DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For 51 years, NASCAR has been tightly managed by family of William Getty France. That era ended Wednesday when control of daily operations was passed on to veteran racing executive Mike Helton.
Bill C. France, who has served as president since 1972, made the announcement at Daytona International Speedway. "Bill Jr.," 66, will retain the title of president, but Helton, who has been vice president of competition since 1994, will run the sanctioning body as vice president and chief operating officer.
Helton, 45, "has the unique experience of being involved in all aspects of the sport, including marketing, public relations licensing, and most importantly, our core business, which is racing," France said.
NASCAR was founded in 1948 by the late William Getty France, and control was passed to his eldest son 25 years later. Bill Jr. has overseen stock car racing's growth from a regional phenomenon in the '70s to one of the country's most popular sports today.
France said that he is in good health and that his decision had nothing to do with the fact that he underwent angioplasty after a heart scare that occurred in November 1997 while traveling to Japan for NASCAR's postseason exhibition race.
He indicated that while he'll still be involved in some capacity, the move is the first step toward retirement.
"I was born in 1933," France said. "You can look at the tea leaves as well as I can. That's the best answer I can give you."
Asked whether he will attend fewer races, France joked, "It depends on how the fish are biting."
France's two sons, Jim and Brian, will continue in their capacities as executive vice president and senior vice president. Bill France said it is premature to say whether Helton will succeed him as president, but added, "It's obvious he's not going backward."
Helton, who was born and raised in Bristol, Va., is a former short-track race driver who has held various administrative posts in racing for the past 19 years.
He was director of public relations and then general manager at Atlanta International Raceway (now Atlanta Motor Speedway) in the early '80s. In 1986, he joined International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, as director of promotions and market development at Daytona.
He was general manager at Talladega Superspeedway for one year, vice president of ISC for five years and then vice president of competition from 1994 on. He'll retain his responsibilities as competition director.
"There's a lot of neat things about the announcement, but the most important one is that there's nothing broke with the system," Helton said. "There's not necessarily a need for a change in direction as much as there is for continued management of NASCAR as it moves foward.
"We've just come off the 50th anniversary of NASCAR. My challenge is to make sure that when they celebrate the 100th anniversary, I'm not the guy that interrupted the growth pattern."
Helton is popular with car owners and drivers, so it was hardly surprising that the announcement was well received in the garage area.
"What I like about him most is that he's real even-tempered," said driver Darrell Waltrip. "You've got to work really hard to get him mad. Now I'm not saying he won't get mad, but you've got to work at it."
Said team owner Richard Childress, "He's got the experience, the knowledge. He can sit down with any major corporation and deal with them and deal with the car owners and teams. He's got a relationship with everyone in the garage area. He was definitely the No. 1 choice."
Team owner Robert Yates said the fact that Helton has a technical background makes him uniquely qualified for the job.
"He understands the competition side of it, the physics of it, so (that's better) than picking somebody from the other side of the fence," he said. "Mike understands what we do and what we go through."
More accessible to the media than France, and more comfortable in front of a microphone, Helton figures to give NASCAR's leadership a more visible role. That was evident Wednesday when he sat in Daytona's pressroom and chatted with reporters about everything from his upbringing to his brief driving career.
"I figured out pretty quick I wasn't much of a driver," he cracked.
Helton's biggest challenge may be managing NASCAR's growth. Several existing and planned tracks are pressuring the sanctioning body for Winston Cup dates, and some of racing's power brokers are pushing for a split series in which half of the drivers would race at one site and the other at another site on the same weekend.
Helton made it clear that existing tracks hoping for a second Winston Cup date may have a long wait and that a split series is not a possibility in the near future.
"In the instance of Phoenix, California, Texas and Las Vegas (existing tracks that currently host one Winston Cup race a year), we feel like if there's room to grow right now, we prefer to go into a (new) market," Helton said.
He cited Kansas City, where a track is under construction, along with Denver and Chicago, where tracks are planned, as places where NASCAR wants to go.
About the proposal to split the series, Helton said, "If Jeff Gordon is racing in Texas and Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace are racing in Texas (simultaneously), it would fragment the product. Right now the formula we have for attracting 175,000 fans is working pretty well. If you end up having 90,000, it's going to look like a setback."
Tony Fabrizio is based in Atlanta and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org