The Frontstretch: Thousands Gather as Community Celebrates Life of a Legend by Mike Lovecchio -- Thursday June 7, 2007

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Thousands Gather as Community Celebrates Life of a Legend

Mike Lovecchio · Thursday June 7, 2007


At the service for her late husband Bill France Junior, Betty Jane France stepped up to the microphone and said, "Bill France loved Daytona Beach, and today, the city returns that love to him."

In front of 2,000 people at Bethune-Cookman University, the life of the visionary who transformed NASCAR from a regional sport to a worldwide phenomenon was celebrated in the same city where the sport got its start. It was 60 years ago that his father, William H.G. France, called the first meeting at the Streamline Hotel and set up NASCAR, an idea that Bill Junior helped develop into a multi-billion dollar industry.

France's impact on the world of auto racing in general was never more apparent, with several of the most recognizable faces in motorsports coming to Daytona Beach to pay their respects to Bill Junior and the France family. A number of past and present NASCAR drivers and car owners were in attendance including fishing buddy and friend, Rick Hendrick.

Hendrick reflected on his favorite memories with France, enlightening those in attendance who had not had the privilege of meeting him about his intimidating, yet infectious, personality that captivated so many people. Among his stories, Hendrick recalled an encounter that he had with France that involved a conflict between Hendrick's driver Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt.

In a scene made famous by the movie Days of Thunder, Hendrick remembers France sitting down with he and Bodine along with Richard Childress and Earnhardt, and threatening both drivers that if they were to get anywhere near each other on the track that he would make sure neither would race in NASCAR again. Bill Junior then told everyone to go to dinner, but when Earnhardt mentioned that he had plans, France pointed to a phone and respectfully told him to cancel his plans. France then made Bodine and Earnhardt ride to dinner together.

At the end of Hendrick's remembrance, he left the stage with one final thought. "He was a bear of a man, but he was a teddy bear at heart," he said. France's role in the community was applauded by Daytona Beach mayor Glenn Ritchey who mentioned how involved France was with local charties and organizations.

As I walked into the doors at Bethune-Cookman, I was immediately drawn to a number of unique nostalgic photos of France's childhood. I found myself intrigued by how France was involved in so many aspects of the sport at a young age from selling programs to helping build Daytona International Speedway.

In many ways I regret being too young to fully comprehend France's accomplishments. Like many young NASCAR fans I remember when Bill Junior passed the torch to Brian just four years ago, but I'm not fully aware of the legacy Bill Junior began when he took over for his father in 1972.

It wasn't until Edwin McCain took the stage to perform the song, "I'll Be" that I had time to reflect and realize just how great this one man's impact on the sport was. It was just a few days ago that I ate lunch at the North Turn restaurant which sits at the exact location of the north turn from the old beach racecourse. As soon as I left the memorial I made it a point to drive by Daytona International Speedway to visually see how the sport has evolved over the past 50 years. The changes are remarkable and much of it is credited to Bill Junior.

If it weren't for the guidance of France, who knows where NASCAR would be today. He had a vision and he saw that vision through. This is truly a sad time for the sport. It has lost a true legend and pioneer. It has lost a friend. I can only hope the legacy of Bill France Junior continues to live on so that each new generation of fan can understand his role in making NASCAR one of the nation's top sports.

My deepest condolences go out to the entire France and NASCAR family.

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Terry Johnson
06/08/2007 08:15 AM

I remember back when Bill SR gave over to Bill Jr way back then. I was a mear 17 when this happened. I can also remember driving several miles on Sundays so that we could pick up the radio station that had NASCAR or as it was called back then The Grand Nationals on. I can remember watching the 1st race on TV and how fuzzy it was. WOW how young I was and how this sport has grown. Now I can watch it on TV especially on cable almost every Saturday and Sunday. I remember back then when we would buy our tickets and walk into Bristol to watch the race on a Sunday in March or April. That doesnt happen now days does it? Altho I am not old by any means I am not young either. I have had the best of both worlds. The old with NASCAR growing like it has and becoming what it has become now. My heart felt thanks go out to Billy for all the memories over the years of NASCAR and his wonderful insite to make this the sport what it is today and enjoyed by thousands. My heart also goes out to his family and many friends at this time of grief because he will surely be missed.

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