Welcome Back Billy

The Bill France rumors through the past year ran the whole spectrum.

One day, you'd think he's about to start training for the Boston Marathon. The next day, you're thinking flowers and dark suit.

If you're the subject of such talk, ignorance is truly bliss.

"I don't know that I was aware of those rumors," France says. "There were probably a lot of rumors there that I didn't know anything about. If my people heard it, they didn't bother bringing it back to me."

No, there will be no Boston Marathon. But there also won't be a funeral any time soon. France might be out of the woods, but he's still stuck in a ditch.

He says all recent tests show him to be free of the cancer that anchored him to hospital beds for so much of this year. That's the good news. The bad news is the presence of one of those diseases that scares you just by the look of it on paper: Dermatomyositis, a crippling ailment that attacks the muscles, skin and immune system.

When that disease was first diagnosed a year ago, doctors feared it was triggered by something else, and it was - cancer. France underwent extensive cancer treatments and drug treatments for the Dermatomyositis. Both eventually disappeared, but the Dermatomyositis reappeared this past summer. The fear was that the cancer returned with it, but tests say no.

The muscle disease alone, however, is horrible in its own right.

"That's what tore me up his summer," says France. "The muscles are so sore, and they get weaker and weaker and weaker."

The 67-year-old France, who has overseen stock-car racing since 1972, today gets around in a wheelchair most of the time while rehabilitating from head-to-toe. The daily rehab sessions have been a bear.

"Yeah, when you start off and you can't even zip up your fly, it's tough," says France. "We're doing the arms, shoulders, everything. Got a long way to go."

He's getting to the office for a few hours each day, but still does much work by telephone from home. He was working strictly that way most of this past year. Even from a hospital room, he'd be in nearly constant contact with right-hand man Mike Helton during race weekends.

"There was hardly a race weekend that I didn't talk to Mike Helton on Sunday, maybe five times on average," says France. "And he'd call me after the race to tell me the inspections were over and everything was fine.

"We'd talk a lot when there were weather issues. Then, me and Mike talked more frequently. I was here watching the Weather Channel, and I'd talk with him about what was on our radar screen up there in the (NASCAR) trailer."

As for the small pleasures his health battles have stolen, what France misses most is the feel of a fishing rod in his hands and the bounce of the ocean below his feet. Throughout his career, free time hasn't exactly flooded his schedule, but when he'd get a chance, he'd turn to sport fishing. And he misses it these days.

"I'm not ready to do any of that right now," he says. "If you go out there and it's not a calm day, you can bust your chops if you don't have your good balance. I've gotta get all that back together."

The fishing gear, the boat, and the ocean have never seemed so far away, however.

"The main thing I want to do is get up in the morning and get around, which I'm not really doing now without help," he says. "I've always got somebody with me right now."

But while his progress is slow, at least it's progress. This past week, he sounded much like his old self during a national media conference call announcing new staff arrangements within NASCAR. There was some of the usual frankness, sprinkled with slightly off-color language and colorful analogies that always dot his speech.

A couple days later, he was even closer to being back to full rhetorical stride. When discussing all the public hits NASCAR took this past year for a business style that has appeared more hardline than usual, he plowed ahead.

"A lot of people, when you're negotiating a new deal with them, they'll say, 'This is it, we can't make any money if we go beyond that,' " says France. "Then, two weeks later, you read that they just did a new baseball deal or hockey deal. What are we supposed to do, just sit around, when we've had the ratings to justify where we're at?

"The dollar-and-cents world, for better or worse, the fact that you've been there (as partners) for 30 years doesn't make a difference any more. That just the way it is. We didn't write those rules. But by the same token, we can't sit there with our heads in the sand and get our ass kicked every time we turn around."

Down but not out. Welcome back, Billy.

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