Bill France Jr. stepped down Tuesday as president of NASCAR, the racing circuit his father founded in the backwoods of the South that has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry.
The 67-year-old France, who is recovering from cancer, was succeeded by Mike Helton, NASCAR's senior vice president and chief operating officer. Helton was picked two years ago by France to oversee its day-to-day operations.
''Over the years, NASCAR has only had two presidents -- my father and, since 1972, me,'' France said. ''But we put the wheels in motion for this in February 1999 when we named Mike chief operating officer. Needless to say, he's done an excellent job.''
The founding family will continue its influence on the sport with Bill France serving as chairman of a new five-member board of directors that will include Jim France, Bill's brother; Brian France, Bill's son; Lesa Kennedy, Bill's daughter; and Helton.
''In the past,'' France joked, ''we'd have a board meeting in the hall. My brother and I would meet and shoot the breeze for a few minutes. This will be a lot different.''
The 47-year-old Helton, for years one of the most respected officials in NASCAR's garage area, got into racing in 1980 as public relations director at Atlanta International Raceway. Since starting work for the France family, he has served as director of promotions at Daytona and general manager and president at Talladega Superspeedway, moving to NASCAR's administrative offices in 1994.
''I think this sport is on a good track and I just don't want to screw up anything,'' Helton said.
France suffered a mild heart attack in 1997 and disclosed his cancer in 1999. He has missed many races this year while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments and beginning his recuperation. His appearance earlier this month at the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Raceway was his first in public since early in the season.
''I've had a couple of issues on the side,'' said France, who added that he had a cataract removed last week and could not read a prepared script.
But he said he has been able to come to work at his Daytona Beach, Fla., office nearly every day.
France's father, Bill France Sr., founded NASCAR in 1947. Under the younger France, NASCAR grew from the tiny dirt tracks of the rural South to a sport that is now worth $2.8 billion in TV rights.
In the last decade, TV ratings for NASCAR have risen, while those for other sports have fallen. Sponsors annually pay as much as $15 million to racing teams to have their logos emblazoned on their cars. There have been no holdouts, lockouts or strikes to turn off its wildly enthusiastic fans.
Last year, 17 of the top 20 attended sporting events in the United States were NASCAR races.
NASCAR fans cross just about all demographic lines and include those who rooted for Richard Petty, the retired driver known simply as ''The King,'' all the way down to the younger generation's idols such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Their interest has fueled a building boom in the sport that has added gleaming new speedways in Texas, Las Vegas, suburban Chicago, northern Kentucky and near Los Angeles, with others that will open in 2001 in Joliet, Ill., and Kansas City. Old tracks have been expanded and refurbished.
Another key part of Tuesday's announcement was that George Pyne was promoted to senior vice president and will take over operational responsibilities for each of NASCAR's departments, reporting directly to Helton.
''That's a very important part of this announcement because George is going to give Mike some relief on the administrative side,'' France said.
Helton said Pyne will run NASCAR's day-to-day business.
''He has shown the ability to manage employees and organize the business side of just about everything in NASCAR,'' Helton said.
Pyne previously worked in Charlotte as NASCAR's marketing and licensing director, but will move to the main offices in Daytona Beach.
Jim France will continue as executive vice president and secretary. Brian France, who was a senior vice president, was promoted to executive vice president.
''A lot of this is formalizing what has been happening pretty much the last two years,'' Bill France said. ''The trick is to put together a good team of people. This sport has gotten too big for one person to try to run everything.''
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