Betty Jane France, former First Lady of NASCAR, passes away

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Betty Jane France, widow of former NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr., and mother to NASCAR Chairman Brian France and International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy, died Monday. Funeral arrangements will be forthcoming.

“Last night, the NASCAR family lost a mother, a grandmother, a friend and the light that guided the sport’s charitable arm,” said NASCAR Chairman Brian France in a statement Tuesday morning. “My mother taught us incredible values, that of love, patience, compassion and joy. She embraced life every day, and nothing fueled her passion more than children. Her unmatched efforts in building The NASCAR Foundation improved the lives of millions of children throughout this country. And because of that, her legacy will live forever.

“My father leaned on my mother throughout his life, relying on her wisdom and calming demeanor to help grow the sport of NASCAR. She was there, every step of the way. When we lost my father, her positive presence remained, as she used her immense skill to grow NASCAR’s heart and soul, The NASCAR Foundation.

“Our family thanks you for all of your thoughts, prayers and well wishes. My mother was a special woman, and an impressive person, and she will be dearly missed.”

Said Lesa France Kennedy in a statement Tuesday morning: “We are saddened by the passing of my mother and inspiration Betty Jane France. She played a significant role in NASCAR’s history, leading the charge to elevate the experience of our sport for the fans who love it, and her philanthropic efforts will forever remain a part of our sport.

“My mother launched the NASCAR Foundation as a steadfast champion of children’s healthcare and in 2011, the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award was created in her honor. In her hometown of Daytona Beach, she served as a community leader touching countless lives with her charitable efforts. She was very touched and proud last year when Halifax Health Medical Center unveiled a statue just outside the hospital tower which also bears our family’s name.

“Beyond her greatest community service, her starring role was that of mother to my brother Brian and me. She was an incredible role model, cherished friend, and someone who demonstrated limitless possibilities that helped so many people pursue their dreams.

“Her legacy will be treasured and she will forever be missed not only by her loving family and close friends, but by the many lives she touched along the way.”

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award presents $100,000 to the winner’s charity and $25,000 to each charity of the remaining three finalists. The award honors a NASCAR fan who embodies the ideals of community and charity that she had throughout her life.

She became chairman of the NASCAR Foundation in 2004 upon its inception. In 2008, she was named an honorary co-chairperson for the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma, a projected led by team owner Richard Childress.

“They say behind every strong man is a very strong women,” said Richard Petty, co-owner, Richard Petty Motorsports in a statement Tuesday morning. “In this case, Betty Jane stood just as tall as Bill Jr. She did just as much as anyone to build the sport and help it grow. The Petty family sends our thoughts to Brian, Lesa and the entire France family at this time.”

The former Betty Jane Zachary, who was from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, married Bill France Jr. on Sept. 20, 1957. That came seven months after they met at a swimming pool when Bill France Jr. was looking for contestants for Miss Bowman Gray at the Winston-Salem track, according to the book “The Man Who Made NASCAR: Bill France Jr.’’

She gave birth to Lesa France Kennedy on May 24, 1961 and gave birth to Brian France on Aug. 2, 1962.

She was with the family before Daytona International Speedway was built. She recalled in the book “Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr.’’ taking a trip around the track with him during the construction of it.

“I think I was the first person to ride around the track, along with Bill Sr. We were going fast, too,’’ she said in the book. “Way too fast, I suppose. It was cool, but it was also scary because you have to realize that this was before they had the track even finished. We were just riding around on the lime rock before they even put the asphalt down on top of it.

“I remember as we were riding around, Bill Sr. was saying, ‘This is really going to be something one day.’ Myself, I could not visualize how big the whole thing would be when it was finished. I also remember Bill Sr. telling me as we rode around the banking, ‘This is your future.’ I was thinking … right. But when it came to Bill France Sr., everything was always going to work. It was just going to work. That’s the way it was with him.’’

Services for Betty Jane France will be at 11 a.m. Sept. 1 at Seabreeze United Church of Christ in Daytona Beach, Fla., In lieu of flowers, the family ask that donations be made to The Nascar Foundation.