NEW YORK (Dec. 7, 2000) The newest president of NASCAR vowed Thursday to keep the sanctioning body on the course that helped make stock-car racing one of the fastest-growing spectator sports in the world.

Mike Helton, appointed last week as just the third president in the 52-year history of the sanctioning body, said his tenure would be underscored by a commitment to remain mindful of the premise that the sport begins and ends with the quality of competition on the track.

That vision, Helton said, has remain unchanged since the founding of NASCAR by the late William France and its evolution under the guidance of his son, Bill France Jr., who last week named Helton to replace him.

"We've been taught the proper way to guide the sport," Helton said. "We will never lose sight of that vision, that core value, for as someone once said, we don't know how big stock-car racing can be if it's handled properly, but I guarantee we're going to keep doing our best to handle things properly."

Helton's remarks came during the president's annual "state of the sport" address, delivered in front of a large crowd of media members, NASCAR officials, drivers, team owners and others involved in the sport. They have gathered in New York for the various events leading up to the annual NASCAR Winston Cup Series banquet on Friday night at the Waldorf-Astoria.

As Helton spoke in the opulent hotel's grand ballroom Thursday afternoon, one of the people sitting near the front of the crowd was France, who has been battling several health problems that have limited his public appearances in recent months. Helton paused in his remarks to note the attendance of France, who was saluted with a standing ovation.

France last week turned over to Helton the presidency of a sanctioning body that experienced one of its most competitive seasons this year. Evidence of that came less than a month into the schedule when Dale Earnhardt edged eventual series champion Bobby Labonte at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a photo finish that proved to be one of the closest finishes in series history.

By the time the year ended, 14 drivers had visited Victory Lane, including four first-time winners. Thirteen drivers captured Bud Poles. Forty-seven drivers led at least one lap. And fans saw one of the most competitive races yet during the fall event at Talladega Superspeedway, where there were 49 lead changes.

"The year 2000 proved that this vision for success based on a good race is correct," Helton said. "One thing we know for certain is that the quality of competition this season will be hard to top."

While competitive, the year was also costly. Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper lost their lives in on-track crashes.

"Their memories will live in all of us far into the future," Helton said.