|Photo – NASCAR.com|
This past week marks the fifth year since Bill France Jr.’s death on June 4, 2007. Many have shaped NASCAR as we know it today, but Bill France Jr left his mark on the sport in numerous ways that fans continue to enjoy today.
Fondly remembered as “Bill Jr.” or “Little Bill” he led NASCAR as head of it’s sanctioning body from 1972 to 2000 as successor to his father Bill France Sr, who was the visionary in creating the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing, a.k.a. NASCAR.
In 2000, after being diagnosed with cancer, France Jr. announced Mike Helton as the president of NASCAR, then made his own son Brian France the CEO and chairman of NASCAR in 2003. Bill France Jr remained active with the sport as a member of the six person NASCAR board of directors.
In addition to owning NASCAR, the France family also has controlling interest in International Speedway Corporation – ISC. Bill France Jr. was chairman of the board until his death, with his daughter Lesa France Kennedy currently serving as ICS’s president.
With his father actively involved in creating NASCAR, the future innovator of the sport, Bill Jr, grew up at race tracks by helping out selling concessions and parking cars. His humble beginnings served Bill France Jr well as the future leader and would become a trademark of his footprint within the sport.
When Daytona International Speedway was built, Bill France Jr. worked twelve hour days, seven days a week for thirteen months by driving compactors, bull dozers and graders. When the motorized equipment stuck in the swampy terrain, he found a mule to help pull out trees from the mucky grasslands. Few executive level business leaders build their family legacy through their personal physical effort and problem solving skill at the very grassroots of their vision.
With his father taking a lead role as a track owner in promoting what was originally known as the Daytona 200 and then Bike Weeks, Bill France Jr enjoyed riding off road motorcycles and entered several events including the Baja 1000 in the early ’70s. With motocross coming onto the scene around the same time, he would try that as well. Motocross would eventually grow into Supercross, which inspired the Daytona Beach Bike Week, that is still held annually at Daytona International Speedway. Again, Bill France Jr, was more than an innovator. As a fan and by participating as a driver, his perspective would enhance success that would endure for the future of the sport.
With transition of power in mind, Bill France Jr. would also serve as vice-president of NASCAR for six years, before becoming the head of NASCAR on January 10, 1972, when his father retired. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame describes the transition – “Other than the founding of NASCAR itself, Bill Jr’s appointment to leadership is probably the most significant event in the history of the sanctioning body.” During his tenure, NASCAR went from a Southern regional sport to a national sport, second only to the National Football League even today.
Creating the next generation of NASCAR
Bill France Jr enhanced his father’s vision for NASCAR by promoting it’s growth with the Daytona 500 stock car race and Daytona 200 motorcycle race at Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500 is now known as the super bowl of NASCAR and as “The Great American Race.” Today, Daytona Beach Bike Week is a mega event of the year for motorcycle enthusiast with thousands gathering at the center of motorsports annually.
With RJ Reynolds, the Winston Million program was launched in 1985. Originally, the program awarded a $1 million bonus to the driver winning three of four races. Many variations of this event has continued over the years as a fan-favorite and is now known as the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the state of North Carolina, referred to as the “hub of racing.”
Originally known as NASCAR’s Grand National, the series was renamed in 1973 to the Winston Cup and is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. Under Bill Jr’s leadership, the points fund has increased from $750,000 to $2 million, with the champions portion of the fund becoming $2 million by 1998. According to Forbes.com today’s most popular drivers earned $10-30 million including their endorsements and merchandise sales in 2011.
Bill France Jr, is also the visionary for NASCAR.com. He saw his vision become reality as the internet site was launched in 1996. NASCAR.com continues as a central source of news, statistics, and videos featuring highlights for fans across the globe.
In the early ’70s very few races were televised and those that found their way to the air waves were blended into other popular shows like ABC Wide World of Sports. Bill France Jr. facilitated a deal with CBS Sports to televise the 1979 Daytona 500 from green flag to checkered flag for the first time in the sport’s history.
|1979 Daytona 500 first televised NASCAR event
Photo – Getty Images
With a little help from mother nature, a snow storm from the Midwest to the Northeast bolstered high television ratings. Although Richard Petty won the race, it is the crash and subsequent fight between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough on the final lap that took center stage historically. The high ratings and later the press coverage led to television contracts with ESPN in 1980, TNN in 1990 and then TBS. By the end of France Jr’s career, he was responsible for a record-setting $2.4 billion television broadcasting contract in 1999 for the 2001 season.
Just last week, fans watched the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks. Five years earlier on June 4, 2007 during the Autism Speaks 400, Bill France Jr’s death was announced during the live broadcast of the race. The track’s flag was lowered to half staff and the broadcasters held a “moment of silence” during the next restart.
Bill France Jr’s influence is still apparent today from every fan attending the races at Daytona International Speedway, the track he personally helped to build, to those watching every week on their television from home. When fans visit NASCAR.com to catch up on the current news or watch the highlight videos, it was Bill France Jr’s vision bringing our favorite sport closer to fans.
With a strong foundation built by the France family, the sport still thrives under the leadership of CEO and third generation Brian France. This week fans are watching the Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR, introducing the next evolution of the sport for fans. The integration of social media with Twitter and NASCAR brings fans even closer to the track activities throughout the weekend.
All other sports really are just a game. The truly American sport of NASCAR has been created as a lifestyle beginning with the grassroots of the sport’s visionary and innovators, enduring through the technology age and continuing to set the standard high by encouraging fan interaction. That’s quite a legacy courtesy of the France family.