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Holiday festivities at BMS benefit local chapter of Speedway Children's Charities

November 16th, 2011 10:39 am by Staff Report

Holiday festivities at BMS benefit local chapter of Speedway Children's Charities

Claudia Byrd serves as the volunteer executive director of the Bristol Chapter of Speedway Children's Charities.

In the last 15 years, $6.5 million has been raised by The Bristol Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities and donated to non-profit organizations that provide children’s services in the counties of Carter, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington in Tennessee and Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise in Virginia.


Speedway Children’s Charities was formed in 1982 by Bruton Smith, owner of BMS and seven additional NASCAR speedways. As owner of several NASCAR tracks, Smith had numerous organizations approaching him for donations.


"Bruton had lost a son to SIDS and he wanted to do something to honor his son," explained Claudia Byrd, volunteer executive director of The Bristol Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities. "Bruton decided one group that could not help themselves was children, so all of his fundraising efforts would go to children."


As Smith bought and built new speedways, each speedway was to form their own independent Speedway Children’s Charities.


Claudia became involved with the organization when her husband, Jeff, was hired by Smith as the general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway in 1996. "When we lived in Winston-Salem, all I did was volunteer," she said. "I was blessed to be able to do a lot of volunteer work and especially volunteer work for the benefit of children."


Along with overseeing the management of BMS, it was Jeff Byrd’s responsibility to start a chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities at BMS. Given her passion for volunteering and love of children, Claudia asked permission from Smith to serve as the "volunteer" executive director of the charity.


"I asked permission because I was the general manager’s wife, and it was not the norm for the organization to be run by a volunteer. Bruton allowed me to head up the charity and it was a great way for me to get involved in the community and, at the same time, do what I was passionate about which was raising money for children." Claudia assumed the position in 1997.


Each Speedway Children’s Charity has the option to raise funds anyway they want. Many of the other tracks host black-tie events and auctions.


"When we moved here, there were a lot of other organizations hosting black-tie dinners as fundraisers. Jeff and I really did not want to do that because a black-tie event touches a select few. We wanted our fundraiser to be different…an event that not only raised money for children but, at the same time, would be an event that a lot of people could support," Claudia explained.


The couple brainstormed and came up with Speedway in Lights. As a family living in Winston-Salem, the Byrds made an annual tradition of visiting a similar event, called Tanglewood Festival of Lights.


"Jeff realized he had a facility that stood empty in the wintertime. We asked Bruton if we could possibly do a light show at the track. He agreed and loaned BMS the startup money to purchase the light displays and BMS paid back Bruton over a 10-year period," she said.


That first year, the Byrds and BMS staff spent a lot of time getting the event up and running. "It was one of those things - if you build it, will they come?"


On opening night, the Byrds and BMS staff members anxiously waited to see if anyone would come to Speedway in Lights. Come they did - about 600 cars drove around the speedway to see the light show. Every one breathed a sigh of relief.


"We knew then it was going to be successful," Claudia said.


Non-profits apply for grants each year to the Speedway Children’s Charities. For Claudia, the hardest part is not having enough money each year to meet all requests. For example, $1.1 million has been requested this year, and the most ever raised in a year was $650,000. A board of 20 trustees reads through each request and decides the best use of funds.


"It makes me sad to write those letters," she said. "Jeff always told me to think about all the children that do benefit each year."


Claudia’s husband, Jeff, died last year from cancer. She continues to work as the volunteer executive director of Speedway Children’s Charities and look for additional ways to carry on the Speedway in Lights legacy created by her husband.


Please see today’s edition of "GoTri-Cities" for more information on Speedway in Lights.


For more information on how to donate or volunteer, please visit the website at: http://bristol.speedwaycharities.org/donate/.

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