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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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 Waltrip.
"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."
June 4, 2007