Anne B. France deserves Hall nod, and more

April, 12, 2012

I agree with many NASCAR pundits that Anne Bledsoe France shouldn't go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the fourth group. I think she should have gone in before her husband, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., and her elder son, the second czar, Bill France Jr.

I think she should have gone into the Hall of Fame before there was a Hall of Fame. They should have laid a cornerstone with her name on it before they even started construction of that building in Charlotte, because she WAS the cornerstone of NASCAR.

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Anne B. France
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesAnne B. France's influence on NASCAR was immense, because she was the one keeping track of the money.

From day one there should have been an "Annie B. Room" near the main entrance. In the room, there should be a simple desk, and on it should lie an adding machine, an old-fashioned bookkeeper's ledger, a few cigar boxes filled with cash (they could use Monopoly money lest the patrons help themselves) and a pair of glasses.

On the wall behind the desk there should be an elegant sign, carved in oak: "Without Her, There Would Be No NASCAR."

Lesa France Kennedy, who at age 14 was apprenticed to her grandmother, will tell you Annie B. kept two sets of books during and beyond the formative years of NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway.

"There was the real set," says Kennedy, now CEO of International Speedway Corp., "and then she had one that she would show my grandfather."

Whatever Big Bill knew he had, he would spend.

Betty Jane Zachary France, Bill Jr.'s widow and Brian and Lesa's mother, recalls arriving as a new bride in Daytona Beach and being put immediately to work with Annie B., bookkeeping.

At the end of one day, young Betty Jane was 10 cents off on her ledger. Oh, well, she would just figure it out the next morning.

"You're not going to leave," Annie B. told her new daughter-in-law.

"She made me stay," Betty Jane remembers. "I cried. I went home and told Bill [Jr.], 'I can't work for this family, I can tell you right now.' He said, 'Well, that's how she is. You'll get used to her.'"

All of NASCAR did. There was no choice. If Big Bill ruled with an iron hand, Annie B. ruled by the life's blood, money. She was not just his helpful wife. She was his boss.

First time I walked the halls of the old NASCAR building, as a rookie reporter in 1974, I was being shown around by a tough old publicist of the time. He gestured toward an open office door, and there she sat in those glasses, alone, silent, poring over financial statements.

"That sweet little lady," he said, "knows where every g------ dollar in this organization is, where it came from, and where it's going."

Every France and France associate I've ever told that story responded the same way: "Absolutely."

I'll have much more on Annie B. in a saga of the France family, a series I'm developing for publication here on later this year. Suffice it to say for now that no one I've interviewed thinks there would be a NASCAR today without her.

She was a nurse by profession and had met Big Bill France at a dance in Washington, D.C. She married him in 1931 and in '34 packed up all their belongings for his impulsive drift down the Eastern Seaboard in search of a better life. They liked Daytona Beach, knew about its racing history since 1903, and stopped, and stayed.

The rest is history in which Annie B.'s name rarely appears. She took a bookkeeping course at a local business college, and from there she literally knew where every dollar in NASCAR was, and hid a helluva lot of it from her husband so he wouldn't spend it.

She had Big Bill on an expense account. Whenever he went off on a trip, say to Alabama to look at land for a new speedway or to meet with Gov. George Wallace, Big Bill had to submit receipts for everything -- meals, hotel rooms, fuel for his private plane -- or he simply did not get reimbursed.

After one beach race, before the big Daytona track was built, the legend-to-be broadcaster Chris Economaki happened by the little France bungalow near the Halifax River late on Sunday evening.

"Bill answered the door, but didn't invite me in," Economaki once told several of us. "That was very unusual -- he was always very friendly and hospitable. On this evening he was very nice, but he stood in the doorway with the door opened only a couple of feet.

"I got a glimpse inside. There were stacks of money, cash, everywhere on the floor. And in the middle of all that money sat Annie B., on the floor, counting."

The Frances now are all millionaires many, many times over. So are a lot of NASCAR's owners, drivers, even crew chiefs. Every one of them has that little lady to thank profoundly.

Among the statues at Daytona now, tallest of all, rises the 6-foot-5 likeness of the founder of NASCAR, but he is not alone. He has his arm around the bronze likeness of a diminutive woman. There's a damn good reason for that.



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