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Bill France Jr., 74; turned father's NASCAR into a racing empire

June 05, 2007|Ed Hinton | Special to The Times

Bill France Jr., whose hardball business pragmatism brought NASCAR out of backwater tracks and made it a mainstream American sport, died Monday at his home in Daytona Beach, Fla., the organization announced. He was 74.

France had been in declining health for the last decade and had been hospitalized twice this year with difficulty breathing. A longtime smoker who quit after a 1997 heart attack, he was diagnosed with an unspecified type of cancer in 1999. The cancer was in remission when he handed control of NASCAR to his son, Brian Z. France, in 2003.

France, the second head of NASCAR's owning dynasty, ruled the sport for 31 years in what remains roundly considered NASCAR's strongest period of sustained growth. He succeeded his 6-foot-5 father, NASCAR founder "Big Bill" France, as president in 1972.

Legendary driver A.J. Foyt, who revered France's father but sometimes clashed with France, acknowledged Monday that "it was Bill Jr. who parlayed what his father had started to make NASCAR the household name it is today."

"He was a softhearted guy who had a real hard shell," said Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's most successful active driver with four championships and 78 wins. "He ran things with an iron fist, but he had a passion for this sport that a lot of people didn't get a chance to see."

When France took control 35 years ago, NASCAR was still a struggling racing organization whose events were televised only occasionally and in excerpts, mainly on ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

By the time France relinquished the helm to his son, NASCAR had long-term contracts with major networks so that all races in its top three divisions -- Nextel Cup, Busch Series and Craftsman Trucks -- were televised. NASCAR had risen to the second-highest TV ratings in sports behind only the National Football League.

France started with drivers who were mainly from the Carolinas, Virginia and Alabama. He ended with the majority of drivers from the West Coast, Midwest and Northeast.

France's father founded NASCAR in 1947 and ruled absolutely until he handed the authority to his elder son. Skeptics doubted at the time that "Billy," as he was known in 1972, could be as tough and wily as his visionary father. Time and again he proved up to the task, though never with the relish and passion his father had shown.

His father faded from public view in the 1980s after he developed Alzheimer's disease, and died in 1992, leaving France as head of NASCAR. The France family owns NASCAR outright.

France became president as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. began its lucrative sponsorship of NASCAR's top series.

With an enormous cigarette advertising industry just banned from television by federal law, RJR took advantage of its Madison Avenue marketing savvy.

RJR found some NASCAR tracks in financial trouble and disrepair, with poor attendance, and began to infuse money to improve facilities and promote ticket sales.

Together, RJR and France decided to expand NASCAR from a mainly Southeastern circuit into a national sport.

"To expand nationally, we had to make sure our name drivers would compete" at far-flung tracks, France once recalled.

As a result, they developed the Winston Cup season championship with a points system that essentially forced star drivers to compete in every race to win the title.

The Cup became the overriding goal for all drivers, more than individual race wins, and remains so.

Under France's leadership, the family's track-owning division, International Speedway Corp., grew from a two-speedway company (Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama) in 1972 into a 12-track conglomerate that hosts 19 of the 36 Nextel Cup races.

In 2000, France named a non-family member, Mike Helton, president. But few insiders doubted that France, who assumed the newly created titles of NASCAR chairman and chief executive, still had final say in all major matters.

At the time of his death, France still served as chairman of International Speedway Corp. and was a NASCAR vice chairman.

Never showing the flamboyance or the visionary knack for change of either his father or his son, France was known more as a low-key figure in public and a tough businessman in private.

Richard Petty, NASCAR's most successful driver with 200 race victories and seven season championships, once differentiated between "Big Bill," the visionary founder, and "Bill Jr.," the methodical businessman.

"You could talk to Senior all day long and then he'd do what he intended to do in the first place," said Petty, who led a major drivers strike in 1969 at the first race at the Talladega track.

Big Bill conducted the race with replacement drivers and eventually broke Petty's fledgling Professional Drivers Assn.

"Junior you can talk to, and he'll listen to you," Petty said, "and he'll weigh the pros and cons and then make his decision."

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