Bill France Jr. Wasn't "Automatic" Pick For 1st NASCAR Hall Of Fame Class, A Debate He Would've Enjoyed (Note: This is the second weekly release on the five inaugural inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, in Charlotte, N.C. The induction ...
Bill France Jr. Wasn't "Automatic" Pick For 1st NASCAR Hall Of Fame Class, A Debate He Would've Enjoyed
(Note: This is the second weekly release on the five inaugural inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, in Charlotte, N.C. The induction ceremony is scheduled for May 23. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Jr. and Bill France Sr. are the inductees. This installment spotlights NASCAR's former President, Chairman and CEO, Bill France Jr.)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 22, 2010) -- Chances are that if Bill France Jr. was still around, he wouldn't approve of himself being one of the five inaugural inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"He would probably have said to pick a driver or an owner instead of him," said NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter, a long-time confidant and employee of France.
But that's not to imply Bill Jr. -- who passed away in 2007 after 35 years of leadership in his sport -- wouldn't have been proud. After all, he will be inducted alongside his father and NASCAR founder, the late "Big Bill" France.
"Our entire family is honored to have Bill chosen for the Hall of Fame's charter class," said his widow, Betty Jane France. "And I know that if he was still with us, he would also feel honored by this recognition."
In contrast to the virtual slam-dunk selection of his father to the inaugural class, the subject of Bill Jr.'s induction sparked intense debate among the 50 members of the hall's Voting Panel. Many voters were of the same mindset that he likely would've had, leaning toward legendary competitors such as David Pearson or Cale Yarborough to round out the "first five" that will also include Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson.
The voting was close, with Bill Jr. barely making the cut. But once he did, it was easy to justify. His historical importance to NASCAR -- and sports in general -- is undeniable.
"He had a sense of what the sport needed to succeed and NASCAR just took off because of that," said longtime car owner Rick Hendrick, in the recently-released biography published by Triumph Books, "Bill France Jr. ... The Man Who Made NASCAR."
"He also had a sense for what the fans liked, what the competitors required and then, had a great sense of how to organize it all. It was like he was building on a foundation that he and his Dad had talked about a lot.
"Bill Jr., you see, knew where he wanted to take NASCAR." After working alongside his father for 25 years after NASCAR's 1947 founding, Bill Jr. took over NASCAR's presidency in 1972. In 2000 he was replaced by Mike Helton as president, but concurrently became CEO and the Chairman of the newly created NASCAR Board of Directors. In 2003 he handed over those roles to his son, Brian France, and settled into his final job at NASCAR, as vice chairman and chief advisor to his son.
During his leadership, he brought all of his father's visions and dreams to fruition.
And in the process, he repeatedly silenced naysayers who questioned his readiness for leadership not only back in 1972, but periodically through the years when one of his decisions went down less-than-smoothly.
The legendary driver-owner Junior Johnson, one of the five inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees, was one of those early skeptics.
"Originally, I never had any idea that Billy would one day be running NASCAR," Johnson said. "And when that came about, to tell the truth, it took me a long time to swallow it.
"It was just an opinion I had. I thought, he can't do it ... he doesn't have the charisma ... he can't stand up to the people in the sport ... the sport will be ruined. Well, as time went along he proved me not 100 percent wrong but 1,000 percent wrong. And when it came down to making big decisions, I don't know of one that he missed, not one. I can't think of any leader of a major corporation who has done a better job.
"People were thinking he was gonna be 'behind' his father [as a leader]. But he was so far ahead of his father, in terms of technology, reaching out to everyone. It was amazing to see him take the sport to the next level ... just amazing."