Remembering Bill France Jr.
by Pete McCole
June 4, 2007
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Bill France  Jr.

Former NASCAR Chairman William C. France, Jr., a visionary man who led the stock car sanctioning body through the most dynamic changes in its history, passed away Monday at his Daytona Beach, Fla. home. He was 74 years old.

France had been in declining health in the last several years, including a heart attack in 1997 and a bout with cancer in 1999. Although his cancer was in remission, France’s condition continued to deteriorate, and in March of this year he was hospitalized with an undisclosed medical condition. He spent his final days resting at his home, surrounded by his family.

France, the son of NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., served as president and chairman of NASCAR from 1972 until 2000, when he turned over the presidency to Mike Helton. Three years later, his son Brian Z. France took over as chairman and CEO.

“He had a remarkable career and an even-more remarkable life,” said Brian France. “Words cannot express how much he’ll be missed by myself and the rest of our family and by the NASCAR industry overall.”

Born in 1933 to William Henry Getty France and his wife, Anne, Bill France, Jr. became immersed in the world of stock car racing at an early age. After his father founded NASCAR in 1947, France, or “Bill, Jr.” as he was called, handled everything from concessions to scoring at early NASCAR events. A graduate of the University of Florida, France spent two years in the U.S. Navy before returning to work in the family business – International Speedway Corporation - first as a course supervisor and then as assistant race director.

France joined the NASCAR Board of Directors in 1959 and in 1966 became NASCAR’s vice-president, serving for six years before taking over the reigns of NASCAR from his father in 1972.

France was a hands-on chairman who ruled the family-owned business with a fierce determination and an unwavering commitment to protect and enhance the sport and see it through some of its most turbulent times as well as its most tremendous growth, guiding NASCAR from a regional sport into a multibillion dollar conglomerate.

It was France, Jr. who helped bring the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company on board as the title sponsor for NASCAR’s premiere division, which became known as the Winston Cup Series - the predecessor of today’s Nextel Cup Series – and ushering in what has become known as the “modern era” of NASCAR.

In 1976, NASCAR attracted over 1.4 million fans, surpassing all other American motorsports in attendance, a record NASCAR has never relinquished.

“Bill did a tremendous job of implementing the lessons learned from his father and managing NASCAR and its growth during his era,” said O. Bruton Smith, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc. “His father taught him this business from the ground up and Bill had respect for our sport's history and a strong desire to continue to move it forward, which he did. His leadership will be missed.”

France sought to legitimatize and grow the sport of auto racing, propelling it from a traditionally Southern sport into the national spotlight by bringing the races to a national television audience. In 1979, France oversaw a deal with the CBS television network to televise live flag-to-flag coverage of the 1979 Daytona 500. France also brought in cable networks ESPN and TNN to televise races, and before long every race on the Winston Cup Series schedule was televised live.

France also oversaw NASCAR’s expansion as the sport branched out beyond its Southern roots, from just a handful of small tracks in the southeast to superspeedways in the Southwest, Northeast and Midwest, as well as sanctioning races in Australia and Japan.

In 1994, France brought NASCAR and the world of open-wheel racing together, as stock cars raced on the hallowed bricks of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time.

“Bill was a great friend and business partner,” said Tony George, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chief Executive Officer. “He ranks near the top of the list of people I most respect. His personal dedication to building NASCAR will be his legacy, and his leadership will be long remembered.”

Today, NASCAR is now an international sport, sanctioning races in Mexico and Canada, with races that are relayed around the world via television, satellite radio and the internet. ISC also owns and operates 13 race tracks as well as its own radio network and concessions company. The company also oversees a Daytona-based motorsports-themed attraction.

Through it all, France never wavered from his commitment to carry through with his father’s vision of bringing stock car racing to national prominence.

“I've never seen anyone who could strike the balance that Bill did,” said NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick. “He knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish and rarely compromised, yet always made it a point to be fair. We've lost a strong leader, a visionary businessman and a truly amazing person.”

France is survived by his wife Betty Jane France, NASCAR’s assistant secretary; his son Brian; daughter Lesa France Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president and assistant treasurer; his brother James C. France, NASCAR’s vice chairman and executive vice president; and three grandchildren.

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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