Bill France Jr Remembered
June 4, 2008 | 2:35 P.M. EST
France passed away June 4, 2007 but his legacy and spirit lives on in the sport where he spent his entire life.
William ("Bill") Clifton France is remembered – and revered – as the man who followed his visionary father at the helm of NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation ("ISC"), in the process becoming a visionary himself, as he guided NASCAR to unprecedented levels of popularity, and grew ISC into a leading position in the motorsports industry. He combined pragmatism with optimism, an approach that resulted in a calculated – and adventurous – road to success.
France grew up in the formative years of stock car racing, living and learning every detail of the sport from his own experiences, and those of his father William Henry Getty France – who was known as Bill Sr., or "Big Bill" because of his 6-foot-5 stature. Bill Sr. was the founder and first president of NASCAR, and created the organization that evolved into what is known today as ISC.
France became NASCAR's president in January 1972, replacing his father and becoming only the second president of the world's largest auto racing sanctioning body. His emergence coincided with the sport's emergence, and its eventual ascent to become America's No. 1 form of motorsports and the nation's second-most popular sport overall.
France, commonly referred to as "Bill Jr.," remained president until November 2000, when Mike Helton took over the position. At that time, France announced the formation of a NASCAR board of directors on which he served as chairman and CEO until October 2003 when he was replaced by his son, Brian Z. France. Brian also serves on the board of ISC.
France's involvement in NASCAR was far-reaching, but it began in the sport's "grass roots." During his career, he did everything a person can in stock car racing. He flagged events, scored, promoted, served as a steward and even raced himself a few times in the 1950s.
Before being named NASCAR's president, France served six years as vice president and prior to that served in other capacities.
In addition to his NASCAR activities, France served as Chairman of the Board of International Speedway Corporation, a leading promoter of motorsports activities at 13 major racing facilities located in key markets across the United States.
France was involved in the formative years of ISC, including taking an active role in the design and construction of Daytona International Speedway, which opened in 1959. He also worked closely with his father in spearheading the construction of Talladega Superspeedway, with the facility opening in 1969.
One of France's first key initiatives after becoming ISC's CEO in 1981 was the acquisition of the historic Darlington Raceway the following year. Building on that success, in 1983 he led the company in a transaction to purchase a minority interest in the world-famous Watkins Glen International Raceway.
Capitalizing on NASCAR's skyrocketing popularity, France guided ISC through a period of substantial industry racetrack consolidation during the 1990's. In addition to purchasing the remaining interest in Watkins Glen, ISC acquired Phoenix International Raceway, Richmond International Raceway and an interest in Homestead-Miami Speedway. The most significant transaction during this period, however, was the merger with Penske Motorsports Inc. in 1999. This acquisition resulted in ISC doubling the number of facilities it owned, and resulted in the company’s entry into several key markets, including Los Angeles and Detroit.
Complementing ISC’s internal expansion and acquisition growth strategies, France was a key driver in the company's efforts to expand into underserved markets across the country. This resulted in the development of Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway, with both facilities enjoying tremendous success since opening in 2001.
Born in Washington, D.C., France was less than two years old when his parents moved to Daytona Beach, Fla. in 1934. He attended Seabreeze High School, where he played basketball and later attended the University of Florida in Gainesville. He served two years in the United States Navy and turned to a full-time career in racing when his service stint ended.
In addition to his son, other members of France's family have played major roles in the operation of NASCAR and ISC, as well as the growth of motorsports. His wife, the former Betty Jane Zachary, serves as assistant secretary for NASCAR, while daughter Lesa France Kennedy serves on the board of both ISC and NASCAR and is president of ISC. Younger brother Jim serves as vice chairman/executive vice president of NASCAR and is vice chairman/CEO for ISC.