Monday, June 4, 2007

Bill France Jr. dies at 74

Bill France Jr., who learned the stock car racing trade at his father's knee and who expanded NASCAR's reach with new television and promotional initiatives, died today.

France, who was 74, had battled cancer and respiratory illness for several years.

He was vice chairman of NASCAR and chairman of International Speedway Corp., which operates racetracks across the country.

France was the individual most responsible for bringing reality to the vision his father, William H.G. France, had in the 1940s - one of a strong national organization running, promoting and expanding stock car racing.

France led NASCAR as its president from January 1972 to November 2000. Over that span, NASCAR grew from a generally regional curiosity to a fully national sport, one coveted by television networks and Madison Avenue moneychangers.

"He had the vision and pragmatism that made a fundamental sport become acceptable, grow and widen its horizons beyond imagination," said NASCAR President Mike Helton, the man who followed France into the organization's leadership position.

That decision in itself was a major one for France. Placing Helton in day-to-day control of the organization his father had started put someone other than a France family member in charge for the first time. France knew that the vast sporting arena he had helped to create had reached a level above and beyond the control of one person or one family. Growth had brought new challenges, and he was determined to meet them head-on with new people and new ideas, even as he retained a strong grip on the heart and soul of the organization.

After stepping down as president, France served as NASCAR chairman until October 2003, when he named his son, Brian, to replace him.

Even in "retirement," even in the years when disease and the natural negatives associated with advancing age limited his reach, France wielded significant power. It was clear that all important decisions crossed his desk until the final months of his life. Even with routine matters, his advice and counsel were sought.

France was practical and pragmatic. A tireless worker, he often expected the same of those in his top ranks. He also expected them to do their homework. Decisions and choices that demanded major research and planning were analyzed from every angle, and France expected those involved in the process to have the answers to each and every question he might pose.

He was particularly attuned to detail. Although most of his professional life was lived in the NASCAR orbit, he also was heavily involved in the inner workings of ISC. The operation of speedways - and the planning, preparation and policies involved in making them successful - was perhaps the thing he enjoyed most about being in a position of authority.

On a race day at Daytona International Speedway, he sat with track managers over lunch. The conversation evolved to the topic of possible heavy rain in the area, and France was told track workers were prepared if the possible weekend total of eight inches arrived. "But you have to be ready for more than eight," he said.

That was France. Cover every contingency.

His father, known by most as Bill France Sr., founded NASCAR in 1948. Although its marquee series, first known as Strictly Stock and later Grand National before eventually becoming Winston Cup and then Nextel Cup, ran races outside the South in its early years, NASCAR didn't shake its reputation as a Southeastern sport until growth spurts in the 1970s and 1980s. Critical to that change was the sponsorship of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which brought its Winston cigarette brand to the sponsor table in 1971, and increasing coverage by network and cable television entities.

Bill France Jr. grew up around the sport, helping his father by working at speedway concession stands and by nailing promotional posters to roadside poles. He soon advanced to flagging races, promoting events and working the control tower during Cup races.

When his father decided to retire from the organization's presidency in 1972, France Jr. was the obvious choice to succeed him.


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