Bill France Jr. could easily have found himself lost in the shadow of his father, "Big Bill" France Sr., the founder and absolute ruler of the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR).
But Bill Jr. was his own man and guided NASCAR from its moonshining roots to a multi-billion dollar empire and the second-largest spectator sport in America (only pro football outdraws NASCAR on an annual basis).
He oversaw creation of the "Winston Cup" series (now the Nextel Cup) and controlled the sanctioning body during its most turbulent years.
Bill Sr. was a despot who rule NASCAR with an iron hand and a "my way or the highway" approach. Junior was a businessman who saw the sport’s nationwide appeal and potential. Yet the NASCAR he built remained a fan-based sport that didn’t forget the people who bought tickets and supported the racers and their sponsors.
When he stepped down, some felt NASCAR lost its soul. Mike Helton, a non-family member who replaced him as President, saw a future of television and big name sponsors and less reliance on the personal touch with fans. Son Brian France seems cut more from Helton’s business mold than his old man’s.
Bill France Jr. died Monday at 74 after years of battling cancer and heart problems. His death came while a race in the sport he loved and guided for four decades was running at Dover, Del., a day later than scheduled because of a Sunday rainout.
He would have wanted it that way.