SBJ/June 11 - 17, 2007/This Weeks News

NASCAR’s driving force

Cliff Pennell was strolling through the NASCAR garage in the late 1990s, just another day overseeing R.J. Reynolds’ sponsorship of the Winston Cup Series. Through his years at RJR, he had grown close to Bill France Jr., subsequently becoming a NASCAR consultant, and he saw how rigidly France protected NASCAR’s image as it emerged from a regional sport to the national stage.

Throughout his 50-plus years in the business,
France did a little of everything around NASCAR,
including hauling bread in 1996 at Watkins Glen.

On this day in the garage, Pennell knew that France meant business when he saw the NASCAR chairman across the way pat the vacant seat next to him. France pulled out a Winston ad from his pocket, one he had been carrying for just the right time. The ad featured a rough biker covered in tattoos holding a cuddly puppy, and was part of Winston’s edgy “No Bull” campaign.

France voiced his objection in his typically straight-forward, no-nonsense way.

“I thought we were trying to clean up this sport,” France told Pennell. “How can we do that when you’re running ads like this? Now, let’s go over this again. This is not the image we’re trying to portray. You’re our series sponsor. I’m going to send my folks to talk to your folks.”

“It was short, swift and to the point,” Pennell said last week, a day after France’s death from cancer at age 74. “And then he moved on.”

Bill France Jr. could intimidate with a look or a gesture, and when it came to running the show that his father founded, no relationship got in the way of doing business. But those closest to him also found that he had a knack for putting people at ease by remembering their names and details about their family. His business rivals might be surprised to learn that France sometimes instructed his top executives to “Let the other guy win.”

The man was just as comfortable eating a hot dog in an old gas station or signing autographs on pit row as he was lobbying sponsors on Madison Avenue or dressing down a driver in the garage. His address book included U.S. presidents and some of the country’s most influential CEOs, yet he routinely had lunch with Daytona International Speedway’s maintenance crew on an infield picnic table.

All of those characteristics made Bill France Jr. who he was, the man who prodded NASCAR out of its overalls and into a three-piece suit during his reign from 1972 to 2003.

In the days after his death last week, France was remembered for transforming the family business into one of America’s major league sports. His laser focus on customer service, his ability to attract sponsors and his stern gavel in the garage helped turn NASCAR into a leader in sports marketing, sponsorship and licensing.

From the first flag-to-flag broadcast on CBS in 1979 to the first NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994 to the first billion-dollar TV contract, many of NASCAR’s most important events were directed from France’s desk in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“I was amazed at the way he knew the business from all sides,” said George Pyne, president of IMG Sports and Entertainment and formerly COO at NASCAR, where he worked for France for 11 years.

“He had done it all, from selling tickets to running the races. Most people know either the commercial side or the competitive side, but Bill was equally adept at both sides. As things get more and more specialized, you’ll see fewer people like him. In American sports history, he really is an iconic figure.”

The need for live TV

France laughs with the late Dale Earnhardt (left)
and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999.

Few believe that one man could run a sport today the way France did for 30-plus years. Too many moving parts, too many constituents to be served.

“One person couldn’t do it all today,” said John Middlebrook, GM’s vice president of global sales, service and marketing and a France cohort since the late 1960s. “Now what you have are more mechanisms that are in place to make sure everything stays on track.

“In any sport, you’ve got to have one place where the buck stops, and the buck stopped with Bill. He took on that responsibility. He could be gruff, but he always listened. You might not have liked the answer you got from him, but you thought about it later and understood that he was fair.”

What Middlebrook and other sponsors say they appreciated about France was his interest in their business. Most any time they talked, Middlebrook said France asked, “Are we helping you sell cars?”

It was France’s interest in sponsors that helped bring companies together for business-to-business opportunities, something that has distinguished NASCAR for years, Middlebrook said.

“Bill understood that everybody scratches each other’s back,” he said. “Early on, he thought of that before others had.”

France’s position was that all of NASCAR’s stakeholders had to win financially. That’s the only model that could grow. His son, Brian, says that advice still guides him now that he’s NASCAR’s CEO.

“Bill understood that for the sport to succeed, everybody needed an opportunity to make money from the sport,” said Grant Lynch, president of Talladega Superspeedway and a longtime International Speedway Corp. employee. “Whether you were a track operator or a car owner or a sponsor, everybody had to have their piece of the pie.”

Those who knew France almost unanimously expressed their appreciation for his vision to grow stock car racing outside of its regional roots. He believed that NASCAR belonged on par with football, basketball and baseball, each of which had television deals and live broadcasts. France was adamant that for NASCAR to be regarded on the same plane with other major league sports, it needed to be on live TV.

“He looked at the deals that football, baseball and basketball had for live TV and he wanted to be at that level,” said Neal Pilson, a NASCAR TV consultant since 1995. “If it was on tape, that meant a lot of people didn’t care about your sport.”

Before 1979, only a handful of NASCAR races were televised, and those were tape-delayed on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” For the better part of two years, France had been pestering Pilson, then president of CBS Sports, to consider televising the Daytona 500 live flag-to-flag. Pilson agreed and for a little more than $1 million, CBS paid for the race.

During their final negotiations, Pilson stayed in Daytona Beach for three days writing the agreement. He tried to leave two days earlier, promising to write a contract in New York and mail it back for France’s signature. Not good enough, France said.

“He wouldn’t let me leave until the contract was signed,” Pilson said. “I literally wrote it with him standing over my shoulder.”

While France knew that live TV was critical to NASCAR’s growth, he was reluctant to turn the sport over to the networks. He wanted to keep start times consistent and he was opposed to night racing, once even trying to talk Bruton Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., out of installing lights at his Charlotte track.

“He was concerned about spectators leaving a race at night,” Pilson said. “Were there enough lights in the parking lot? How would it affect drivers? How would it affect track owners? He was always balancing the benefits of TV with the potential problems. He looked at the sport in its totality.”

‘With us or against us’

Following his father, Brian
France has put his own stamp
on the family business.

France’s need to control every aspect of the sport sometimes got the best of him. When the breaks didn’t go NASCAR’s way, France, in his desire to protect the family business, could play conspiracy theorist with the most skeptical fan.

It was two days before NASCAR’s 1996 awards banquet in New York that federal authorities indicted team owner Rick Hendrick for his role in a scandal involving his Honda dealerships.

France was convinced that the timing was designed to ruin NASCAR’s big week, especially because a Hendrick driver, Terry Labonte, had won the points title that year.

“He was certain the government was trying to embarrass NASCAR during its moment in the sun,” said Chris Powell, the former manager of media relations for Winston when it was the sport’s title sponsor and now general manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “Oh, he was angry. It showed how protective he was of NASCAR’s image.”

It was France’s “You’re either with us or against us” outlook that could make him seem distrustful to anyone who didn’t have NASCAR’s best interests at heart, including the media, where his gruff, direct approach didn’t always play well, especially after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

“When tobacco was under attack, he was very pointed in his defense of the industry,” Powell said. “But that’s just how he was. He was very, very confident of his position and to a lot of people, he was very persuasive.”

France’s direct and sometimes abrupt delivery often led many to paint him as an intimidating businessman. No matter how influential a NASCAR partner might be, he was never going to let his authority be questioned.

While he and the late T. Wayne Robertson, RJR’s former sports marketing president, were described as being as close as brothers, it wasn’t beyond France to remind Robertson that “you’re in the cigarette business and we’re in the racing business. Leave the racing to us.”

“He could be intimidating because he approached things head-on,” Lynch said. “He didn’t want anything sugarcoated. One of the things that probably has keyed my career was watching the way he handled situations. The best thing you could do was tell him the situation, take the heat and fix the problem. When he made his point, there wasn’t any more conversation.”

After contentious conversations with his employees, France often uttered, “Press on” as a means of putting the issue to rest.

Entering France’s office in Daytona Beach could be a little like Oz, both charming and threatening. The door to his office was held open by a magnet and a button under his desk released the door, allowing it to close behind someone who had just entered.

He leaned back in his creaking chair while he listened and when he was done, he brought the conversation to an end by slapping the arms on his chair and sitting upright. That was the cue that the visitor’s time had expired.

Silence was another effective tool.

“If you floated an idea that he didn’t think was prudent, he’d sit there and think about it for a while and he wouldn’t answer,” said Jeff Byrd, president of Bristol Motor Speedway and a former RJR sports marketing executive. “That told you everything you needed to know.”

Indeed, France was a man of minimal words. When he’d heard all he needed to hear, he might respond to a long-winded friend by saying, “The more you know, the more you know,” a folksy, if awkward, way of saying that he had enough information already.

But as intimidating as France could be, he was equally adept at putting someone at ease. He might walk into a meeting on Madison Avenue with a dozen hot dogs from his favorite stand, Pulliam’s in Winston-Salem, N.C., or surprise sponsors with his intimate interest in their business. One of his greatest assets was his memory. He knew names, whether they were from the garage or the board room. More than that, he knew their stories.

Byrd used to be a sportswriter in Winston-Salem and his father was previously the sports editor at the paper, the Winston-Salem Journal. When the younger Byrd wrote an uncomplimentary article about NASCAR in the early ’70s, France not only knew that Byrd’s father had been sports editor there, he also remembered that the elder Byrd had written a similarly uncomplimentary article 10 years earlier.

“He remembered that column and he reminded me of it virtually every time I saw him for the next 30 years,” Byrd said of France’s lighthearted pokes.

When Kevin Triplett resigned from his post as director of operations at NASCAR to run for Congress in his home state of Virginia, he first informed Helton. A short time later, Triplett got a call from France.

“Do you think you can beat him, an 11-term incumbent?” he asked, needling Triplett about his opponent.

“He was so aware of everything around him,” Triplett said. “Once he learned your name, he knew it. It wasn’t just for conversation.

“One time I was driving him through the infield at a race and the place was packed and we were barely creeping along. I said, ‘I’m sorry about this.’ And he said, ‘I’m not sorry. If these people weren’t here, we wouldn’t be here.’ It might have been something that simple, but he always had a way of putting things in perspective.”

‘The dynasty will continue’

Now that Bill France Jr. is gone, the principles that he and his father, Bill Sr., established are sure to endure.

Clean bleachers, good traffic flow, satisfied sponsors, competitive racing. Bill France Jr. kept his thumb on it all.

“He created a true marketing masterpiece,” Middlebrook said. “To weave it all together — sponsors, manufacturers, drivers, owners and the fans — so that everybody won, that’s the genius of it. He was in control, he did it. The dynasty will continue.”

Bill France Jr. - Simple Sophistication

Little seemed to make Bill France as happy as a good hot dog. Whether he made it himself or he detoured by Pulliam’s in Winston-Salem, N.C., for a dog with slaw and chili, France appreciated it like an art form. He took the slaw and chili recipes from Pulliam’s, and the buns had to be buttered and grilled. Unless you told him otherwise, the hot dog would be fixed “all the way.”

“That’s the kind of down-to-earth guy he was,” said Cliff Pennell, who ran Winston’s sponsorship from 1996-99. “What you saw was what you got. He’d be on his way to an important meeting in New York and he’d fly into Winston-Salem, pick up a dozen hot dogs at Pulliam’s and take them with him to the meeting.”

France, a billionaire when he died, enjoyed his share of fancy settings, but if he was the one choosing the restaurant, it more likely was going to be a Steak ’n Shake in Daytona Beach. That’s where he and Neal Pilson, the former CBS Sports president, celebrated their first TV contract in 1979. It’s also where France took George Pyne for lunch on Pyne’s last day two years ago.

The week of the Daytona 500, France typically ate lunch with the maintenance crew on picnic tables in the infield. He’d ask how’s the drainage, how’s the water level in Lake Lloyd, when will the logos on the grass be finished, are the bleachers clean. France once took Tom Brokaw there for a “Frankie’s burger,” so named after one of the staffers who cooked the burgers and hot dogs.

Track president Robin Braig said that when Daytona revamped its infield a few years ago, France wasn’t happy because it meant the area where he ate with the maintenance crew would become the Nextel FanZone.

“Any time we talked about the FanZone, his only question was where the grill was going to go,” Braig said.

When George Pyne left NASCAR after 11 years in a variety of roles, the last of which was COO, he asked France for advice.

“When you’re in business negotiations, he said you’ve got to know how far to push it and know not to push it too far,” Pyne said.

— Compiled by Michael Smith

Once France’s trust was earned, a business cohort transformed into a friend.

When Cliff Pennell resigned from RJR, he hadn’t even left the office before France hired him as a marketing consultant. CBS Sports President Neal Pilson retired in 1995 and on the phone call to notify France, France hired him as a TV consultant to NASCAR.

“I said, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ That was my first client,” Pennell said. “Bill had an ability to make you feel special.”

The natural tension between France and his rival at Speedway Motorsports, Bruton Smith, seldom eased. Even after France’s death last week, Smith struggled to offer France much credit for NASCAR’s success.

“His dad did a great job of training him,” Smith said. “He was the right man at the right time.”

Those who know both said that Smith never came to grips with having the deck stacked so heavily against him, what with ISC being owned by France.

“We’d negotiate and sometimes I’d win,” Smith said. “But he held the controlling hand and he’d win more times than I did.

“We had our difference of opinions. When I was putting lights in at Charlotte, he said, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ I said, ‘If it doesn’t work, I’ll take the lights down.’”

The lights at Lowe’s Motor Speedway remain.

Once France was diagnosed with cancer and he’d stopped smoking, he replaced the vice with bite-sized Bit-O-Honey candies, which he kept in his coat pocket.

“I’m not near as smart as when I used to smoke,” France joked. “When somebody would ask me a difficult question, I’d reach in my pocket for a cigarette, fumble around with it and light it, all the while taking time to think about my answer.

“It doesn’t take nearly that long to unwrap a Bit-O-Honey.”

France had a knack for keeping it simple. He gave his top lieutenants three charges: Work hard, tell the truth and keep NASCAR out of the courtrooms.

If you do those three things, France would say, “You can keep your job.”

— Compiled by Michael Smith

During the years Brett Yormark was in NASCAR’s New York office as managing director of corporate marketing, a visit from France meant it was time for a pizza party. France was a fan of the Mexican bacon pizza at a joint around the corner and shortly before it was time to eat, an aide put the pizza on a frying pan so that the crust would be crispy, just the way France liked it.

Around a table in a conference room, NASCAR staffers ate pizza and listened to France tell stories about the early days of the sport.

“For our new hires, that was an extremely memorable time,” Yormark said. “That’s how he passed along the values of the sport to the people in the office. NASCAR launched a lot of careers.”

As rain pelted the speedway in the hours leading up to the 1979 Daytona 500, the first NASCAR race televised live in its entirety, Gene Jankowski pulled CBS Sports President Neal Pilson aside. Jankowski, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, asked if the network had to pay the rights fee if the race was rained out.

Not only was CBS on the hook for the rights fee, but it also committed to carry the race live the following Monday. The rain broke long enough to run the race, and then it rained for two more days.

“Rumor has it that Bill France Sr. went out on the roof of the track, held his arms up and the rain stopped,” Pilson said with a laugh. “We were extremely lucky. It turned the whole sport around.”

Prior to a Winston all-star race in the 1980s, a bunch of NASCAR old-timers ran a Legends race on a small oval inside Lowe’s Motor Speedway. R.J. Reynolds had talked France into driving the pace car for the event. After an accident brought out the yellow flag, here comes Bill France in the pace car, only to be rammed from behind by Junior Johnson. An incensed France finished the lap, pulled over the pace car, got out, crossed the garage wall and didn’t return. RJR’s T. Wayne Robertson, who was riding shotgun, took the wheel of the pace car.

“I think he was saying ‘You boys are on your own.’ He wasn’t going to sit out there and let Junior Johnson hit him,” said Grant Lynch, Talladega Superspeedway president and a former RJR executive.

— Compiled by Michael Smith

Bill France Jr.: A life at full speed

April 4, 1933
William Clifton France is born in Washington, D.C.

On Daytona Beach with his father
(left) in 1956.

October 1934
The France family moves to Daytona Beach, Fla.

The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is formed under the leadership of William H.G. France, or “Big Bill” France.

Bill France Jr. begins working for his father at Bill France Racing Inc., the predecessor of International Speedway Corp. He also works as a NASCAR course supervisor, in addition to driving a race car and working as a flagman, scorer, promoter and steward.

Bill Jr. is named to the board of directors of the newly opened Daytona International Speedway.

Named vice president of Daytona International Speedway

Named NASCAR vice president

Studying Daytona plans in 1957 with Bill
Sr. (right) and contractor Don Smith.

Introduces R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. as title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series

Jan. 10, 1972
Named the second president of NASCAR, replacing his father, at age 38

Feb. 18, 1979
The first live, flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500, by CBS Sports, averages a 10.5 rating, highlighted by a postrace fight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie.

February 1982
Anheuser-Busch Inc. becomes title sponsor of a new series, the NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series, now the Busch Series

Every event in NASCAR’s premier division is televised, for the first time.

Bill Sr. (left) hands over the reins in 1972.

June 7, 1992
Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR, dies.

February 1995
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debuts.

Nov. 11, 1999
NASCAR announces $2.4 billion in television rights deals with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports, to begin in 2001.

Nov. 28, 2000
Names Mike Helton as NASCAR president and assumes roles as chairman of the board and CEO.

June 19, 2003
Nextel is announced as the sponsor of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series in a 10-year, $750 million deal, beginning in 2004.

October 2003
Passes roles as chairman of the board and CEO of NASCAR to son Brian, becoming co-vice chairman of NASCAR, with his brother Jim, who is also NASCAR’s executive vice president. Daughter Lesa becomes ISC president.

Dec. 7, 2005
NASCAR announces eight-year, $4.48 billion television rights deals with Fox, Turner and ESPN/ABC, to begin in 2007.

Sources: ISC documents filed with the SEC;; SportsBusiness Journal archives; “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era”

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