Bristol Dragway President Byrd, longtime friend to NHRA, dies
Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway President and General Manager Jeff Byrd, a longtime friend to and supporter of the NHRA, passed away Oct. 17 following a lengthy illness. He was 60.
Prior to working at BMS, Byrd served for 23 years in the Sports Marketing Department at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., departing as vice president of business development, and was a key figure during R.J. Reynolds' sponsorship of NHRA's flagship series through its Winston brand from 1975 through 2000.
"The NHRA racing community lost one of its dearest friends and staunchest supporters with the passing of Jeff Byrd," said NHRA President Tom Compton. "From his days with R.J. Reynolds to his tenure at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jeff was a devoted fan of drag racing and was loved by everyone in the community -- from those who worked directly with him at NHRA to the extended racing community. The role he played working with us to bring a state-of-the-art drag racing facility to Bristol and the legacy that followed will always be remembered and appreciated.
"Jeff taught us all a little something about customer service. He was the best at it, and it rubbed off on all who worked for and with him. On behalf of NHRA, we want to pass along our sincere condolences to his wife, Claudia, his son, Christian, and daughter, Belton, his extended family, and to everyone mourning the loss of someone who made such an impact on so many in the motorsports industry."
"We all knew Jeff was fighting the fight, but somehow we thought with hope and prayers that if anyone could beat this illness, he could," said NHRA Board Chairman Dallas Gardner. "Jeff came into our lives at NHRA probably 35 years ago and played a huge role with Winston in promoting the sport and was a great contributor to the growth of drag racing. I could cite many instances in our business and personal relationship where Jeff's foresight and direction were invaluable, but what I will remember most, though, is his friendship."
A 35-year veteran in the sports-marketing profession, Byrd began his career as a sportswriter at the Winston-Salem Journal but became involved in the development and implementation of a multitude of sports and event marketing programs across the sports spectrum.
A native of Winston-Salem, N.C., Byrd received his Bachelor of Arts degree in history and politics from Wake Forest University. Byrd was extremely active in numerous civic organizations and had made a tremendous impact in the Tri-Cities community as well as with his church, First Presbyterian in Kingsport, Tenn., where he was a longtime member. He was involved with a number of charitable groups, and he and his wife, Claudia, organized and spearheaded the Bristol chapter of Speedway Children's Charities, a nonprofit agency dedicated to aiding children in need in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.
Byrd is survived by his wife of 36 years, Claudia; daughter, Belton Caldwell, and her husband, Jerry; son, Christian Byrd, and his wife, Amy; seven grandchildren; and an extended family of more than 70 fellow employees.
Jeff Byrd remembered
"From his days as a sportswriter to his time at R.J. Reynolds to the last 14 years, Jeff Byrd was one of the greatest promoters both stock car and drag racing has known. To say his passing leaves a void would be an understatement.
"Simply put, Jeff got it. He understood that more than what happened on the track, it was the experience that fans took home with them that stayed in their memories. And those fans, and the people he worked with at Bristol Motor Speedway, were truly like family to him. Because of the mind-set that he possessed, Jeff will stay in our hearts and memories forever. "
-- Speedway Motorsports Chairman and CEO O. Bruton Smith
"I suppose you could say that Jeff and I started our careers together. Early in our Funny Car career, I became very close to Jeff and his family, and in fact, Jeff's wife, Claudia, used to fulfill our T-shirt orders when Christian was a toddler and Belton was a baby.
"I watched Jeff rise through the ranks to become one of the most influential people in motorsports. He deserved everything he got later in life working for Bruton in his position as Bristol Motor Speedway president and general manager.
"He was a very special person, a lot of fun, and full of ideas. If I needed a friend, he was there.
"I had a chance to meet privately with him and Claudia when we were in Bristol for the NHRA event. I had no idea that would be the last time I would see him.
"He will be sorely missed, and I will particularly miss his brand of humor. He was the best storyteller I knew, and many times, I'd laugh until tears were rolling down my face. There will never be anyone with the same passion, insight, and perception of our sport. Our hearts go out to Claudia, Christian, and Belton and their families."
-- Kenny Bernstein