For Bill France Jr., it was never about fame or fortune. Everything he did — helping build Daytona International Speedway, moving the annual awards banquet to New York City and negotiating the first billion-dollar TV contract — he did with NASCAR’s best interests at heart.
His decisions weren’t always popular, and they often rankled competitors. With his sharp tongue and an iron fist, France never wavered, pushing NASCAR beyond its small-time Southern roots into a nationwide billion-dollar conglomerate.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1999, France had been in poor health for much of the last decade. He died Monday at his Daytona Beach, Fla., home. He was 74.
“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.”
Fiercely protective of the family business during his 31 years as NASCAR chairman, France earned a well-deserved reputation as a benevolent dictator. He was in charge, like it or not, as he quickly reminded dissenters. And when the arguing ended, even his harshest critics agreed NASCAR would be the better for France’s efforts.
“I’ve never seen anyone who could strike the balance that Bill did. He knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish and rarely compromised, yet always made it a point to be fair,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “We’ve lost a strong leader, a visionary businessman and a truly amazing person.”
Monday afternoon, the Nextel Cup series was racing at Dover International Speedway, and officials there lowered the flag to half-staff in Victory Lane in France’s memory.
“There’s not enough words to describe what he’s meant to this sport and what he’s done for it,” said two-time series champion Tony Stewart. “I guarantee it’s the biggest loss in racing since Dale Earnhardt, and it’s probably bigger.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a third-generation NASCAR star, called France’s passing a “profound loss for the sport.”
“He’s the one probably most responsible for the state of our sport today,” NASCAR’s most popular driver said. “He’s one of those giants, very intimidating to me. I didn’t know him well, but my dad was close with him. And I know that made my dad very proud to get close to someone that not a lot of others did.”
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.
Even there, especially there, he called the shots.
His toasters 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.
In between bites of his beloved Pulliams hot dog — he was notorious for his love of the franks from Winston-Salem, N.C. — he uttered his standard response when asked how he was doing.
“I’m on the right side of the grass,” the irascible France said, “and there aren’t any roots growing out of my ass.”
That acerbic wit was a staple of his autocratic tenure.
France became chairman in 1972, replacing 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,” said Junior Johnson, one of NASCAR’s first stars who won 50 races. “I was wrong. He did a better job than his father did, and he succeeded in every aspect of it.”
France prepped for the job by doing a little bit of everything during his rise through racing’s grass roots.
His father 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 took over NASCAR, he inherited a sport rich in Southern traditions but mostly unknown everywhere else.
“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 Richard 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.”
Before France’s tenure began, the few races that made it onto TV were shown in snippets on shows such as ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” 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, and 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.
“Bill France Jr. truly defined the often misused term ‘legend,’” Fox Sports chairman David Hill said.
Ailing, France, who had a mild heart attack in 1997, relinquished his role as NASCAR president to Mike Helton and handed off chairman duties to son Brian in 2003.
“The good thing is he built a family-oriented sport that has a lot of depth and a lot of strength to it,” Helton said. “It will go on. It will go on nonstop, and that’s the greatest tribute to Bill France.”
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 represented NASCAR that day, with his father squirming in the audience.
Frustrated with Brian’s presentation, France 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 reins.
“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 is also survived by his wife, Betty Jane, and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.