Bill France Jr., who transformed NASCAR from a small Southern sport into a billion-dollar conglomerate during his 31 years as chairman, died Monday at his Daytona Beach, Fla., home. He was 74.
France, who was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, had been in poor health for much of the last decade. Although he was in remission, the extensive treatments took a toll. He never regained his full strength, often had difficulty breathing and had taken to using a motorized scooter to get around.
France was hospitalized at least twice this year but spent his final days resting at home. Officials at Dover International Speedway, where the Nextel Cup series was racing Monday afternoon, lowered the flag in victory lane to half-staff in his memory.
"He had a remarkable career and an even more remarkable life," said his son, Brian France, who replaced him as chairman in 2003. "Words cannot express how much he'll be missed by myself and the rest of our family and by the NASCAR industry overall."
France's last public appearance was Feb. 12 in Daytona Beach, where NASCAR's top names gathered to "Roast and Toast" him at the Bill France Hot Dog Dinner during the Daytona 500 build-up.
Even there, especially there, France Jr., who ruled NASCAR with an iron fist, called the shots.
His toasters that evening were gently reminded to avoid any harsh roasting. France did not speak during the dinner but received guests from his seat on the banquet floor.
A shrewd businessman who was fiercely protective of his family-owned company, France always acted in NASCAR's best interests. His decisions often riled car owners, drivers, sponsors and fans, but France never backed down. He was in charge _ like it or not _ and he quickly reminded dissenters.
"Part of leadership is having the guts to make a decision and then having the guts to stand by it and making it work," Jeff Burton said in April. "That's what he did on a lot of occasions. He did it in a way that let you know who the boss was and also did it in a way that you respected him. And I've said it all along, I think that is the cornerstone in our sport."
France became chairman in 1972 when he replaced his father, NASCAR founder William Henry Getty France, who retired 25 years after forming the National Association for Stock Car Racing.
"When they announced he was going to take over NASCAR, I kind of started looking for another job, because I didn't think he could pull it off. I was wrong," said Junior Johnson, one of NASCAR's first stars who won 50 races. "He did a better job than his father did, and he succeeded in every aspect of it."
France had prepped for the job by doing a little bit of everything during his rise through the grass roots ranks of racing.
Bill France Sr. put Bill Jr. in charge of crowd control at one of the early 1950s beach races at Daytona Beach. It was a difficult situation _ there seemed to be no way to fence in the beach area and keep people from walking in without buying tickets. But young France had learned some lessons from his dad about ingenuity:
"We put up signs in the scrub areas along the road that said 'Beware of snakes' and funneled people through out gates. It worked out pretty good," France said.
He also was a flagman, sold concessions, parked cars, scored races, promoted events and even helped in the construction of Daytona International Speedway.
France worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week as he drove a compactor, bulldozer and grader in the 13 months it took to build the track. He once even tried to use a mule to pull trees out of the swamps, because the motorized equipment kept getting stuck.
When he finally took over NASCAR, he inherited a sport that was rich in Southern tradition but mostly unknown everywhere else in the United States.
"His dad started it, got it up and running, and Junior took it and put the people together to take it from a southern sport to a national sport," said Petty, a seven-time NASCAR champion. "He was there where it was developed with the TV, when it was developed with the new cars, where it was developed from half-mile dirt tracks to superspeedways.
"You just look at the popularity and look at the people and look at the money involved _ he must have done a heck of a job at it."
Over the span of three remarkable decades, France oversaw the expansion of the sport, parlaying the loyal fan base of the Deep South into sold-out tracks in New England, California, Texas and the Midwest. He also moved the season-ending awards banquet to New York City in an effort to court the Madison Ave. money.
"His role in the impact of the sport has been huge," Burton said. "His personality came at a time when it was what our sport needed. I think he did an incredible job of basing his opinion on what he believed the facts to be and then having the courage to make that decision and see it through.
"He ain't a waffler. ... He's just going to go do it."
It all translated into more money from sponsors, bigger paydays for drivers and robust TV audiences.
Before France's tenure began, the few races that did make it onto TV were only shown in snippets on shows such as ABC's "Wide World of Sports." But within six years, France had a deal with CBS Sports to televise the 1979 Daytona 500 from flag to flag.
The race received huge ratings, with Richard Petty winning after Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed on the final lap. Allison and his brother, Bobby, then fought with Yarborough on live TV.
It led to more coverage _ but through a complicated system where each track negotiated its own TV contract.
But in 1999, NASCAR finally packaged the entire circuit together in a $2.4 billion contract that awarded races to Fox, NBC and TNT that began in 2001.
Through it all, Daytona Beach remained the heart of NASCAR and the France family.
On the 50th anniversary of NASCAR, France took part in a bus tour around Daytona, talking about the sports' history. The tour included the hotel where the initial NASCAR organizational meeting took place, France Jr.'s boyhood home, his father's gas station, the north turn of the beach course and more.
France, who had a mild heart attack in 1997, relinquished his role as NASCAR president to Mike Helton in 2003.
He handed off chairman duties to son Brian in 2003. But it wasn't always smooth between father and son, evidenced by an awkward moment during a 2003 news conference to announce NASCAR's shift into nontraditional markets. Brian France represented NASCAR that day, with France squirming in the audience as the speech plodded along.
Frustrated with Brian's presentation, France couldn't take it any longer. He stood up, and without a microphone, awkwardly interrupted to emphasize a point he didn't think Brian was making clear enough.
As the crowd chuckled at "Bill just being Bill," Brian twisted uncomfortably on the stage.
"I told him I was disappointed that he thought he needed to make his point at that time," Brian France later said.
Eight months later, though, France lauded his son as he handed him the reigns.
"I've got total confidence in what Brian can do," France Jr. said. "He's loaded with street smarts."
France's daughter, Lesa France Kennedy, runs International Speedway Corp., the owner and operator of most of the major U.S. race tracks. His younger brother, Jim, is the executive vice president of NASCAR and vice chairman of ISC.
France also is survived by his wife, Betty Jane, and three grandchildren.
Read more in later editions of The Bladeand toledoblade.com.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.