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DATE News (chronologically)
02/23/12
nascar
Speedway unveils statue of Bill France Jr.  
(L to R) Jim France, Bill France Jr.’s widow, Brian France and Lesa Kennedy France
Getty Images for NASCAR
From the classic look of determination on his face to the tips of his beloved tasseled loafers, friends and family agree a sculpture of the late Bill France Jr. unveiled Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway perfectly captured the racing icon.

When family members whisked away a white cloth to reveal the sculpture of the man who built NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation into a racing dynasty, emotion rippled across the crowd that included family, friends and former associates.

It was Jim France's first look at the sculpture of his brother. It took his breath away.

The sculptor, John Lajba, captured his brother's expression perfectly, France said. "I've seen that expression a thousand times."

The sculpture was built to 162 percent of the size of the 6-foot, 5-inch height of the former president of the International Speedway president and NASCAR chairman. France died in June 2007 after building the stock car racing company his father started into one of the country's most popular sports and dramatically expanding the company's holdings.

The sculpture stands on a pedestal in front of the Speedway's Ticket and Tours office, just down the sidewalk from sculptures of his parents, Bill Sr. and Anne, and driver Dale Earnhardt, all created by Lajba. The artist also creates the annual Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 trophy.

The roar of race cars practicing on the track provided a backdrop for Wednesday's ceremony.

A committee of community leaders, put together by Mayor Glenn Ritchey, started planning the sculpture more than a year ago, raising private donations to pay for it. Committee members included Speedway President Joie Chitwood, former Speedway President John Graham, and Joe Petrock and Joe Cameron. Petrock and Cameron are members of the Checkered Flag Committee, a group of local business leaders who serve as volunteer goodwill ambassadors during Speedway events.

On Wednesday, Chitwood called the sculpture "phenomenal."

"You can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth," Chitwood said.

France's widow, Betty Jane France, thanked Ritchey and the others for making the sculpture happen. She said a painting that hung in her husband's dressing room showed a young boy looking at himself in a mirror and seeing the reflection of himself as a mature young man.

Both that painting and the sculpture capture that part of her husband that "was always looking to the future," she said.

While working on the sculpture in his Nebraska studio almost daily for a year, Lajba relied most heavily on a photo of France sitting on the track at the Speedway, he said. "He had this expression like what's in store for the future."

The artist said he worked to put the faces of France's personality into the piece, including kindness, leadership and his "ruggedly handsome character."

As the crowd dispersed Wednesday afternoon, Geri McMullin walked up and quietly slipped a piece of "Bit-o-Honey" candy onto the base of the sculpture.

"It was his favorite candy," explained McMullin, France's executive assistant for 25 years. Even after he grew ill and wasn't supposed to eat it, she said he'd still sneak a piece every now and then.

The sculpture seems so lifelike, McMullin said, the piece of "Bit-o-Honey just seemed appropriate. Daytona Beach News Journal

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