There are a few people in this world whose foresight rises above all obstacles, they just know there is a greater good with some things when other people cannot see that good. Jeff Byrd was always one of those people. I have wanted to write this memorial to Jeff since we lost him. I didn’t do it sooner because I wanted to see if anyone else would but I have not seen one. In my personal opinion, Jeff did more for drag racing than any other single person in the history of our sport for many years and I know there are others who feel the same way. His efforts were far reaching…as one person, he probably touched more people in drag racing than anyone else ever has.
Jeff got his start in our sport when he became THE WINSTON DRAG RACING MAN! Jeff worked for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem and was instrumental in Winston Sports Marketing…he truly became a legend. He probably educated more people about the ins and outs of the business end of drag racing than anyone…he somehow had this inane knowledge of how things ‘should’ be. Even though he never ran a track until he became president of Bristol Motor Speedway in 1998, he KNEW how a track should be run. I don’t mean he knew how to run a race or he knew how to tech in a car, he knew how people should be treated.
Of Jeff, Bill Bader said, “Jeff was one of the smartest men I knew. He taught me the phrase ‘creature comfort features.’ He knew about ‘marketing’ and marketing above all else can make or break any businesses but most especially drag racing. People interested and involved in drag racing were spread all over this country and even other parts of the world and he knew marketing and advertising were the only true ways for a track and our sport to succeed.
Second was the way he treated people. I never saw nor have I ever heard of Jeff treating a Pro racer differently than a little guy racer, whether it be sportsman racers or bracket racers. I never saw nor heard of Jeff treating any national event track owner or operator any differently than any small weekly track owner and operator he dealt with.
“He even put the powers that be at NHRA and IHRA or any other association on a level playing field. He did not discriminate between bosses and employees, no matter whether he dealt with the tech guy or the guy who cleaned the trash at the end of the weekend. To him, everyone was equal. That is a quality you seldom ever find in this world. Jeff’s ‘creature comfort features’ included everyone. As for teaching track operators the importance of marketing, advertising and how to treat people, Bill said, “When we signed Norwalk Raceway Park with IHRA in 1981 and Winston was the series sponsor, I didn’t think ‘World’ Nationals was a good title for our first ever national event. We were an ‘unknown’ in drag racing at that time.”
IHRA owner, Larry Carrier said, “We’ll call it the Winston World Nationals” and Bill agreed with that title because he felt that was a good title since it changed the whole perspective. The fact Jeff was such a good guy and being a softie didn’t mean he couldn’t tell where he thought they were going wrong…with not only your operations, but also the way you projected yourself to the public, your employees, your racers or the business people with whom you dealt. Bill said Jeff sent them 100 gallon of paint…50 red, 50 white! Bill got busy painting barrels. Jeff called and when the person who answered the phone said, “He’s out painting barrels,” it did not set well with Jeff.
Bill called him back and Jeff said, “What are you doing?” Bill said, “I was painting barrels.” In a very condescending tone of voice, Jeff said, “Really? Do you think we give you money, presents, sponsor signage money and paint so YOU can paint barrels? If that reflects your management style, then maybe we should be working with someone else! You should be worried about selling tickets and working at putting butts in the seats? You should be worried about ‘creature comfort features!” Bill said it made him mad that Jeff had talked to him that way and he told his secretary, “Don’t EVER tell anyone I’m out painting barrels again!”
Bill continued, “But Jeff’s words haunted me. I found every time I turned my back on the office it cost me money! I am a ‘hands-on’ guy, I LIKE painting barrels, I like putting up fence, I like erecting grandstands…any kind of physical work. Jeff focused me in the right direction. He taught me marketing and how to prioritize what I did with my time, the difference between marketing related versus operations related. He taught me that phrase, ‘creature comfort features’ and to focus on your sponsors…the guy who pays to sell his wares to the market created by the racers and fans; your customers…the racers who pays to race and your fan…who pays to watch the racer.”
“He included the ‘suitcase’ promoter in with the customers…the promoter who travels from coast to coast putting on events such as Super Chevy, Fun Ford and all the others. Jeff, his wife Claudia and I became closer friends,” explained Bill. “I could call the ‘Byrd Man’ on the phone and ask him a question about anything.” But Jeff was that way with ALL track owner/operators…media people, too. I know…for I sure did call him quite often! He helped me more than any other single person I ever met in drag racing.
When I started publishing Quick Times Racing News, the only experiences I had ever had doing anything like that was watching the girls at my local newspaper put together ads plus…I loved to write and I loved drag racing. Jeff taught me more about advertising, marketing, publishing and how to relate to people other than the racer (which was always my priority). But I had to deal with all those other people and he taught me how.
He was always forthcoming with his advice and he answered every question I ever asked. Had it not been for the wisdom he imparted to me, I don’t think I would have made it when I went out on my own! He not only shared his knowledge with me…as I have said before, there were times he literally lifted me out of the depths of despair. He refused to allow me to have the doubts which could have made me quit.
He was my greatest champion because he knew my publication was important to the people who really keep drag racing alive and well…the little guy racers. The first thing he did was have RJR buy the back page of my paper and the check always came at the beginning of each year. Had it not been for that, I would NOT have made it through those long winters with very little other revenue!
Jeff was out of drag racing for many years after the government mandate to take cigarette advertising out of sports. But drag racing was always his favorite…he loved drag racing. His love of drag racing was the only thing which stood between Bristol Dragway and the heavy ‘destruction’ equipment…he single handedly saved that track. He saved it at what ‘could have been’ a great cost to him but he loved our sport so much, he was willing to take that chance. He believed in this sport and its people…ALL its people! True…he was the President of Bristol Motor Speedway and both tracks were his work, but he worked so hard to save the drag strip, you wouldn’t believe it even if you knew the whole story.
The first time I went to see Jeff after he took over operations in ‘Thunder Valley,’ he was in a trailer on the left side of the drive going into the facility. This was a little trailer which had been used for many purposes over the years…‘will call’ office, tech info headquarters…many of you have had to go in that little trailer to get your tech cards, etc. At the time Jeff took the job, it was the ticket sales office…with several people doing nothing but selling race tickets by phone…mostly for the speedway. I kind of crinkled up my nose and thought, “Jeff’s office is in HERE?” I asked for him and he heard my voice.
He didn’t wait for someone to tell him I was there, he came right out and got me! He seemed SO happy to see me! He took me back to his little bitty office in the back of that trailer and you know what was hanging on the wall? Not a photo of Dale Earnhart, not Adam or Richard Petty or Mark Martin or any NASCAR racer! There was a wall size poster of John Force doing a burn out! In all the years he had been gone from drag racing, he had not lost his love for it! Force was just getting started in the Pro ranks when Jeff became the Winston Drag Racing Man. They hit it off right away and remained great friends through all those years.
When John learned I was writing this memorial, he didn’t mind getting on the phone with me while he was in the staging lanes at Norwalk Raceway getting ready to make a qualifying run! He talked to me until he had to get in the car to make his run! He did this because he had such high regard for Jeff! “You know I raced with Jeff from his Winston Drag Racing days and he always treated us like family. He was a great guy and he did a great job because he spent money at times when there no money to promote the races to make sure the crowd came in. He always treated you fair,” said John.
“There were a few times I got mad over stuff. I would run to the tower and cry to him and he would take me outside. He would laugh and I would say, ‘How can you laugh when I’m in this crisis?’ Jeff would say to me, ‘Because Force, you are in crisis ALL the time! The reason I put up with you is because I know how much you love the sport and how much you want to be good at this!’ I was terrible in the early days when I met him and he would just laugh and say, ‘You’ll get there someday, you’ll win someday!’”
I said, “He would calm you down, wouldn’t he?” He replied, “That’s the truth! I would say, ‘Why are you laughing?’ And he would say, ‘You’re not really mad, you just want to come off like you’re mad and you’re a tiger.’ You are always fair, you look at both sides of a situation.’ And he would always calm me down. And I won the biggest race of all right there with him at Bristol…a quarter million dollars! I beat the dragsters…it was like he was just amazed.” Jeff said, “You just pull things out of a bag no one else can.” “I won all the Invitationals! In fact, I almost won New England but my daughter beat me in the final. At least a Force won it!” and he laughed.
When Jeff became the general manager of the Bristol racing complex, there were NO plans for a drag strip there! Thunder Valley was going under the ‘dozers! Jeff is the ONLY reason we still have a Bristol Dragway. He saved it because he loved it and our sport. When he got to Bristol, Bill Bader, one of the owners of IHRA, went down there and talked to Jeff. Jeff was the person who advised Bill to go NHRA!!! An IHRA owner with an NHRA track! What a combination!
“One of the reasons I respected him,’ says Bill, “was because he would tell you what was right for YOU! He knew if he didn’t tell you the truth, he would lose a friend. He ALWAYS told me what was right for me and to how to fit that very properly into the relationship with him, with IHRA, NHRA or whatever! Jeff was very loyal. He was no nonsense, he was definitive in his thoughts and immediate in his responses. He worried less about peoples’ feelings and just told them the truth and he understood they would understand that.”
I don’t like to say ‘No’ to someone, I don’t like to hurt peoples’ feelings, but IHRA taught me I had to be more direct,” Bill continued. “Jeff taught me and others, how to handle really BAD situations and I have had a few. Jeff NEVER turned me down on any question I ever asked him and I don’t guess he did anyone else, either. He was the only NHRA track operator who called me and welcomed me into NHRA and congratulated me. Some others may have talked to Billy but Jeff is the only person who ever talked to me about joining NHRA!”
Jeff invited Bill to come to Bristol so he could show Bill some of the things they made mistakes with in re-building Bristol so Bill could avoid making the same mistakes. He said, “Get yourself on a plane and get down here!” Bill took Bill, Jr. and their contractor and flew to Bristol. Jeff not only had Bill talk to Bristol staff members, he gave Bill their drawings and the blueprints for skyboxes, showed him and explained to him why “you will NOT be happy with pre-fab sky boxes.” He showed Bill the pre-fab boxes, then the built-in-place buildings and how much nicer they were.
He laid the drawings out, said “Do this,” and “Don’t do this.” He had Bill talk to his management team on their philosophies of how they took care of their customers, their fans and any other guests, including sponsors. Bill loved Jeff’s idea about hiring a manager whose salary was tied to the profits…even to put him on a percentage basis. Bill added even more to that when he got back to Norwalk and they now have the Bader Family Guarantee. He told me, “If you are unhappy at Norwalk Raceway for ANY reason, we give you your money back, no questions asked!”
Jeff did it one better…he had his employees carry their personal check books with them at all times and if someone complained, if they were unhappy and wanted their money back, the employee would write you a check on the spot and he would reimburse the employee later! Bill remarked, “That does two things...it gives a person confidence and a comfort level knowing their problems are going to be resolved and taken care of immediately. No one had to worry about jumping through hoops, filling out forms, sending in a written complaint and all that crap to get satisfaction!”
“Second, it demonstrated a commitment on the behalf of the employee so the person who was receiving the refund would say, “Wow, this person is going to pay me out of their money and they have the ability to make those decisions. When I heard that, I said, “You S.O.B., you outdid me!” I had NEVER thought of doing that…it never occurred to me. HE told ALL employees to resolve problems on the spot!” Bader has had his Bader Family Guarantee since 1985 but Jeff carried it even farther.
Red Whitmore, who worked under Jeff at Bristol said basically the same things about Jeff as everyone else has except he did say Jeff was a great politician, “It takes a great politician to be able to make everyone happy, but Jeff was more than that. In all his dealings, no matter who it was, he was honest, caring and understanding. Ralph Seagraves…the original Director of Sports Marketing as well as T. Wayne Robertson who held that position for many, many years, both looked up to Jeff and felt very lucky to have him working on the Winston team.”
“He would help racers…even to the point of helping push their cars! He would even came out and helped cook for the employees at Bristol’s big races! I know Jeff loved doing things like that…in that respect, he and Bill Bader are a lot alike! Everything with Jeff was one on one.” Tod Mack told Red, “You are SO lucky to have Jeff here!” Jeff cared about every person who came through those gates no matter who they were. Jeff understood it was important for a track to cater to the grass roots racer in order to survive.
I wrote in an editorial one time if a person really wanted to be successful in the sport of drag racing, they had to listen to 100% of everything everyone wanted to tell them. Then they could take 98% of what they heard and trash it. The 2% left is what is really important. But you have to listen the 98% because those people are always complaining and telling you how to run your business. The 2% are the ones who seldom speak but when they do, they have something important to say. Jeff KNEW that to be true, he practiced it every day and it made him one of the greatest successes of any single person in drag racing.
Bruton Smith started Speedway Children’ ‘Charities in 1982 and every track he owns has to have events each year specifically to raise money for the children’s charities. Every track is allowed to run their Children’ ‘Charities and events the way they see fit. Jeff’s wife Claudia told me, “Jeff was SO passionate about the Childrens’ Charities…he loved giving back to the community and especially to children. We do all our own fund raising and every penny goes to Childrens’ Charities.” Claudia is still running the Bristol Motor Speedway and Bristol Dragway Childrens’ Charities…it is her passion as well.
Even though all Bruton’s tracks are involved in Childrens’ Charities, Jeff is the person who came up with the Christmas light show at Bristol which has been such a huge hit. Now they all put on a Christmas light show each year. Bristol Motor Speedways’ Childrens’ Charities support non-profit childrens’ organizations within the community around the speedway in 16 counties in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. For information on the 2014 Speedway Children’ Charities events and schedule; go to www.speedwaycharities.org.
As far as this writer is concerned, Jeff Byrd’s legacy in drag racing will never be surpassed. He loved racing and drag racing in particular. He LOVE being the president of Bristol, he always loved interacting with people…ALL people. He was full of great ideas and loved sharing them with anyone who would listen and especially those who put his ideas into practice. And he loved listening to YOUR ideas, he always knew he could learn something, too. Jeff is gone from us too soon, but we can keep his legacy alive by practicing what HE taught us and by supporting Bristol Dragway AND Speedway Childrens’ Charities in any way we can. We can keep Jeff’s memory alive and honor him by following his lead and being the kind of person he taught us to be.