Longtime NASCAR chairman France Jr. dies

Updated: June 6, 2007, 9:53 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Rick Hendrick couldn't remember the year, but he recalled vividly the day he and fellow team owner Larry McClure went to protest to then-NASCAR president Bill France Jr. about having to put their cars through a wind tunnel test.

"McClure was the first one to see him," Hendrick said. "Bill said something like, 'I'll take your … car. I'll take any car I want to take.'

"Then he turned to me and said, 'Now, what do you want?' I said, 'I just came by to speak.'"

Those who knew France Jr., who died at 74 on Monday of health issues stemming from a 1999 bout with cancer, remember him for ruling with an iron fist and taking what is now the Nextel Cup Series from a Southern sport to a national level.

He wasn't a dominant figure like his father, NASCAR founder "Big" Bill France, but it was very clear from the time he took over the family business in 1972 who was in charge.

"He would listen to you and say, 'What do you think about this?'" seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty said. "And then he'd say, 'This is the way we're going to do it.' "

The funeral service is scheduled for Thursday at the Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center, at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Cars at Sunday's Pocono 500 will have a decal honoring France Jr. and the Busch, Craftsman Truck and Busch East series will also feature the decal.

Richard Childress, who won six championships with Dale Earnhardt before the driver's fatal 2001 crash, said one of France's favorite lines when dealing with issues was, "Don't take this personal."

"He was one of those guys, you could go in and you knew exactly that you were right, NASCAR was wrong, and by the time you left the trailer, you wondered, 'What the hell was I even in there talking for? I was wrong,' even though you thought you were right," Childress said. "He had that way about him."

But more than anything, those who knew him said France was fair and respected.

"He treated everybody the same," Hendrick said. "If you crossed him, he took your head off. When you were down or hurting … he was always there."

France was there often for Hendrick, writing a letter for him when he was seeking a pardon for mail fraud and coming to see him after he lost 10 close family members and employees in a 2004 airplane crash near Martinsville Speedway.

"People kid him about being a dictator," Hendrick said. "Well, you have to be if you're going to keep it like it ought to be. But he really was a good man. You don't mind somebody taking you apart if you respect him.

"I've never seen anyone who could strike the balance the way that Bill did. He knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish and rarely compromised, yet always made it a point to be fair."

France served as NASCAR's president until 2000, when he turned the duties over to Mike Helton and moved into the role of chairman. He held that position until 2003, when he appointed his son, Brian, as his replacement.

But he kept an office at NASCAR headquarters and spent three to four days a week there as long as his health allowed.

He was a strong proponent of NASCAR's recent crackdown on cheating "if we want to maintain the credibility of the sport." He was 100 percent behind Brian's move to a playoff system.

Not a person in a position of power today didn't learn something from him.

"Without his vision, we wouldn't be here," Childress said.

France spent most of his last months in a scooter needing help with his breathing because, in his own words earlier this year at Daytona, "I'm sucking air all the time."

But he always found enough air to voice an opinion he felt strongly about.

"He's probably going to be one of the more respected people in the sports industry," said longtime friend and team owner Felix Sabates. "You take baseball, basketball, football, there's some people that like the commissioner and some people that don't.

"I've never heard an owner in the garage ever critical about Bill France."

That's because France always made decisions that were best for the sport, not for himself or other individuals.

"I've heard Bill say a thousand times you've got to make that tough decision and look at it from a total sport standpoint and not an individual or one team or one driver," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's president for corporate communications. "Make it and move on down the road and stick to it. I can't think of any bad decisions Bill made."

France learned the business from the ground up. He sold sno-cones at the first Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway more than 50 years ago and was such an entrepreneur that he continued to sell the shaved ice after running out of syrup.

His legacy is going to be he took something that was considered a redneck, Southern sport into a sport that someday will become an international sport.

Felix Sabates

He also sold tickets, served as a scorer and once drove heavy machinery during the construction of Daytona International Speedway.

France even met his wife in racing, first seeing Betty Jane during a beauty contest in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1956 and marrying her a year later.

Although he rubbed elbows with heads of state and some of Hollywood's biggest stars, he always remained grounded. Hunter, the former president of Darlington Raceway, recalled the time France quizzed him on which way the sewer lines ran at the track.

"Of course, I didn't know," Hunter said. "And he said, 'Damn it! You ought to know. Because if you had a problem with your sewage, all those people there …'"

Hunter recalled stopping France in midsentence to check which way the sewer ran.

"He is absolutely the most pragmatic guy I've ever known in my life," he continued. "He can separate friendships, family. If Brian hadn't been the guy, Brian wouldn't be the chairman today even though he's his son.

"He was one of the strongest individuals I've ever known. Following in his father's footsteps, he brought a sternness and pragmatism the sport had to have."

France signed NASCAR to its first multimillion-dollar television deal with Fox and NBC in 2001. He began a controversial realignment that eliminated North Carolina tracks in North Wilkesboro and Rockingham from the circuit.

He helped sign series sponsor Nextel to a 10-year, $700 million deal to replace longtime sponsor Winston.

He stepped aside with the sport ranked No. 2 in terms of sports television viewership behind only the NFL.

"His legacy is going to be he took something that was considered a redneck, Southern sport into a sport that someday will become an international sport," Sabates said. "I don't think we're that far from racing in other countries. I'll say within the next few years we'll be racing in Europe."

As much as Sabates was around France in racing, his best memories came from their fishing trips. He recalled how France went from boat to boat on their last trip to the Bahamas and never complained despite his troubles breathing.

"That is one tough hombre," Sabates said.

Despite their friendship, Sabates didn't get any favors or ask for any.

"Bill has this favorite expression, 'Don't pee-pee on my pants leg,'" Sabates said. "Well, I never have. Some of the other car owners have. I have never tried to. I have too much respect for the man."

Even today's stars felt that respect.

"I can remember going to his father's funeral and at that time seeing Bill Jr. just come along and just take hold of this sport and take it to the next level," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "He's going to be missed. It's going to be hard to be a part of this sport without him."

Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said the loss of France is the biggest in NASCAR since Earnhardt in 2001.

"And it's probably bigger," he said. "You look at what he's been able to do in the time that he's been with his family, learning from his father. There aren't enough words to describe what he's meant to the sport and what he's done for it."

Hendrick, who knew France as well as most, said the sport lost a visionary and businessman and "truly an amazing person."

"He'd bust my butt in a New York minute, but you always respected him," Hendrick said. "He was always the same. He was always going to do what he thought was best for the sport.

"If you liked it, participate. If you didn't, get out of here."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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