William C. "Bill" France

William C. France Jr., who helped build NASCAR into one of the great American success stories in more than 30 years at the helm of his family’s business, died Monday afternoon. He was 74.

Mr. France had been struggling with his health for the past several months. His passing was announced at 2:20 p.m. during the Fox Sports broadcast of the rain-delayed Autism Speaks 400 from Dover (Del.) International Speedway.

Mr. France, known to the racing world as Bill Jr., became president of NASCAR in 1972 when he succeeded his father, William H.G. France. Bill Jr. kept that title until 2000, when Mike Helton was appointed president. Mr. France became chairman of the board and chief executive officer until he relinquished those positions in September 2003 when he appointed his son, Brian, to replace him.

Even through the transition of power to a new generation, Mr. France remained a strong voice in stock-car racing and in the companies his family control – NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation.

Mr. France’s daughter, Lesa France Kennedy, is president of ISC and a member of NASCAR’s board of directors. His brother, Jim France, is chief executive officer of ISC and also serves on the NASCAR board. “We’ve just got to keep pushing the race cars up the hill,” Mr. France said in describing his philosophy. “We have to keep the sport moving forward.”

What would it be like if NASCAR ever got all the way up that hill?

“I don't want to get to the top,” he said. “We want to get a close to it as we can. I want to be able to see over it. But the hill needs to get higher and higher as we go up the road.”

As he grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., where his father had settled and opened a garage when his namesake was only 2 years old, Mr. France grew up in the sport.

As a young man, Bill Jr. worked in virtually every job there was in racing. At the first Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, for instance, he had the infield sno-cone concession. When he ran out of the syrup to pour over the shaved ice, Mr. France invented a new flavor – “plain: – and kept right on selling. He sold tickets to the race on the Daytona beach and road course that his father began promoting in 1938, which helped lead the elder France toward formation of the National Association for Stock Car Racing nearly a decade later.

“Tickets cost about $4,” Mr. France said. “I would start at the south end and work my way up to the north end, waking people up who were sleeping on the dunes. They either had to pay to watch the race or get off the course.

“As the crowds grew, we kept shortening the race. You had to get everybody in, run the race and get everybody off before the tide came back in again. The more people you had, the longer it took to get them in and get them off. You either had to shorten the race or stop selling tickets, and being a good capitalist, that didn't make any sense.”

Mr. France played high school basketball at Seabreeze High School in Daytona, and attended the University of Florida. He served two years in the U.S. Navy before beginning a full-time career in racing. Mr. France met his wife, Betty Jane, in 1956 when she registered for a beauty contest at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem. She won, and went to Daytona Beach to compete in a “Miss NASCAR” contest. She didn’t win that, but a year later she and Mr. France were married.

Mr. France was a flagman, a scorer, a race steward and even a driver. There is a photo prominently displayed at NASCAR’s headquarters showing Mr. France driving heavy machinery during the construction of Daytona International Speedway, which opened in 1959. It is not a staged photo. Mr. France spent months driving that machine and others like to help his father’s 2.5-mile dream of a track become a reality. Mr. France learned at his father’s side while serving as NASCAR vice president for six years.

“One of the key things I learned from him was evaluating the long-term benefit against the short-term negative and also the reverse,” Mr. France once said, “and then trying to rationalize whether you are better off to take the hit now because it makes sense tomorrow, or take the good today and worry when tomorrow comes.”

When Mr. France took over as president in 1972, the sport was on the brink of a brand new era. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, through its Winston brand of cigarettes, had signed on to sponsor the sport’s top series a year earlier when tobacco advertising was banned from television.

What was later renamed the Winston Cup Series ran its last race on a dirt track in 1971 and, in 1972, streamlined its schedule to run only on tracks one-half mile or longer. After running 48 races in 1971, the schedule was cut to 31 the following year and hasn’t been higher than the current number of 36 events since.

For the first time in 1976, Winston Cup topped all other American racing series in attendance with 1.4 million fans, and it has remained at the top of that list ever since. Current annual attendance is estimated at more than 6 million. The sport has also emerged as a top-tier television product and has seen remarkable growth in its merchandising business and corporate sponsorships of its tracks and teams. Mr. France was once described in an article in “New Yorker” magazine as “an American hybrid – the second-generation self-made man. …Although he knows kings, presidents, CEOs, and movie stars, he is not impressed by glamour. Left to himself, he's a profane and down-to-earth old salt who likes to ride on his boat, fish, and eat hot dogs.”

Mr. France suffered a mild heart attack while attending a NASCAR exhibition race in Japan in 1997. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 and in 2001 he had heart surgery and hip surgery.

“On average, I feel pretty good,” he once quipped. “It's like if you put your feet in a deep freezer and your head in a microwave oven, on average you feel pretty good. …I like to consider myself pragmatic. I don't think it's any secret that everybody has to go sometime. It's just a question of when. You just have to take things as they unfold.”

During one hospital stay in Daytona, he checked in under the pseudonym of Bob Wayne, which was the name of actor John Wayne’s brother.

His father, called “Big Bill” because he stood 6-foot-5, ruled the sport with his intimidating presence. Mr. France never left much doubt who was really in charge, either. When asked why NASCAR was sometimes quick to change its rules to “level the playing field” among manufacturers, Mr. France said he didn’t see any reason to live with an “antiquated” rule. “We’re not going to live with a mistake,” he said. Seven-time champion Richard Petty described “Big Bill” and his son as “two different cats.”

“You could talk to Senior all day long and then he'd do what he intended to do in the first place,” Petty said. “Junior, you can talk to and he'll listen to you. He’ll talk to some other cats too, and he'll weigh the pros and cons and then make his decision.”

Mr. France and Bruton Smith, owner of Lowe’s Motor Speedway and several other tracks and chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., were sometimes bitter rivals. They clashed most publicly over Smith’s desire to get a second Nextel Cup date for the track he built near Fort Worth, Texas.

“Bruton, when he opens his mouth, sometimes sounds constipated,” Mr. France once said during that disagreement, which was ulitmately resolved as part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by an SMI stockholder.

“I forgave him for that,” Smith said of France’s comment. “Sometimes people speak and they maybe didn't have their brain engaged.”

Mr. France once referred to NASCAR’s fans as “the people (who) win wars for America.”

"The folks who love NASCAR, who follow the sport with commitment, who have even bought into the unique NASCAR lifestyle, are hard to put a label on,” he

Published in Charlotte Observer on June 4, 2007