Bill France Jr. Dies At 74

His father may have been the architect of NASCAR,
but throughout his life, Bill France Jr. proved to be the ultimate
general manager.

His plaque at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame may put it
best: “Other than the founding of NASCAR itself, Bill Jr.’s appointment
to leadership is probably the most significant event in the history of
the sanctioning body.”

France Jr.’s ability to transform his father’s original vision into
something greater than the sum of its parts was his greatest
accomplishment. Under his three decades of leadership, NASCAR evolved
from a regional sport to one with a world-wide fan base. He was a
trailblazer in the field of corporate sponsorships and the guiding force
behind a television contract worth billions of dollars.

“In life you’ve got rules you have to live by, and you have to have
people to enforce those rules,” France Jr. once said. “If you don’t have
rules, you have chaos. Basically we are the government in the little
country of motorsports.

“Our rules are the statutes and the laws of this little country. To gain
and keep the confidence of everyone involved with NASCAR, those
participating need to know, as evidenced by our behavior, that the rules
are applicable to everyone and are enforced fairly.”

France Jr. suffered a mild heart attack in 1997 while in Japan for a
NASCAR exhibition race, and was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. He has
never revealed what type of cancer he had.

Although his cancer was in remission, he handed off day-to-day duties of
running NASCAR to his son, Brian, in late 2003.

In March, France Jr. was admitted to Halifax Medical Center under the
care of his personal physicians but was released to his doctor’s care.
William C. France, chairman of the board of directors for International
Speedway Corporation, died Monday at home. He celebrated his 74th
birthday in April.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1933 but raised in Daytona Beach, Bill Jr.
was immersed in the sport of auto racing from the time he could talk.
Being the boss’ son, that also meant a measure of responsibility.

After attending the University of Florida and a two-year stint in the
U.S. Navy, France Jr. returned to make racing promotion his full-time
occupation. He parked cars and sold concessions at the old beach and
road course, then took a hands-on approach to his father’s dream of
building a superspeedway in the swampland west of Daytona Beach.

“We went seven days a week for 13 months to build the speedway,” France
Jr. recalled. “We went from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, and worked
in the winter until it got dark.”

In many cases, that meant operating the equipment himself.

“I ran a motor grader some and a bulldozer, but mostly I was on a
compactor,” France Jr. said. “I did a little of this, that and the
other. I even had a mule out there one time pulling trees out of the

“Everything that was motorized back then got stuck in the swamp. I said,
let’s try a mule. That didn’t work either.”

With miles of strip malls and restaurants along International Speedway
Blvd. today, it may be difficult to imagine how wild that tract of land
would have been 50 years ago.

“We’d have big piles of stumps that we had to burn,” France Jr. said. “I
remember seeing a big rattlesnake out here one day. They asked me,
‘Where did you find him at?’ I pointed to where I found it.

“This one man had an ax and he swung it into a stump and we heard
rattles buzzing all over the place. The area was full of snakes. We
cleared out of there pretty fast.”

France Jr. had an uncanny ability to recognize potential growth and take
advantage of those opportunities. While in the service, he developed a
relationship with Californian Bob Barkheimer, a move which strengthened
NASCAR’s ties to the west coast.

He loved motorcycles and competed in the Baja 1000, which led to the
addition of a motocross race at Daytona International Speedway. The
Daytona Supercross is now one of the highest-attended events at the
track and correlated with the growth of Daytona’s Bike Week.

France Jr. served as vice president of NASCAR for six years before his
father retired in 1972. France Jr. negotiated a deal with R.J. Reynolds
Tobacco Co. to sponsor NASCAR’s top-tier series, then went after
television partners to expose his product to potential fans.

Following successful ratings for flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona
500 by CBS in 1979, France Jr. was able to leverage the broadcast rights
to the point where he negotiated a $2.4 billion contact with FOX, NBC
and Turner Sports for the 2001 season.

Jim Hunter, former president of Darlington Raceway, said France Jr. was
open to suggestions but only to a point.

“Bill always let you speak your peace,” Hunter said. “And if you
disagreed with him that was OK, if he thought you had a good reason. But
he had a way of looking at you over his glasses after a while, and when
he did that you knew he’d had about enough of you. Bill France didn’t
lose many arguments.”

Still, France Jr. never lost sight of what made NASCAR popular in the
first place: its drivers.

“If you go back and look and think about it, NASCAR started off in 1948
with a group of racecar drivers who were in their 20s and 30s and
started racing,” France Jr. said. “They all came up together, and then
they went out together. Then you had the Fireball Robertses of the world
… but then came David Pearson and Richard Petty. Then came Darrell

“I remember when Waltrip put out a statement that said the old guys
better watch out because there are some new kids in town. Then came the
time when he had to step back. So this is another cycle we’re going
through now, that’s all.”

Share Button