In 1972, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. passed the leadership of NASCAR to his son William Clifton France.
NASCAR needed new approaches, and Bill Jr. provided them.
By far the most significant was the decision to end the incredibly long calendar which spanned 54 races in 1969 and still held 48 races in 1971.
NASCAR took a big turn in its future 50 years ago, and it was all in the family.
In 1972, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., a giant man who began stripping the rough edges of stock car racing and turning it into an organized sport in the late 1940s, handed over the leadership of the organization. to his son William Clifton France (or Bill Jr., as he was called).
It was a new era in many ways for NASCAR. France Sr., universally known as Big Bill, had ruled the sport like a benevolent dictator of sorts, a man willing to take advice from anyone as long as he understood he had the final say. He was gregarious and boisterous, a man’s man as they called it, and his strong personality usually won out. Otherwise, he sometimes reminded people that he often carried a gun.
Bill Jr. took over at an unusual time. With automakers coming in and out of the sport and big-budget team sponsors often hard to find, NASCAR needed new approaches, and Junior provided them. By far the most important was the decision to end the incredibly long schedule that spanned 54 races in 1969 and still held 48 races in 1971. NASCAR and its shiny new series sponsor, RJ Reynolds’ Winston cigarette brand Tobacco Co., wanted a shorter schedule so that more publicity could be focused on the larger races. In 1972, the Cup calendar was reduced to 31 races, and the so-called modern era was born.
Bill Jr. focused on wide television reach, eventually signing network contracts to put NASCAR in front of millions of people who had never attended a race. The increase in television exposure has also attracted more major sponsors to the sport.
There was little doubt in the France house that Bill Jr. would follow his father to the executive seat of NASCAR. Junior ran errands as a kid, selling snow cones, carrying ice cream, running errands. Before the races, he was part of the forward team that nailed promotional posters to telephone poles. He learned from the bottom up.
After graduating from high school and a stint in the Navy, he returned to Daytona Beach and went to work.
“It was his life,” said Bud Moore, career NASCAR team owner who was very close to the two Frances. “France Sr. had him around the tracks to learn what was going on. France gave him a job to do that for a while and then something else, to learn everything. That’s how France got to where he was because France Sr. taught him everything.
France Sr. was the life of all the parties. Junior was much more comfortable in his office or running the show from the tower on the racetracks. Generally described as a workaholic by those who knew him best, he had a tight group of friends in Daytona Beach and sometimes let the reins of business drop to enjoy the other side of life. He and his wife, Betty Jane, often spent an evening with Daytona Beach friends Roger and Jeanmarie Bulkley.
Jeanmarie Bulkley would later remember France as “a very private man. He wasn’t that open, but when Betty Jane was making friends and talking, he would sit there and laugh and strike up conversation. He liked to listen to her. She loved life, and he would appreciate anything she said. Betty Jane brought that out in him.
France also enjoyed deep-sea fishing, but even on these trips he would often host a team owner or driver so they could get to know each other better. His friends insisted the next race was always on his mind.
“He lived it 24/7,” said Mike Helton, who would follow Bill Jr. as head of NASCAR. “It didn’t matter if he was in 900 feet of water deep sea fishing or 30,000 feet in the air en route somewhere or sitting anywhere in the world he was 24/7 out of 7. It was his life. It was until his last breath.
“It was just his style and his nature. He didn’t have the ability to take it easy or relax. He had a very fun life and took a lot of people with him.
Helton said Bill Sr. “had to create everything from scratch. Bill Jr. was methodical, pragmatic, and perhaps a little more conservative. They were different guys at different times, and it worked out well.
A visitor to Bill Jr.’s office might have noticed a book illustrating how to build an atomic bomb. He never tried it, as far as anyone knows, but friends described him as curious about just about anything, and his ability to learn about a wide range of topics fueled NASCAR’s growth.
Bill Sr. died in 1992 of Alzheimer’s disease after a steady decline that included the harrowing experience of his children taking the car keys away from a man who lived and breathed cars. Bill Jr. battled cancer for years before dying while NASCAR ran a race in Dover, Del. in 2007.
The shift in leadership from one France to another that happened 50 years ago still resonates through sport.
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