News & Media

Retro Racing: Byrd remembered for the little things

March 19, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Stories come quickly to mind for people who knew former track president best

The lilies and other plants that add a touch of natural beauty to Bristol Motor Speedway's expanses of concrete, steel and aluminum are tangible evidence of Jeff Byrd's legacy as track president and general manager. But Byrd, who died last October after a lengthy illness, is also remembered for the things he did that aren't so readily apparent.

"I've never worked for anybody -- and probably never will -- that did not see himself on a level above his employees," said Lori Worley, director media and public relations for the track.

Sunday's event, normally named for long-time sponsor Food City, will instead honor Byrd. And the stories come quickly to mind for the people who knew Byrd best, either in his association with Bristol or during his 23 years as a sports marketer with former series sponsor R.J. Reynolds.

Jeff Byrd

"Jeff was smart on his own. I always admired him. I know he did things that he wished he had done differently. But from the outside, you never saw that. "


Doug Rice is president and general manager of Performance Racing Network, the broadcast arm for Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc., empire.

"Even before he become president and general manager of Bristol, it was his association and love affair of the race fan," said Rice of his favorite Jeff Byrd memory. "He was never-ending in wanting to give them what they needed and what they wanted.

"I remember working with him in conjunction with the events at Winston-Salem, when they had the big Fan Fest before the season. And he was always about the fan. That's the one thing that jumped out at me -- his unbridled passion. He never backed away from being an advocate for the race fan."

Kenny Bruce, a reporter for Scene Daily and three-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association's writer of the year award, remembered one instance when Jeff came to his rescue.

"I was working for a local paper here in the Tri Cities and Jeff was still at R.J. Reynolds," Bruce said. "The former owner at Bristol, Larry Carrier, he was into boxing. And he would always have boxing press conferences, and if he wanted to get the local media out, he would hold them at the speedway. Well I knew one of them was going to be about boxing, so I chose not to go.

"Larry got mad and denied my credentials to cover the Cup race. So I went to the track on Thursday to pick up my credentials and one of the ladies behind the counter said, 'Larry said not to give you any.' Well, Jeff got wind of it. And he went to Larry and said, 'You can't do that. You're going to cause more problems keeping him out than letting him in.' That's the way Jeff and that entire RJR marketing arm was. They saw things from a bigger perspective, I think, and that's why they were so important to the sport."

Bruce said the thing that stood out to him about Byrd was the seamless way he ran his business.

"Jeff was incredibly good at what he did," Bruce said. "Jeff was smart on his own. I always admired him. I know he did things that he wished he had done differently. But from the outside, you never saw that.

"Everything looked like really good ideas, for instance, Speedway in Lights. That really hadn't taken off anywhere and Jeff brought it to Bristol. Now it's huge. He was really good for the time that he came in."

Because Bristol's spring race is early in the season, weather is always a factor. And Worley said Byrd always tried to downplay his concerns.

"He'd tell me not to look at the weather," Worley said. " 'Don't look at the forecast 15 days out. That's ridiculous that far out.' So I'd look and it was supposed to be nice. And he'd say, 'I looked at it, too.' Well, you're telling me not to look at it. Why are you looking at it? Stuff like that.

"We'd be in meetings and I'd say something and he'd say, 'You are the most pessimistic person in the world.' And I'd be like, 'No, you are.' And we'd go back and forth about the weather or whatever."

But what sticks out for Worley was Byrd's ability to interact with children.

"The thing about Jeff was he was the boss, but he didn't act like the boss," she said. "He was a big old kid. Every single year, the YMCA and YWCA would have a 'Fun in the Sun' day. It's something that different companies around Bristol would take part in.

"You'd just play with the kids or do something with the kids. Most companies, people would just sign up for it. But Jeff was the leader. He would go up there with us, wear shorts and a T-shirt and be barefoot, and he'd be out there on the Slip 'n Slide with the little kids, squirting them with squirt guns, sneaking up on them from behind. People didn't really see that about him."

And when they drop the green flag on Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500, the people who knew him best will probably glance up at the grandstands filled with race fans wearing every color in the rainbow -- or down at the lilies -- and remember.