There is no doubt Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. have left a lasting mark on the sport of NASCAR. In fact, without Bill Sr., there would not be a NASCAR. After moving his family from Washington D.C. to Daytona Beach, Fla. with $25 and a bag of tools, "Big" Bill began his quest to organize stock car racing.
With determination and a solid vision of the future, France built tracks such as Daytona and Talladega, stood up to the threat of a drivers’ union and grew the sport from the clay tracks of the southeast to the national spotlight.
In inducting Bill Sr. into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, former NASCAR legal counsel and personal friend of the France family John Cassidy said not only did France build a legacy for the sport, but also one for his family to follow.
“Bill Sr., not only nurtured a major professional sport from infancy to adulthood, but he and Annie B. (wife) raised a family, a wonderful family, who have followed in their footsteps with the help of an extremely talented NASCAR family,” Cassidy said. “All of this taking NASCAR to the next plateau, a plateau of great popularity, not only in this country but worldwide.”
Once Bill Jr. took the helm in 1972, he groomed the sport his father had built into the international business it is today. Using a firm hand and a compassionate heart, Bill Jr. was able to carry NASCAR into the 21st century by attracting sponsors such as R.J. Reynolds, Anheuser-Busch and Nextel (now Sprint), inking landmark television deals and connecting with the competitors and fans on a personal level.
Throughout the series of Hall of Fame events last week in Charlotte, the overall feeling was that, regardless of whether or not you agreed with their decisions, both Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. were highly respected throughout the garage. Commanding figures in the garage area, they did what needed to be done to grow the sport of NASCAR into what it is today. Their hands-on approach laid the groundwork for what was expected and helped the industry survive from a ragtag group of racers to a multi-national sport.
Since taking over from his father in 2003, Brian France has worked to grow NASCAR in the same fashion his father and grandfather had before him. However, unlike his predecessors, this third generation France has done the majority of his work behind closed doors and away from the race track.
After moving into his new role, France’s biggest contribution to the sport has been the implementation of the Chase format, introduced in 2004. France also made the decision to allow hard liquors such as Jack Daniels and Crown Royal into the sport. In one of his most controversial moves, France eliminated the traditional Southern 500 date at Darlington on Labor Day, sending it instead to Fontana, Calif. – a move many fans spoke out against.
Brian’s approach to running the sport has been criticized at times by fans for being a departure from the example his father and grandfather left. Rumors linking Brian to the National Football League persisted for years and his absence from the track often helped perpetuate this train of thought. Throughout, Brian, his sister Lesa France Kennedy and others contended the rumors were unfounded and that Brian was very much committed to NASCAR for the long-term.
Since those contentious first few years at the helm, rumors have quelled and France has continued on his path of leadership as he sees fit. Relying on the network of employees at NASCAR, Brian has focused more on the corporate marketing side of the sport.
“Well, you have to figure how much bigger NASCAR is today than what it was when Big Bill was a single NASCAR,” said Hall of Famer Richard Petty. “He had four or five henchmen going around doing the different things. NASCAR is such a big business today that it can’t be run by an individual on a day-to-day basis. The biggest decisions might have to be made by an individual.
“But there’s no individual — where Bill he would go in clean the toilet or whatever, didn’t make difference,” Petty added. “He’d go down to the grocery store, buy toilet paper, whatever. You can’t do that today. So the deal is that NASCAR has grown.”
Today’s drivers agree with The King’s assessment. As the sport has grown into a colossus business, the role of chairman has changed. Sponsor involvement has made the marketing side of NASCAR much more involved than ever before and for Brian, that is where the majority of his time is spent.
“The marketing side of the sport has changed over the years and I think, if you were to ask Brian, he probably feels like his face time is probably better served with those marketing people and the folks behind the scenes more so than at the race track,” Jeff Gordon said. “I think that is just the evolution of the sport and how things have changed.
“Would it be nice to have him here? Yes,” Gordon added. “I think that people would say, it would be nice to have him everywhere, all of the time. But, you know, you can only do so much. I don’t know his schedule of what all he has going on, but I feel like he is doing a good job. If we could see him here at the track more, I certainly would support that. But, I’m not saying it is absolutely necessary.”
When asked if he felt his time would be better spent at the track like his father and grandfather following their induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Brian initially directed the response to Lesa.
“Some of the stories that you heard today did speak to my grandfather and father always being in touch,” she said. “I think as the sport continues to grow, that will be one of the challenges and one of the things that Brian and I will try to continue to focus on.
“But we always — our entire organization has worked hard to be in touch with the fans. And that’s what we’re going to focus on in the future.”
Said Brian, “You know what, though, one thing about that — and Lesa’s right — we’ll always try to do that. But we’ll have to do it our way, because we’re wired a certain way. And we’ll take the values of everybody that we can and try to carry them forward. But in the end we’ll try to do that in the best way that we know how to do that.”
One way Brian has worked to keep in touch with the fans was by helping establish the NASCAR Fan Council in the middle of 2008. When fans bemoaned the loss of older, traditional tracks and the marketing push left long-time fans feeling alienated and forgotten, NASCAR realized it could channel the insight of its biggest asset. NASCAR uses this council, made up of 12,000 fans, to get feedback about the direction of the sport. Thanks to consultations with the council, NASCAR has implemented the use of double-file restarts and earlier and consistent start times for every event.
While Brian has garnered criticism for his method of running the sport, Jeff Burton points out he is not the first to be criticized.
“I can’t speak for when Bill Jr. took over from Bill Sr.,” Burton said since he was not in NASCAR at that point. “But I’ve heard older drivers say that they didn’t think that was going to work. Bill Jr. wasn’t the man Bill Sr. was and Bill Jr. wasn’t this, Bill Jr. wasn’t that. Come to find out Bill Jr. was. Then there’s a lot of conversation I’ve heard Bill Jr. was always at the race track. For guys that have been around here for a long period of time, that’s not necessarily true. There were a lot of races Bill Jr. wasn’t around for – in my era. I can’t speak to what happened when he took over because I was not around. I don’t think Bill Jr. had to be at the race track every weekend to make the right decisions. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure it’s not a good thing to watch it on TV from time to time to get that perspective. Brian being at the race track every single week is not a prerequisite to him being successful by any means.
“Everybody wants to give that answer now of can he do it, can he not do it, but we really won’t know for 20 years if what he decided to do was right or wrong,” Burton said. “Brian’s committed to it, he loves the sport, he’s grown up with the thought his granddad, his dad, his uncle (Jim France, vice chairman and executive vice president of NASCAR) have pushed and that mindset is right. Brian has the sport’s best interest at heart, there’s no question about it. He will be judged in the future, we should not judge it now, we should judge it 20-30 years from now.”
Perhaps Burton’s assessment of Brian France is the right way to look at things. Today’s world is one of instant gratification and a "what can you do for me now?" mentality, and Brian’s legacy may be diluted by the criticism and comments coming from the fans and media. While his father and grandfather walked tall and carried a big stick, Brian’s approach has been to let others do that at the track while he does what he sees as best for the sport behind closed doors.
Maybe the best way to conclude is to let Brian speak for himself in what he hopes to accomplish over the next two decades of NASCAR as he and the sport go forward.
“This is a big, big sport,” he said. “There’s a lot of obviously stakeholders that are all counting on this sport to deliver certain things, and our challenge is to evolve with that. Have the very best people that we can in the history helping us and don’t forget the motto of my grandfather and father that everybody has to win.
“And at some point, financially, and otherwise, it’s got to be a level playing field and all those things. If we keep doing that, taking care of our fans, we’ll be fine.”
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