News & Media

One final way to honor a man who did so much

March 09, 2011, ,

For nearly 20 years -- since 1992 -- Bristol Motor Speedway's annual spring race has been known by one name: the Food City 500. But this year, the regional grocery chain has given up the name to pay tribute to a man that was one of the most respected track presidents in the sport -- Jeff Byrd.

Byrd, president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway since Jan. 1996, passed away Oct. 17, 2010 following a lengthy battle with brain cancer. Following the death of his friend, Food City president and CEO Steven C. Smith knew what he had to do.

"Jeff Byrd was more than a business partner, he was a true friend to our company, our associates and to me and my family personally," Smith said. "He spent years putting his guests first and instilling that attitude in his team.

"We are all convinced that Jeff absolutely would not have wanted us to do this, as his focus was always on keeping the guests and sponsors of Bristol Motor Speedway front and center, but that's one of the reasons that this time, we're putting Jeff out front. It's only natural to honor someone who worked so hard to build this facility, this sport and this region.

Byrd began his career in sports as a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal after graduating from Wake Forest University. That led to an opportunity to work for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a job that would shape who Byrd would become.

Byrd spent 23 years there, working in the company's sports marketing department, eventually becoming the vice president of business development. That led to a call from Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith.

Smith offered the job of Bristol Motor Speedway president to Byrd, but he turned it down. Smith offered the job again, and again Byrd turned it down. This dance went on for a couple weeks before Byrd finally accepted the position and moved his family north.

"It was horrible. I didn't know what I was doing," Byrd told NASCAR.COM's David Caraviello in June. "I came up [to Bristol], got an apartment. [My wife] Claudia stayed at home with the kids until they got out of school. I came up here and ran my first race weekend in March [of 1996]. I've been up here ever since. It's the best move I ever made."

It was a position Byrd would hold for 14 years.

"From his days as a sportswriter to his time at R.J. Reynolds to the last 14 years, Jeff Byrd was one of the greatest promoters both stock car and drag racing has known," Smith said. "To say his passing [left] a void would be an understatement.

"Simply put, Jeff got it. He understood that more than what happened on the track, it was the experience that fans took home with them that stayed in their memories. And those fans, and the people he worked with at Bristol Motor Speedway, were truly like family to him. Because of the mind-set that he possessed, Jeff will stay in our hearts and memories forever."