Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2007

To appreciate how much Bill France Jr. changed stock-car racing ó and a significant portion of Southern culture and North Carolina’s economy along with it ó compare NASCAR today with its status when he climbed into the driver’s seat of the sanctioning body in 1972.
Although the sport had a solid fan base back then, it was still pretty much considered just a “Southern thing.” Some races were still held on dirt tracks. The Winston Cup series didn’t exist as such because Big Tobacco hadn’t signed on as a sponsor. The sport hadn’t expanded into New England, California or Texas. Races were rarely televised ó and Toyota was just the name of a boxy little car from Japan that drew derisive snorts from the Big Three automakers that ruled American roads.
When France died Monday at age 74, his dreams for the family business had largely been fulfilled. NASCAR is an internationally popular sport with a multibillion-dollar television contract that rivals the NFL in drawing power and revenue. Motorsport corporations trade on the stock exchange. Stock-car racing has an international flavor, with Toyotas on the starting grid and races expanding into exotic locales such as Mexico and Montreal. Credit France with being the visionary and hard-nosed businessman who orchestrated the growth surge of the racing empire launched in the late ’40s by his father, “Big Bill” France. While the son may have been a junior, there was nothing secondary about his ambition.
All is not sweetness and light within the NASCAR fold, of course, just as it never has been. When one driver complains that NASCAR is manipulating the outcomes or another that rule changes are messing up the cars, they’re simply following in a long tradition of dissent against the ruling regime. Almost since the founding of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, drivers and teams have sometimes chaffed under the France family’s iron rule, even as they profited handsomely from the family’s business discipline and marketing savvy. The Frances created NASCAR, and both Bills were zealous in protecting their interests, as well as the sport itself.
Although a heart attack and other health problems had forced Bill France Jr. to step down as chairman of NASCAR in 2003, he leaves a permanent legacy in having taken NASCAR’s moonshine origins and distilled them into the modern-day extravaganza of speed, glitz and celebrity known as the “show.” His success came in part, one marketing expert noted, from being “one part white-lightning and one part Madison Avenue.” For NASCAR, that proved a potent combination, indeed.