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Members of the auto racing community and fans outside Seabreeze United Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., during visitation for Bill France Jr. on Wednesday.
AP photo by Nigel Cook
Members of the auto racing community and fans outside Seabreeze United Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., during visitation for Bill France Jr. on Wednesday.

Fans say bye to racing pioneer

By Jim Ellis
Associated Press Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kathie Salemme and her family are die-hard NASCAR fans, planning their vacations around the racing schedule.

Wednesday, the family traveled to pay their respects to NASCAR trailblazer Bill France Jr., a man Salemme never met but considered an integral part of her family’s success.

“What Bill France built brings our family together,” Salemme, 47, of Columbia, S.C., said at the Daytona International Speedway. “His passing is tragic. He left a legacy, and I don’t know who is going to fill his shoes.”

Several hundred fans, NASCAR notables and others convened at Seabreeze United Church for a visitation Wednesday evening. France died Monday at his Daytona Beach home. He was 74.

“He was a no-nonsense type of individual with a great sense of humor,” ESPN NASCAR analyst and former NBA player Brad Daugherty said of France outside the visitation.

Daugherty said he had many memories of France, including spending time with him on France’s pontoon boat on the Halifax River.

“He was a wonderful man,” Daugherty said. “I’m going to miss him terribly.”

Others who attended included Leonard Wood of Wood Brothers Racing; Hurley Haywood, a five-time Rolex 24 winner; Tim Brewer, a NASCAR commentator with ESPN and former Junior Johnson crew chief; and Dennis Huth, president of the American Speed Association.

“Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. are names you wanted to be associated with,” NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said. “There are so many memories with Bill inside and outside the garage.”

France, who spent 31 years at NASCAR’s helm, is credited with transforming the family business from its Southern roots to a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

He took over in 1972 from his father, who founded NASCAR in 1947. But in 2000, he relinquished his role as NASCAR president to Mike Helton, then handed off chairman duties to son Brian in 2003.

At the speedway France Jr. literally helped build — driving a compactor, bulldozer and grader — fans left flowers at a makeshift memorial at a statue of France’s parents, William and Anne France.

“It’s a big loss. What he and his daddy did for the sport, growing it like they did, can’t be applauded enough,” said Atlanta resident Mike Klajbor, who became a racing fan in the 1960s.

President Bush also sent his condolences.

“Bill was a legend in the world of NASCAR whose passion and vision for stock car racing led the sport to the national prominence it enjoys today,” Bush said in a statement.

A public funeral is planned Thursday at the Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center, and a graveside service for relatives only will follow.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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