Commentary

Jeff Byrd 500 a fitting tribute to the man

Updated: March 19, 2011, 1:59 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- This happened in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, the massive parking lots of Bristol Motor Speedway almost empty and even the campgrounds quieting, the campers coming down off the adrenalin rush of the notorious night race.

A single golf cart was moving methodically in the dark, stopping at each gaggle of stragglers, the driver issuing the same simple message to the people: "Y'all, we're sorry."

[+] EnlargeJeff Byrd
A. Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesGiving the fans an enjoyable show topped Jeff Byrd's list of priorities on race weekends.

This was Jeff Byrd, the track president, personally apologizing to every fan he could find because Bristol hadn't produced a race worth watching that night.

***

This is a story to try to explain why the naming of Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol is far more profound than any sweepstakes to place a fan's name on the race.

The race bears the name of one of the great nurturers and builders of NASCAR, and of the NHRA and sports car racing, for that matter.

He died last October of brain cancer, still a big kid at 60 years old. Even if he'd been 95, you'd still have to say Jeff Byrd died young.

***

He took the happiness of the fans as his personal responsibility, as if he could make one car pass another with just his own body English, if he tried hard enough.

Nobody could change his mind. So this August night in 2008 was all his fault, as he saw it.

He'd had Bristol repaved the previous summer and widened in the process. Now, detractors claimed he'd ruined the most notorious short track in America, taken away the slamming and banging and nighttime showers of sparks.

This night had been Byrd's worst nightmare. Kyle Busch had led for 415 consecutive laps before Carl Edwards had saved the show with 30 laps to go, by bumping Busch up the track and taking the lead for keeps.

On the cool-down lap -- what a misnomer this time -- Busch slammed Edwards door to door, and Edwards hit back, sending Busch spinning and evoking the loudest roar of the night from the 160,000-seat grandstands.

And afterward, in the parking lot, Byrd finally drove up to a handful of journalists who were having a beer to take the edge off the just-passed deadlines. He climbed out of the cart.

Same message: "Y'all, we're sorry."

"JayByrd!" I greeted him, as we all did, always. He'd been dubbed that by David Pearson some 35 years previous. "Have you mailed Edwards his certified check for a million dollars for saving your race?"

"Overnighted it," he said, and then he dropped his forehead onto my shoulder, and he sobbed out loud.

It was pretend sobbing with a grain of seriousness -- his still-boyish sense of humor, his way of overdramatizing an issue 'til it was part serious, part funny.

"Hinton, do you think Carl might have saved my job?"

Again, he was only half-kidding. He had let the fans down. The wild finish and aftermath didn't make up for the majority of the race, which wasn't what Byrd promised his fans with the track slogan, "Racin' the way it ought'a be."

Jeff Byrd was an all-out proponent of life the way it ought to be.

[+] EnlargeJeff Byrd decal
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesThe sport lost some heavyweights in 2010, including Bristol president Jeff Byrd and NASCAR VP Jim Hunter.

He ran wide open with enthusiasm for everything he did, liking everybody he met, trying to be of service to everybody he knew and hundreds of thousands he didn't.

I know of no one who didn't like him, and of no one he didn't like.

In his younger years, he called me and many others "Bubba," within the context of the real Southern meaning of the word -- toddler talk for "brother."

He got his good cheer honestly, from his man-mountain father, the journalist/humorist Carlton Byrd of the Winston-Salem Journal. At the same paper, Jeff, fresh out of Wake Forest, class of '72, took just a few strides in his father's footsteps.

But soon publicists for the town's mainstay corporation, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., realized what an effervescent personality he was and paid him big bucks to go promote RJR's new involvement with NASCAR.

He was instantly trusted by the drivers of the time, especially the bashful Pearson. And he was instantly trusted by the motorsports media of the time, because he always told the truth.

One time, I was trying to quit smoking but was tempted by the packs of Winstons lying all around the press box.

"If you can quit, stay quit," he scolded me. I nudged him and whispered that a high-ranking RJR executive was sitting right behind us.

"If I can't tell the truth, I don't want this job," he said without looking over his shoulder.

He was so good at his job in NASCAR that RJR sent him into a much tougher task, a sports car tour called the Camel GT Series. There, he made a lot of us oval-track chauvinists understand, and come to like, road racing.

Same with the NHRA when he was sent to develop the image of drag racing.

"You don't have to write anything," he would say. "Just come on out and we'll bet a dollar a race. You pick the lane."

That first visit or two might not have gotten any publicity for the NHRA, but he was developing the writers' tastes for the sport so that we would write about it.

Every motorsports writer in America learned, after a while, that whatever kind of racing you covered, if JayByrd was going to be there, it would be fun. Guaranteed.

Once, after hours on hours of rain delay at Atlanta Dragway, we sat on the hood of his car at the end of the strip at 4 a.m., sipping cabernet and watching the Funny Cars blaze past with their parachutes billowing. Fun. Guaranteed.

His domain expanded to every kind of sport in which RJR had promotional involvement, and eventually he became vice president of business development.

But by the 1990s, tobacco involvement in sports had come under withering fire, and RJR's budgets were dwindling.

Then, when track mogul Bruton Smith bought the notorious hell-hole oval in the Smoky Mountains nicknamed Thunder Valley, he knew of just the man to make Bristol a showplace, to build the grandest stands in NASCAR and fill every seat.

He hired JayByrd to run the place in 1996.

In 1998, Bristol was the venue Jeff Gordon went for a modern-era record five straight wins on the Cup tour. Bristol then had "only" 100,000-plus seats.

Just how strong was the ticket demand?

"If we'd had 300,000 seats to offer, we would have sold every one of them," JayByrd said at the time.

You knew it was a fact. JayByrd always told the truth. If he couldn't tell the truth, he didn't want the job. Any job.

That was why he did every job so well, with such a clear conscience that the cheer and enthusiasm were as natural to him as breathing.

He remained boyish, even as his hair turned gray. Seeing JayByrd age physically was, in many ways, more bewildering to me than looking at myself in the mirror.

He and Bristol recovered from the repaving and widening as drivers adapted. Now they could race side by side, so the show changed from the constant slamming of the old one-groove track, but it remains a show.

Last August, he had to miss his beloved night race, miss his heartfelt individual responsibility to every single fan in those 160,000 seats, so you knew something was wrong -- bad, bad, bad wrong.

Sunday will be the first Cup race run at Bristol since his death.

Even this race's longtime title sponsor, the Food City supermarket chain, realized -- indeed insisted -- it should be run as the Jeff Byrd 500.

It is the profoundest race name of the season.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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