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France Turns Over Reins

NASCAR's 70-year-old chief executive cedes control to his son Brian, ending a 31-year run in which stock-car racing grew into a major sport.

September 14, 2003|From Associated Press

LOUDON, N.H. — Bill France Jr. turned over control of NASCAR to his son Saturday, ending a three-decade run in which stock-car racing expanded from its back-road roots to a multibillion-dollar industry.

Brian France was appointed NASCAR's board chairman and chief executive.

The elder France will cut back on his daily business activities but will remain co-vice chairman and an active member of the board of directors.

Jim France, the younger son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., will also be co-vice chairman and remain executive vice president of the sanctioning body, series Vice President Jim Hunter announced at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"Brian is well prepared to lead this sport and this company into the future," Bill France Jr. said in a statement. "I am confident the future of NASCAR is in very capable hands.

"NASCAR is my life's work, and my father's before me; this decision is probably one of the most important ones I've made at NASCAR -- and I know it's the right decision."

His father, known as "Big Bill," started the National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1948 to organize and promote what was then a chaotic sport that began with former moonshiners looking for a place to display their skill.

When Bill Sr. turned day-to-day management over to his eldest son in 1972, NASCAR was established but still a niche sport with most of its races in the Southeast and little national interest.

Bill France Jr., 70, has led the transformation of NASCAR into the nation's second-most popular professional sports league behind the NFL.

It has grown into a multibillion-dollar business with races coast-to-coast, including major markets, a national fan base and a $2.8-billion television contract.

Driver Jeff Burton said he expected a smooth transition.

"I have the utmost respect for Bill. He has a genuine passion for this and he also has a genuine understanding ... of what makes the sport successful," Burton said. "There are a lot of really good people in NASCAR. Bill has been getting a lot of help from a lot of people around him, and Brian has, as well.

"Bill has continued to give more and more control to other people and that will make the transition easier for Brian."

Supporters have called the leadership by both "Big Bill" and Bill Jr. a "benevolent dictatorship," saying that has been a major reason for NASCAR's surge in popularity.

While other sports split into warring factions, the Frances have been able to control the direction and growth of stock-car racing with little opposition.

In an interview last year, Lesa France Kennedy said, "I think my family and NASCAR have been terrific partners. You especially have to look to the second generation, my father and my uncle. They have given life to the sport."

Answering speculation about the change, Bill France Jr. told Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday night, "I'm still going to work and have an office, but it's time for me to get out of the way a little bit."

Brian France, 41, has had a diverse career at NASCAR, acting as a racetrack manager, helping develop and manage the company's Weekly and Touring Series division and launching the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. He also was a key figure in getting NASCAR's new research and development facility off the ground.

He took over NASCAR's marketing responsibilities in 1994 and has been a big part of the series' dramatic growth in the last decade, including signing Nextel as the series sponsor beginning in 2004. The telecommunications company will replace longtime sponsor Winston.

Brian France, currently president of NASCAR's broadcasting and digital entertainment division in Los Angeles, will move back to the company headquarters in Daytona Beach.

His sister, Lesa France Kennedy, is president of family controlled International Speedway Corp., which owns and operates 12 of NASCAR's major tracks.

Bill France Jr. has battled health problems for the last few years, recovering from cancer and heart surgery. Although he still goes to his office most business days, France originally cut back his daily activity when he chose Mike Helton as president in 2000.

Helton will remain in that position. He denied reports last month that he would leave NASCAR to run Dale Earnhardt Inc., one of the sport's top teams.

"The entire senior management team at NASCAR remains intact," Hunter said.

He said the intention was to make the announcement Monday so there would be no distraction at today's Sylvania 300. However, because of the speculation, the announcement was made Saturday.

Bob Bahre, owner and board chairman of the New Hampshire track, said, "Bill has done a great job and I think he is doing the right thing putting Brian in. He's grown up in it.

"They have a very good management team and Bill's still there to help [Brian] out."

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