Bill France Jr.
Bill France Sr. started NASCAR and made stock car racing a legitimate sport. Bill France Jr. made NASCAR a national sport. In a sentence, that's the legacy of France Jr., who died Monday June 4th at age 74. Bill Jr. wasn't just a member of the lucky gene pool. When he took over a successful business from his father in 1972, France Jr. had no desire to sit back and enjoy the ride. More than anyone else, France built NASCAR into the most popular racing series in the country.
Few people saw that kind of leadership and drive in France when his father passed him the reins. He was 38, but he didn't have the commanding presence his father possessed. If you're a Junior of a famous father, it's always difficult to live up to expectations. And it's even harder if your father was seen as the toughest guy around. Ask Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Bill Sr. was a bear of a man, 6-foot-5 with a deep voice and a commanding way. He was "Big Bill'' to those who knew him. He wasn't the type of man you wanted to cross. In 1976, A.J. Foyt's qualifying lap at Daytona was disallowed for using nitrous oxide. Foyt was furious and was screaming at Bill Jr. in the garage. Foyt is an intimidating guy, but he was no match for Big Bill. Four years after his retirement, France Sr. still was a man drivers feared. He drove into the garage area and took Foyt behind closed doors. When they emerged, France had his arm around Foyt's neck and Foyt was saying, "Yes, sir, Mr. France." That was Big Bill. Bill Jr. was no shrinking violet, but he wasn't Big Bill, not in those days.
But Bill Jr. had a plan, a vision to make NASCAR more than his father ever dreamed it could be. He guided NASCAR through the era when Tobacco Road made NASCAR big business. More than three decades of the Winston Cup through the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco sponsorship raised NASCAR to new heights.
The majority of Cup races were not televised when France Jr. took charge, but he was instrumental in getting the TV networks to increase their involvement in the sport. The 1979 Daytona 500 on CBS was the first flag-to-flag coverage of the event. For France Jr., it was like winning the lottery, thanks to a wild finish and a postrace brawl that piqued the interest of viewers across the country.
But France Jr. knew it would take more than one crazy brawl to get NASCAR where he wanted it to go. He temporarily made peace with his biggest rival in an effort to move NASCAR to the next level. Speedway Motorsports Inc. mogul Bruton Smith never will forget the day almost 20 years ago when France Jr. called him to ask an important question. "He asked me if I would help build NASCAR into a national sport," Smith said. "I told him, 'Of course I will.' "
The plan was to build and acquire new speedways in major markets and move races to bigger cities outside the Southeast. It worked. Races moved to major metro areas -- Chicago, Kansas City, Southern California, Las Vegas, Miami and Fort Worth/Dallas.
That last one was the problem. Smith felt France didn't live up to his end of the bargain on Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Smith said France promised him a Cup date he didn't deliver. France said it never happened and people saw just how surly he could be. He looked more like Big Bill than ever before.
The disagreement led to a major lawsuit and an eventual second Cup date for Texas. In the end, France and Smith still wanted the same thing -- to see NASCAR grow to a major national sport. Before that lawsuit was settled, France Jr.'s health had deteriorated significantly. He passed the reins to his son, Brian, in September of 2003.
The France family transition had come full circle. People wondered whether Brian could become the powerful presence his father maintained over the sport.Eight months after Brian took over, he announced the settlement, giving TMS a second Cup date and eliminating Rockingham from the schedule. But Bill Jr. still was heavily involved in all major decisions with NASCAR until the end.
When the inaugural 2010 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame is announced, Bill Jr. is a guaranteed entry. France Jr. made NASCAR mainstream. He took the prize Bill Sr. founded and made it bigger, better and more successful than anyone thought possible.
Isn't that what any father would love to say about his son?