Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 22, 2010

Speedway Exec Jeff Byrd: A Fond Remembrance

Jeff Byrd was a popular fixture in NASCAR for three decades (Johnson City Press)

Jeff, Byrd, the loquacious, successful and extremely well-liked president of Bristol Motor Speedway, passed away Sunday after a long battle with a rare form of brain cancer. He was 60.

Although our paths had not crossed in many years, I always counted Jeff as a friend, from my early days in NASCAR as The Associated Press Motorsports Editor in the 1970s. And, once a friend of Jeff’s, you were always counted by him as a friend.

Though I’ve read many fine, stirring tributes and remembrances of Jeff, I feel compelled to add a story of my own about him. It’s sort of in the now-it-can-be-told category, although I doubt if it would have embarrassed any of the characters involved, if it had been recounted in their respective lifetimes.

Jeff had a reputation as a happy-go-lucky guy – to say the least – especially in his early years as a public relations representative with R. J. Reynolds’ Winston cigarette brand, which was NASCAR’s principal sponsor in those days. He was part of a legendary department of cut-ups that included ring-leader Ralph Seagraves, T. Wayne Robertson and Wes Beroth. (Oh, what they used to do to each other with their recurring “birthday party” gags, for people who weren’t actually having birthdays anytime soon.)

But, I digress. The incident in question happened one night in Daytona Beach, Florida, in the run-up to one of the NASCAR events there – I think it might have been 1977, right after a section of roadway in town was renamed “Bill France Boulevard” in honor of the NASCAR founder.

Jeff was out rather late one evening, driving around with a group of friends that may or may not have included speedway PR man Ron Mead and NASCAR employee Bob Janelle. My memory is a bit cloudy; but I know there were witnesses. Anyway, Jeff was driving a speedway pace car, that was pretty prominently decorated with an assortment of sponsor logos. At a traffic light on Bill France Blvd., Jeff suddenly jumped out of the car, and conducted an impromptu “Chinese fire drill”. His passengers were stunned, and unprepared for it.

Much hilarity ensued, and it was a couple of minutes before everyone managed to get back in the car, and speed off. The traffic light sequenced through a couple of times, with the intersection blocked, and traffic backed up behind them. But nary a horn was honked; the police never seemed to have been alerted; no one seemed the wiser.

The next morning, however, Jeff got a summons from the office of Bill France Sr.

Big Bill was stern-faced. “Jeff,” he began, “it has come to my attention that you were involved in a bit of an incident out on the highway last night.”

“Sir?” Jeff said.

“Next time, son, just don’t do things like that in one of our pace cars, and especially not on Bill France Blvd.”

“But how did you know, sir?” Jeff asked.

“J-Byrd,” Big Bill said, using Jeff’s popular nickname, “At the light? I was in the car behind you.”

Jerry Garrett

October 22, 2010

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