In 1972, Bill France Jr. was handed the reins to the family business after decades of learning how to drive it. Known as Bill Jr. even after his father passed away in 1992, he took the business Bill Sr. had created and elevated it to unprecedented heights no one, except perhaps Bill Jr., could have foreseen. In any industry, he would be considered an overwhelming success; in this industry, his accomplishments are phenomenal.
The “family business,” after all, is NASCAR.
In his 2010 biography of Bill France Jr., H.A. Branham sums up the effect that Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. had on the sport: “Bill Sr. created NASCAR. Bill Jr. made NASCAR.”
Eighteen months after Bill Jr. was born in Washington, DC, Bill Sr. moved his small family to Daytona Beach, FL, in autumn 1934 and quickly became involved in the area’s burgeoning auto-racing scene. Over the next 13 years, Bill Sr. evolved from driver to race promoter and organizer to, ultimately, creator of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
Bill Jr. turned 15 during NASCAR’s inaugural season and, in the years that followed, helped his father build the sport in the most literal sense of the word. No job was too small for Bill Jr.
“I did just about every job there was to do,” he recalled in a 2003 Los Angeles Times article. “I even raced a few times but not enough to get serious. I’ve been a corner worker, a flagman, even chief steward. I think, to run a sanctioning body like NASCAR, it’s important to have that background.”
From promoting and scoring events to working concessions and taking tickets, France tried his hand at every aspect of the business, often adding an inventive touch to the job.
When the concession stands ran out of flavored syrup, for example, he persuaded patrons to purchase plain snow cones. To discourage spectators attempting to watch the races without buying a ticket, he posted signs warning “Beware of Rattlesnakes” near popular viewing areas and in some cases, simply pulled people from the fences.
Branham, a managing director of communications for NASCAR, remembers France’s describing his role as unofficial NASCAR bouncer: “[Bill Jr. would] say, ‘And sometimes, I had to haul ass because the guy I pulled off the fence was a hell of a lot bigger than me.’”
France’s contributions to NASCAR extended to the actual construction of Daytona International Speedway.
“[Bill Jr.] and his dad were, in effect, part of the crew, literally building Daytona International Speedway not just with their minds but with their hands,” says Branham. “A guy who, when he died, was rich many times over actually built the Speedway that helped build his fortune.”
In 1972, France was named president of the sport his father had created less than 25 years earlier. In the next 25 years, he would transform NASCAR from a regional pastime into what NBC’s Tom Brokaw has called “the greatest American sport.”
Twenty years after its inaugural run, the Daytona 500 was televised live flag to flag on CBS Sports in 1979. During France’s tenure, NASCAR evolved from a Southeast-centric sport to a national phenomenon, with races spanning the country from California to Boston and drivers hailing from Indiana to Washington.
He also spearheaded the broadcast deal that, 20 years after the 1979 Daytona 500, consolidated NASCAR into a single television product worth a record-setting $2.4 billion.
“We got a lot done together, even though we may have differed on how to get things done,” says Brian France, who replaced his father as NASCAR’s Chairman and CEO in 2003. “Probably every major decision I had to make, I would check in with him in some way, not necessarily for his complete approval but at least for his point of view, even if I knew he was going to have different point of view than I did. Certainly if I was ever in trouble with something or had a big problem, he would be the first call I’d make.”
From a sport that, for years, appeared on television only as part of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, France grew NASCAR into a multimillion-dollar business drawing national television audiences second only to the NFL’s.
“He was a great man, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him,” says David Hill, chairman and chief executive officer of Fox Sports Media Group.
From 1972 to 2000, France ran NASCAR with dedication, unparalleled work ethic, and, above all, a love of the sport his father had created.
“Bill loved NASCAR,” said NASCAR Director of Event Logistics Gary Smith in the biography. “It was not just the family business but a way of life to Bill. It seemed that you couldn’t separate Bill from NASCAR. When that man got up in the morning, he was NASCAR, and, when he went to bed at night, he was NASCAR, and, most of the time in between, he was NASCAR. He absolutely loved what he did for a living, like no one else I have ever met.”
Often the first to arrive and the last to leave the office, France remained devoted to moving the sport forward until his death in 2007.
“Here’s the deal with the way my father was: You knew he loved everybody but he was still John Wayne, by God, all the way until the end of his life,” says Brian France. “I think he looked at death like he looked at life, very pragmatically. It was like, everybody had a time limit and you needed to do your life’s work and what matters with your family and one day. One day, if you’re lucky, the end of it comes late in life. If not, that’s way it goes.”
A multimillion-dollar business exponentially larger than when Bill Jr. took control, NASCAR remains a family affair: son Brian France is chairman and CEO; daughter Lesa France Kennedy is CEO of International Speedway Corp.; brother Jim France is vice chairman and executive VP of NASCAR; and Betty Jane France, Bill Jr.’s wife of 50 years, remains dedicated to the sport through humanitarian causes.
“Bill France Jr. was an extraordinary man, an outstanding leader, but, most important, a wonderful father,” says Kennedy. “He was tough but fair. Every day around him was a learning experience both in terms of business and life. I loved him dearly and miss him every day.”