Jeff Byrd, a NASCAR legend (Photo: Bristol Motor Speedway)
By Mike Mulhern
A melancholy ride along some stretches....but one bursting with laughter along other stretches.
First, past Junior Johnson's legendary Ingle Hollow, farther back now from the newest version of the original Thunder Road...
Then past North Wilkesboro Speedway, right under the backstretch grandstands of Enoch Staley's place, now festooned with new banners long awaited...remembering the scent of Cherry Smash...and those muddy hillsides during the spring and fall equinox races...
Past 601, and a flashback to the night, the long, adventurous night that ol' Junior took us hunting in the backwoods, and left us hanging 40 feet up in a tree as Japanese hornets and angry farmers swarmed about. 'Lay the gun down over by that log real quiet-like.' I can remember those words today....
Flashing back to the days when T. Wayne Robertson, now remembered as R. J. Reynolds star sports boss, was just a show-car driver running with JByrd, under Ralph Seagraves' command, and me just hanging on for dear life at this life in the very fast lane....
Flashing back to the days when Marty Robbins, part-time driver (with Cotton Owens) and full-time singer, would hang around the motel swimming pool playing ballads until late in the night...back when the entire NASCAR circus could fit comfortably into a single motel.
Driving past Christmas trees farms already offering pre-season discounts....
This 321 run hasn't change much at all over the decades.....
A sad day, to be sure....but along the long ride I was thinking back to some of the good times – like the night Chuck Berry crashed on Jeff's couch after a hard stand....and that run on the way back from Rockingham one day when Jeff was searching for some backwoods mechanic who had just pieced together, literally, two halves of a Plymouth Duster and painted it like a yellow jacket – to buy it, at a bargain at twice the price, Byrd insisted...and the wild nights in Nashville at country music shops, back when that town was part of the stock car tour, and back when the men in the sport actually had some time to enjoy life, and drivers were just like the rest of us...
Back in the day, Byrd and I were the NASCAR advance team for many races, hanging banners throughout whichever town, (and watching Byrd schmooze all the right politicos)....
I asked JByrd once "Why are we hanging these banners with rope, because the fans are just going to cut 'em down and take 'em home?"
And he looked at me with that worldly-wise gaze, patiently explaining "That's exactly the point."
Back in the day, before this sport turned into such a corporately-clean business, when crews actually had fun on the road. (Yes, a driver, not to be named, actually did drive a car into a motel swimming pool), well, let's just say that crews and drivers and all us circus clowns did have some fun here and there....These days of course it's a rush-rush, from plane to track to plane, with fancy motorcoaches and chauffeurs and all that stuff.
But once upon a time.....Well, I was still a rookie when JByrd brought a guy to Winston-Salem and insisted we all have lunch. William Neely. A writer with a book, an outlandish novel: Stand on It, a novel by Stroker Ace.' I couldn't figure out if this was all a put-on or not....but suffice it to say that while Hal Needham's movie (Burt Reynolds/Loni Anderson) might have been over-the-top, there is more truth to it than not.
Ah, those good old days.
I remember the day Byrd came back from that key job interview with Seagraves, the first sports marketing boss for RJR, back when this sport of stock car racing was all but bankrupt, tracks needing to get the judge's okay to pay out the purse, and only one or two full-time championship caliber teams. And Byrd had slung over his back a huge batch of clothes on hangers – some of the wildest clothes we'd ever seen. All in red-and-white, and covered in various designs of the Winston cigarette pack.
I could only laugh.
But Byrd was nothing if not game for the new deal. And he'd let me tag along, to see some of the behind the scenes stuff this sport had to offer....in exchange of course for helping him hang banners.
And when Byrd took that job, well, that left his job at the Journal open....
Jeff had an amazing run, a Hall of Fame run to be sure. During his time with the Journal (where his father Carlton was once sports editor), where JByrd made his share of waves (in the grand Journal tradition, to be sure), and angered some of the biggies in Daytona....during his 23 years with Reynolds' amazing NASCAR sports marketing operation....and then during his 14 years as boss of Bristol.
Bristol Motor Speedway was famous, certainly, long before Bruton Smith bought it and turned it over to Byrd to run 1996. But Byrd and his 'family' turned it from a 60,000-seat place into 160,000-seat palace that looks for all the world like a giant spaceship that landed up here in the hollows.
Byrd would call Bruton Smith his 'mentor,' a second father, and there's a lot of Smith to be seen in Byrd and how he handled things. But then maybe vice versa too. Smith himself has changed over the years, and Byrd – when we'd drop by his office race week to watch him and Bruton at play behind the scenes -- seemed to have some of Jeff Byrd in him too.
As easily as it sometimes seems now to get to this track – with I-77 and I-81 and I-26 – when JByrd and I first started running this beat, it wasn't so. One classic ride was up US52 past Andy Griffith's Mayberry and over that ancient rickety New River bridge, now fortunately replaced by an Interstate monster that hides nearly every trace.
And don't get suckered in taking 421 all the way; that's rookie initiation.
The church was packed; the toughest ticket in NASCAR is Bristol, Jeff liked to say. The whole gang was there, all the buds from R.J. Reynolds' heyday as this sport's 'savior,' from 1972 through 2004, when JByrd and T. Wayne and Ralph and a dozen more of the best marketers this sport has ever seen pumped up NASCAR racing throughout the country.
And the traffic jam outside afterwards – and it was a beautiful service, with maybe a hundred pictures of JByrd – that's what we all called him -- through the years displayed in a giant slide show on big screens – was Bristol-sized too....for a run, with full police escort, over to the famous track, for a big lunch under the tent in the infield.
We'd laughed a few years back when JByrd said he wanted to dig a big hole in the Bristol infield, dig a big 'basement,' for infield workers (to offer fans better line of sight to the backstretch) and install a giant elevator to raise the cars. (Heck, if it wasn't for dynamite (this is coal country, remember), Smith and Byrd wouldn't have been able to do what they've done in this terribly rocky terrain.....)
But then we'd laughed when JByrd said he was going to figure out a way for teams to get their huge highway haulers down-and-up these 30-degree banks from out on US19, instead of having to make-do with toolboxes rolled across the track. And one of the most amazing sights in NASCAR is still post-race at night, when these 80,000-pound behemoths crank up on the flat backstretch apron and charge up through the third turn gate.
You think Bruton Smith thinks big? Well, Byrd and the rest of Smith's field generals are the men charged with making all those grandiose plans reality.
And Byrd was one of Smith's best at it, these past 14 years. Always dreaming up the next project.
After a lifetime in Winston-Salem, Byrd took Smith up on his offer to run Bristol Motor Speedway.
And it was a match made in heaven. Byrd's expansive personality – it could fill a room – and studious lack of ego (except the self-deprecating humor) fit in just right.
Byrd not only took over the track but took over much of the community, the Bristol-Johnson City-Kingsport triangle. He jumped on every board, civic and charitable (of all Smith's men, Byrd may well have been the most politically savvy), and was a presence just about everywhere up in this neck of the woods.
No wonder Grace Fellowship Church was packed to the rafters.
An aside here: despite the sadness of the occasion, JByrd's untimely death at just 60, at the height of his power and influence, I couldn't help but laugh at many of the images wife Claudia (an old North Forsyth High girl) and the family had rounded up for the slide-show....JByrd in so many outlandish costumes, marketing any which way he could.....and how those pictures of the JByrd we all know contrasted with the sea of dark funeral suits in the church.
Dr. Gregory Jordan, of Bristol's King College, tried to put Jeff Byrd's life in some perspective (of course from this side of the mountain, where he spent the past 14 years), with a crystal clear analysis of all that Byrd meant to this community.
Because of the track's immense presence in this area, Byrd was in constant demand to do this or that for local organizations. And because Byrd was the consummate NASCAR promoter, he always signed up. But one day, Jordan recounted with a laugh, as Jordan was making a pitch for Byrd to sign on to yet another local venture, Byrd, in maybe mock exasperation, threw up his hands and said "You're just like Bruton....."
Demanding, demanding, demanding....
Smith, himself was right up front, stage left, with his full Speedway Motorsports cast for the service, laughed.
Jordan, talking now to Smith himself, laughed too and said "I'm not sure if Jeff was complimenting you and me or not...."
Another time, Jordan recounted, he was sitting in his college office well after hours when he got a call from JByrd. About what, doesn't really matter. "I asked Jeff," Jordan said, "why are you still in your office this late?"
"Because Bruton's going to call...to make sure I'm still working," Byrd replied with a sigh. "You know with Bruton, it's not about what you've done, but what you're going to do next...."
Jordan was in Byrd's office at the track one day when a woman walked in, with her two kids. Byrd didn't know her, but quickly made her feel at home. And she laid out a request for a scholarship for one of her sons. "Jeff asked her a few questions...then opened his desk drawer and pulled out his checkbook and wrote her a check....." Jordan said. "And he did that so many times. That's why his checkbook was in the top drawer."
While Jordan was addressing this crowd of several thousand, at times he was so quiet and personal it was almost as if he were delivering a soliloquy, talking to himself about a man who was in a sense almost larger than life. And at the end he cried.
It was one of those days, where the laughter and the tears were intermixed....about like the famously variable mountain weather Byrd always had to deal with.
The past eight months have been very trying on Claudia and the family and all JByrd's friends and extended family (and if ever there were a point to be made about how NASCAR really is 'family' this would be it).
Jordan recalled that April afternoon, just a day or so after the doctors had diagnosed JByrd's medical problem: "We were there in the hospital room, talking about things, and Jeff fell back asleep, so I told Claudia 'I'll be right back. I need to take some things to the dry cleaners.' And while I was gone, Jeff woke up and asked where I was. Claudia told him....and Jeff, always expressive of course, with a touch of humor, raised one arm and then raised the other arm, as if to weigh two objects: 'Brain tumor.....dry cleaners....brain tumor....dry cleaners....Greg needs to get his priorities in order here.....'"
That was classic Jeff Byrd, sizing up a situation with aplomb and humor.
On the road back down the mountain, surprisingly the sun had broken through those dark clouds, which were fading away to the other side of the ridges. And the lake was sparkling, the boats in the marina bright white, against sky which had almost suddenly turned bright blue.
It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders.
Like we always say after any race at Bristol – if you weren't here, you should have been.
And now there's some peace in the valley....and recalling Richard Petty's words, too often repeated in this sport it sometimes seems, "Remember, the next time you say goodbye to somebody might be the last time you ever see them."