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NASCAR stars say goodbye to France in simple ceremony

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR stars paid respects to former
chairman Bill France Jr. on Thursday in a short, simple funeral
service that was far more fuss than he would have wanted.

About 2,000 people filled the Performing Arts Center at
Bethune-Cookman University to say goodbye to France in a send-off
for a man who loved hot dogs, fishing and, more than anything else,
NASCAR.

"That's enough -- let's go. You're burning daylight," Daytona
Mayor Glenn Ritchey said as he wrapped up his remarks in a service
that ran less than an hour. "That's what he would probably say to
us."

France, who spent 31 years running NASCAR, died Monday at his
home after nearly a decade of declining health.

"He was our mentor," NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick said.
"He was our leader. He was a great friend, and we're all going to
miss him. He was a bear of a man, but he really had a teddy bear of
a heart."

Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Ned Jarrett, and Bobby and
Donnie Allison were among the retired drivers on hand, while active
stars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip and Kurt Busch joined the gathering.

Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Bill Elliott, who all raced late
into Wednesday night in a charity event in Ohio, trickled in right
before the start.

"Sitting there during the service, I thought about all those
people who get to [race NASCAR], and it's because of him," said
Edwards, who was passing out business cards and placing ads in
trade magazines just five years ago in his bid to break into the
sport.

France devoted his life to the family business, working at every
level of the industry as he moved his way up from selling
concessions and parking cars to running all of NASCAR. He replaced
his father, NASCAR founder William Henry Getty France, in 1972 and
pushed NASCAR beyond its small-time Southern roots into a
nationwide billion-dollar conglomerate.

He was considered a benevolent dictator during his reign, and he
ruled with an iron fist and a sharp tongue.

Hendrick opened his remarks by introducing himself as a a
"fishing buddy of Bill France." He recalled when he and driver
Geoff Bodine were summoned to Daytona Beach headquarters to meet
with Richard Childress and driver Dale Earnhardt because of run-ins
Bodine and Earnhardt had on the track.

France made it clear that day that the drivers would learn to
get along in a meeting that was immortalized on the big screen in
"Days of Thunder." Fred Thompson, the actor-politician, played a
characterization of France in the movie.

"He told us 'NASCAR's been here a long time ... you're not
going to mess up the show,'" Hendrick said.

A video montage shown twice during the ceremony -- at the opening
and a second time as singer Edwin McCain performed his song "I'll
Be" -- captured both France's softer side and the rewards of his
work.

There were scenes of France as a young man helping with the
construction of Daytona International Speedway, and standing at the
finish line at an old beach race. He was shown entertaining at the
track with Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and toasting
Earnhardt after one of his championships.

And there were photos of him as a frail, older man -- a heart
attack in 1997 and a battle with cancer in 1999 had ravaged his
body and often made it difficult for him to breathe -- smiling as he
stepped aside and handed control of the company to his son, Brian,
in 2003.

Team owner Felix Sabates, a close friend and an honorary
pallbearer, said France's true legacy was in supporting his son
through Brian's wild early years.

"When Brian was a young man, Brian was Brian and a lot of
people would have given up on him," Sabates said. "Bill never
did."