Bill France Jr., who transformed NASCAR from a small Southern sport into a billion-dollar conglomerate during his 31 years as chairman, died Monday. He was 74.
He died at his Daytona Beach, Fla., home, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said.
France had been in poor health for much of the last decade — he was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. Although he was in remission, the extensive treatments took a toll. He never regained his full strength, often had difficulty breathing and had taken to using a motorized scooter to get around.
France was hospitalized at least twice this year but spent his final days resting at home. Officials at Dover International Speedway, where the Nextel Cup series was racing Monday afternoon, lowered the flag to half-staff in his memory. His last public appearance was Feb. 12 in Daytona Beach, where NASCAR’s top names gathered to ‘‘Roast and Toast’’ him at the Bill France Hot Dog Dinner during the Daytona 500 build-up.
Even there, especially there, France Jr., who ruled NASCAR with an iron fist, called the shots. His toasters that evening were gently reminded to avoid any harsh roasting. France did not speak during the dinner but received guests from his seat on the banquet floor.
A shrewd businessman who was fiercely protective of his family-owned company, France always acted in NASCAR’s best interests. His decisions often riled car owners, drivers, sponsors and fans, but France never backed down. He was in charge — like it or not — and he quickly reminded dissenters.
‘‘Part of leadership is having the guts to make a decision and then having the guts to stand by it and making it work,’’ said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. ‘‘That’s what he did on a lot of occasions. He did it in a way that let you know who the boss was and also did it in a way that you respected him. And I’ve said it all along, I think that is the cornerstone in our sport.’’
France became chairman in 1972 when he replaced his father, NASCAR founder William Henry Getty France, who retired 25 years after forming the National Association for Stock Car Racing.
He had prepped for the job by doing a little bit of everything during his rise through the grass roots ranks of racing.
Bill France Sr. put Bill Jr. in charge of crowd control at one of the early 1950s beach races at Daytona Beach. It was a difficult situation — there seemed to be no way to fence in the beach area and keep people from walking in without buying tickets. But young France had learned some lessons from his dad about ingenuity: ‘‘We put up signs in the scrub areas along the road that said ’Beware of snakes’ and funneled people through out gates. It worked out pretty good,’’ France said.
He also was a flagman, sold concessions, parked cars, scored races, promoted events and even helped in the construction of Daytona International Speedway.
France worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week as he drove a compactor, bulldozer and grader in the 13 months it took to build the track. He once even tried to use a mule to pull trees out of the swamps, because the motorized equipment kept getting stuck.
When he finally took over NASCAR, he inherited a sport that was rich in Southern tradition but mostly unknown everywhere else in the United States.
‘‘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,’’ the International Motorsports Hall of Fame said about the transition.
‘‘His role in the impact of the sport has been huge,’’ Gordon said. ‘‘His personality came at a time when it was what our sport needed. I think he did an incredible job of basing his opinion on what he believed the facts to be and then having the courage to make that decision and see it through.
‘‘He ain’t a waffler. ... He’s just going to go do it.’’
Over the span of three remarkable decades, France oversaw the expansion of the sport, parlaying the loyal fan base of the Deep South into sold-out tracks in New England, California, Texas and the Midwest. He also moved the season-ending awards banquet to New York City in an effort to court the Madison Ave. money.
It all translated into more money from sponsors, bigger paydays for drivers and robust TV audiences.
Before France’s tenure began, the few races that did make it onto TV were only shown in snippets on shows such as ABC’s ‘‘Wide World of Sports.’’ But within six years, France had a deal with CBS Sports to televise the 1979 Daytona 500 from flag to flag.
The race received huge ratings, with Richard Petty winning after Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed on the final lap. Allison and his brother, Bobby, then fought with Yarborough on live TV.
It led to more coverage — but through a complicated system where each track negotiated its own TV contract. But in 1999, NASCAR finally packaged the entire circuit together in a $2.4 billion contract that awarded races to Fox, NBC and TNT that began in 2001.
Through it all, Daytona Beach remained the heart of NASCAR and the France family.
On the 50th anniversary of NASCAR, France took part in a media bus tour around Daytona, talking about the sports’ history. The tour included the hotel where the initial NASCAR organizational meeting took place, France Jr.’s boyhood home, his father’s gas station, the north turn of the beach course and more.
France, who had a mild heart attack in 1997, relinquished his role as NASCAR president to Mike Helton in 2003. He handed off chairman duties to son Brian in 2003. France took the role of vice chairman, reporting to headquarters daily, but moved into a different office a bit removed from the action as he left much of the decision-making to Brian.
But it wasn’t always smooth between father and son, evidenced by an awkward moment during a 2003 news conference to announce NASCAR’s shift into non-traditional markets. Brian France represented NASCAR that day, with France squirming in the audience as the speech plodded along.
Frustrated with Brian’s presentation, France couldn’t take it any longer. He stood up, and without a microphone, awkwardly interrupted to emphasize a point he didn’t think Brian was making clear enough.
As the crowd chuckled at ‘‘Bill just being Bill,’’ Brian twisted uncomfortably on the stage.
‘‘I told him I was disappointed that he thought he needed to make his point at that time,’’ Brian France later said. Eight months later, though, France lauded his son as he handed him the reigns.
‘‘I’ve got total confidence in what Brian can do,’’ France Jr. said. ‘‘He’s loaded with street smarts.’’
France’s daughter, Lesa France Kennedy, runs International Speedway Corp., the owner and operator of most of the major U.S. race tracks. His younger brother, Jim, is the executive vice president of NASCAR and vice chairman of ISC.
France also is survived by his wife, Betty Jane, and three grandchildren.