William Clay France Jr
4/4/1933 - 4/6/2007
Nicknamed Bill Jr. or Little Bill, France was the former head of NASCAR, the sanctioning body of United States-based stock car racing. William Clay France Jr died 15 years ago, he was 74 , He would have been 89.
France was born in Washington, D.C. to Anne Bledsoe and William Henry Getty France. His family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida in 1935 to escape the Great Depression. He attended Seabreeze High School before attending the University of Florida. He served for two years in the United States Navy before turning to a career in racing.
France grew up helping at race tracks; he sold concessions and helped park cars at the Daytona Beach Road Course. He worked twelve hours per day, seven days a week for thirteen months with the construction of Daytona International Speedway, where he drove a compactor, bulldozer, and grader. He once tried using a mule to pull trees out of the swamp because motorized equipment was getting stuck.
He rode off road motorcycles, and began competing in enduros in the 1960s. France entered the Baja 1000 in the motorcycle division in the early 1970s. He gave the up-and-coming sport of motocross a chance at Daytona in the early 1970s. The motocross races started with little fanfare, but grew into the popular Daytona Supercross. The supercross inspired the Daytona Beach Bike Week.
After serving as vice-president for six years, he became the head of NASCAR when his father Bill France, Sr. retired on January 10, 1972. 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." NASCAR went from a Southern regional sport to a national sport during his tenure.
He continued his father's legacy by fostering growth of the Daytona 500 stock car race and Daytona 200 motorcycle race at Daytona International Speedway. The Winston Million program was launched by R.J. Reynolds in 1985. A $1 million bonus was awarded to any driver who could win three of four preselected races.
NASCAR's Grand National series was renamed Winston Cup (now NEXTEL Cup) in 1973. The points fund increased from $750,000 to $2 million. The champions portion of the points fund rose to $2 million by 1998.
Nascar.com was launched in 1996.
NASCAR had few televised races in 1972. Those races that did air in the 1970s were mixed into shows like ABC Wide World of Sports. France signed a deal with CBS Sports' president Neal Pilson to televise the 1979 Daytona 500 from flag to flag. The race was the first live flag to flag national coverage of a NASCAR race. The race got high television ratings, partly due to a snowstorm in the Midwest and Northeast. Richard Petty won the race after race leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed together on the final lap. Allison and Yarborough then exchanged punches. The ratings and ensuing press coverage helped France to sign television contracts with ESPN in 1980, TNN in 1990, and TBS. France's career culminated in a record-setting $2.4 billion television broadcasting contract in 1999 for the 2001 season.
France turned the presidency of NASCAR over to Mike Helton in 2000 after being diagnosed with cancer. He made his son Brian France the CEO and chairman of NASCAR in 2003. Bill France, Jr. remained a member of the six person NASCAR board of directors.
The France family continues to own NASCAR outright, and has a controlling interest in race track operator International Speedway Corporation. France Jr. continued as chairman of the board of ISC, until his death. His daughter Lesa France Kennedy is ISC's president.
France had been suffering from cancer for a number of years since being diagnosed with the disease in 1999. Although he was in remission, he never fully recovered from the disease and often had difficulty breathing. The disease required him to be hospitalised twice during 2007 and he died on June 4, 2007 at the age of 74 at about 1:00 pm due to the illness. His death occurred during the Autism Speaks 400 NEXTEL Cup race, and his death was reported during the live broadcast of the race. The FOX Sports broadcasters in the United States held a moment of "silence" during a restart during the race, and the track's flag was lowered to half mast.