After starting his career as a sports writer at the Winston-Salem Journal, Byrd spent 23 years in the sports marketing department at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. before being appointed general manager of BMS when Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc., purchased the track from Larry Carrier in 1996. Byrd earned the title of track president in 2002.
Byrd presided over an era of tremendous expansion in Bristol. During his 14-year tenure, the speedway added about 89,000 seats and underwent a bevy of improvements. Meanwhile, Bristol Dragway was virtually rebuilt from the ground up in 1997, an $18 million project that involved the movement of more than a million cubic yards of earth.
“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,” said Speedway Motorsports Chairman and CEO O. Bruton Smith in a statement. “To say his passing leaves a void would be an understatement.”
Smith added seats to the speedway at a rapid pace, but Byrd’s tireless work ensured that they were always filled. The fact that Byrd and his staff managed to extend BMS’s consecutive sellout streak for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races to 55 despite the track’s capacity more than doubling during his tenure is a testament to Byrd’s aptitude as a promoter.
“Simply put, Jeff got it,” Smith said. “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. ”
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.
As news of Byrd’s passing began to circulate Sunday afternoon, his impact upon the racing community became apparent.
“I’m saddened at the loss our good friend Jeff Byrd,” Martinsville Speedway President W. Clay Campbell said in a statement. “I’ve known Jeff well going back to his days with R.J. Reynolds and Winston. He had such a passion for this business back then and was determined to help take our sport to another level.
“That determination carried over to his leadership at Bristol Motor Speedway. He was a guy that was just always a pleasure to be around. He will be missed but not forgotten — my thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Byrd’s influence wasn’t limited to the world of motorsports. He was extremely active in numerous civic organizations, as well as in his church, First Presbyterian in Kingsport, where he was a longtime member.
Byrd was also involved with a number of charitable groups. He and his wife 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.
A native of Winston-Salem, N.C., Byrd received his bachelor’s degree in history and politics from Wake Forest University.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.