Commentary

With the late France Jr. honored again, some wish for replacement like him

Bill France Jr. was called a lot of things in a storied life that ended earlier this year. Honored with an award by the National Motor Sports Press Association, the word that kept coming up was "leader," writes Terry Blount.

Updated: November 29, 2007, 9:20 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Jeff Burton believes NASCAR is in good hands overall, but something is missing at the top. For Burton, that something is the late Bill France Jr.
Betty Jane France
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCARBetty Jane France, Bill France Jr.'s widow, accepted the Myers Brothers Award for her late husband Thursday.

"I think our sport is healthy, but it's in transition," Burton said Thursday. "You don't lose a fatherly figure like Bill without their being an adjustment period. When Bill was involved, he was in control and everyone knew it."

France Jr. was honored Thursday at the annual Myers Brothers awards luncheon. The National Motor Sports Press Association gave France the prestigious Myers Brothers Award for his three decades of service as the guiding force of NASCAR.

France died in June at age 74, four years after handing over the chairman roll to son Brian France. But Bill Jr. still was in the office at Daytona Beach every day, overseeing the sport he built into national prominence.

Betty Jane France, Bill's widow, gave a moving speech in accepting the award at Cipriani's restaurant. She mentioned a line NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter used recently to describe her husband.

"Jim said Bill was a character with character," she said. "I think that sums up Bill pretty well. He was a great leader, but more so, a great man. He was tough on the outside, but a teddy bear on the inside. He was a man of calculation, common sense and compassion."

Jeff Gordon agreed with Betty Jane's description, and he also agreed with Burton that NASCAR doesn't have that commanding presence at the top that Bill Jr., and his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., had at the helm.

"There always has to be one chief," Gordon said. "Right now, we're not sure who that is. We have tremendous leadership as a group, but it takes time to define the roles."

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, who had his share of run-ins with Bill Jr. over the years, believes Brian France doesn't receive enough credit.

"I understand [Burton and Gordon's] point," Gossage said. "But Brian is unquestionably the leader. He just has a different style. It doesn't diminish his authority to me in the least.

"I appreciate the fact that Brian is inclusive. He wants to get other people's opinions and thoughts before he makes a decision."

That wasn't the way Bill Jr. did things.

"There were a couple of occasions when he had some choice words for me," Gossage said. "You obviously have to have great respect for him. But on those occasions where he didn't agree with you, there was no discussing it.

"He was right and you were wrong. I often joked that people said he had a benevolent dictatorship. Well, they got the dictatorship right. And I mean that as a compliment."

It worked for Bill Jr. Team owner Rick Hendrick said he learned early on it was Bill's way or the highway.

"I don't think I've ever met anybody like him who was as rock-solid and as confident in his role in life," Hendrick said. "I told him once, 'Bill, you have more power than the president of the United States. You know what you want you're going to do it your way.'

"Bill was a guy that I feared at first, but he became one of my best friends. The one word that comes to mind when I think of Bill is respect. But you never challenged him."

Many people don't see Brian France in the same light as that overlord of the sport that his father was. Some traditional fans have questioned Brian's decisions, especially the change to the Chase playoff system.

What they don't know is Bill Jr. was a big part of that decision, along with most of the changes that NASCAR has undergone in recent years.

"It's a different time now," Hendrick said. "With Bill, you were not going to sway him. He would listen, but when he made up his mind, that's the way it was going to be."

Today's NASCAR doesn't have that unshakeable one-man rule of law that Bill Jr. employed. Whether that's good or bad depends on who you ask.

"We talk about those old days like it was a bad thing," Burton said. "But maybe it was a good thing. Bill was a tough dude, man, but you always knew where you stood with him.

"Even with all that toughness, there was a really soft and compassionate side. He was a real caring person and a fun guy to be around."

It didn't start out that way for Burton. Bill Jr. didn't like it five years ago when Burton took a public stance on safety changes NASCAR needed to implement.

"I was pushing some buttons a little harder than he wanted me to," Burton said. "Bill was upset about the way I was talking. But he never told me to shut up. He never threatened me."

Burton said he and Bill Jr. gradually learned they had the same agenda.

"He said to me he wanted the sport to be safe and he was committed to that," Burton said. "But the way I wanted to do it wasn't the way he wanted to do it.

"We had a lot of conversations about it, but through that, I think we gained a lot of respect for each other. Those conversations were in a business sense, but it gave me the opportunity to know him in a more relaxed atmosphere."

Burton became another of France's fishing buddies.

"I'll never forget those times," Burton said. "I gained a whole new perspective on the man. I did a lot more listening than talking. It opened my way of looking about him."

And what was it that Burton learned about Bill Jr.?

"That he ruled with authority, but always had the fans in mind," Burton said. "What's good for the fan is good for the sport. That's was Bill's thing."

Hendrick said Bill Jr. was ornery at times, but never unjust.

"Bill was right between the eyes with you,'' Hendrick said. "But he was consistent and he was always fair. He ruled with an iron hand, but he treated you with respect.

"He didn't try to hurt anybody and he didn't punish you if you didn't need it. He didn't play politics with sponsors. He always had the good of the sport in mind. He was a stand-up guy and I feel fortunate I could call him a friend."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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