BILL FRANCE JR.saw it all. He was there in the family Hupmobile, when his father, Big BillFrance, drove the family south from Washington, D.C., in 1934. They stopped inDaytona to see Sir Malcolm Campbell attempt to break the land speed record, andBig Bill was so captivated by the racing scene on the Atlantic coast that heopened up a gas station in town; before long he was promoting races on theside. An authoritative, visionary man, he soon founded a body that wouldorganize and oversee stock car racing—a body Bill Jr. would ultimately take toheights that Big Bill could never have dreamed possible.
In 1947 France Sr.and several promoters and drivers formed NASCAR in a smoke-filled room at theStreamline Hotel. Bill Jr. was at the very first NASCAR race, at Daytona in1948, doing whatever odd jobs needed doing, like sweeping out the office. Helater did a little driving, then worked as a flagman, a scorer, asteward—anything to learn the ropes.
Bill Jr. took overas president when Big Bill stepped aside in 1972. Comparisons to his fatherwere inevitable, and with his my-way-or-the-highway mentality, Bill Jr. wasvery much his father's son. "Senior was the kind of cat you could talk tountil you were blue in the face, and he'd do what he'd figured on doing allalong," Richard Petty once said. "Now Junior will listen, and you getthe idea that he's considering what you're saying, but he makes up his mind allby himself."
Junior had thegood fortune of taking over just when R.J. Reynolds began sponsoring stock carracing. With more money offered to the series winner, drivers didn't skipevents and France could condense the schedule, making every race a big race.That allowed him to begin shopping races to television networks. Instead ofjust a few events being shown in edited form on Wide World of Sports, Junior,in 1979, got CBS to show the Daytona 500 from flag to flag. In the '80s ESPNcame aboard, and before long stock car racing was no longer a regional sport.Tracks sprang up from New Hampshire to California, and attendance approached ortopped six figures at many. France's last TV deal, signed in 1999, was for sixyears and $2.4 billion. In his 31 years running the family business on his ownterms, he left the spotlight to the drivers and systematically built NASCARinto a multibillion-dollar conglomerate with a fan base far beyond its Southernroots.
France spent allof his adult life doing whatever he could to help NASCAR grow—even if it meantmaking one of his children uncomfortable. In 2003 France was in the crowd with300 writers in New York City watching his son Brian deliver a presentationabout NASCAR's future. Dissatisfied with an answer Brian was giving aboutreworking the schedule, Bill Jr. rose from his chair and answered the questionthe way he thought it needed to be answered, leaving his son befuddled on thedais. Tough love, maybe, but it worked; eight months later Bill Jr. was socertain that Brian was ready to run the operation that he stepped down.
"Part ofleadership is having the guts to make a decision and then having the guts tostand by it and making it work," driver Jeff Burton said earlier this year,when speaking of France. "That's what he did on a lot of occasions. He didit in a way that let you know who the boss was and also did it in a way thatyou respected him. And I've said it all along, I think that is the cornerstonein our sport."