fell into new ownership, eventually employing Flock as an "ambassador" until his death.

But Bill France's message was loud and clear. No gambling, no mob, no funny business, just racing. The wiseguys had been flattened by the good ol' boys, and they've been wise enough to stay away ever since.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: The 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR