The concluding moments of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 qualifying proved a touch too dramatic for the family looking to put a car in the show for the first time in a decade.
The Jonathan Byrd’s Racing entry was currently slowest in the 33-car field. But another entry was trying to qualify.
It was around this time Ginny Byrd, while not looking to the skies, did find herself looking for an answer.
“I thought, ‘What would Jonathan have done in this instance?’” Ginny Byrd said of her late husband, Greenwood-based restaurateur Jonathan Byrd, who passed away in August 2009 at age 57.
“He would have said, ‘Put that car right back in line and get right back out there on that track and try and block Buddy from going back out.’”
This would be Buddy Lazier, formerly a driver for the Byrd family’s racing interests, who took fifth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 after starting the race on the outside of Row 3.
Even so, Ginny said, “That would have been his strategy.”
The business brand synonymous with the food service industry since 1988 is back behind the wheel in the form of 25-year-old Bryan Clauson, whose short-track roots embody the Byrd’s involvement with IndyCar racing.
“It was important to Jonathan. He loved, loved racing. When we were the car owners for Rich Vogler in midget racing, Rich’s heart and desire was to go to the ‘500.’ In 1985 there was a last-minute deal made with the Pat Patrick team,” Ginny said. “Don Whittington shook the car down, and late that Sunday Rich qualified. We were off to the races, quote unquote.”
Jonathan Byrd’s Racing lineage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway starts with Vogler’s six-year run (1985-90) and continued with drivers such as Stan Fox, Gordon Johncock, Scott Brayton, John Andretti, Davy Jones, Arie Luyendyk, John Paul Jr. and Jaques Lazier.
Now, with help from KVHS Racing, Clauson — by qualifying 33rd for the 99th Indianapolis 500 — puts the Byrd surname/brand/family back where it belongs — front and center with the racing world watching.
It had long been the vision of Jonathan and Ginny’s two sons, Jonathan II and David, to eventually return to the famous oval.
“When the boys decided to go back after my husband had a stroke in 2004, they decided in 2005 they wanted to do Indy, so they teamed with Panther Racing as a co-entrant,” Ginny said. “Ever since then their heart’s desire was to go back at some point in time.”
There were distractions. Jonathan Byrd’s death came a year after the stock market crash of 2008 altered the way the family conducted all facets of its business.
“Business changed drastically after the crash. It changed the restaurant business. It changed our hotel business. There wasn’t really an opportunity to do (racing) to where it made sense,” Ginny Byrd said.
“But they never gave up, and I wanted to go back to Indy at some point. I didn’t let them know that because I knew they would hound me to death.”
Ten years after Buddy Lazier’s impressive finish, it finally has become reality.
Yet in the years the Byrds were away the racing landscape has changed tremendously through various technological advancements and the drivers paid to take advantage of them.
Astute enough to be looking big picture, Ginny Byrd and her sons are using this month of May as the opportunity to learn lessons that should benefit Jonathan Byrd’s Racing five, 10, even 15 years from now.
“This is really a year of absorption where we’re kind of listening and learning. We can see in the future taking more of a lead role, but this, even though we’ve been around it for so long, things have changed in 10 years,” Jonathan Byrd II said.
“The cars have changed, but the pressure’s the same. The track changes, the weather conditions change. So many things change year-to-year and decade-to-decade, but that’s what makes Indianapolis so special. It’s so difficult, and that’s what brings people back.”
Which so happens to play to the Byrd’s many business strengths. The return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway allows the family to intertwine hospitality, good food and racing all the while strengthening the family brand.
It’s three-pronged effectiveness, what with 38-year-old David being the visionary and Jonathan II, 39, good-naturedly handling the burden of inheriting his father’s name.
“I am Jonathan Byrd, so people see that, and that’s a good thing. I’ve got big shoes to fill, that’s for sure. If I fill them 10 percent I’ll consider myself a success,” he said.
“What we’re doing with the business and how we’re doing the racing, these are sustainable relationships that are going on to the future.”
Despite Clauson having his work cut out attempting to work his way from the outside of Row 11 to Victory Lane, the Byrds aren’t going to gauge Sunday as a success or failure based on placing.
“You run 500 miles, and that will be a success. If we finish a lap down it’s not going to be a failure by any stretch of the imagination. This is just the start of a long, long journey,” Jonathan said.
All three Byrds were wishing the family patriarch could have been present during the suspense of Clauson’s not one but two qualifying efforts.
In time they realized he was.
“The joke on Sunday was that we could really use dad’s help right now to help us get through this, and my brother says, ‘Use his help? Heck, he’s in the middle of this right now. It’s why we’re in this position,’ “ Jonathan Byrd II said, laughing.
Don’t be surprised if Jonathan Byrd, business man, family man and lover of all things Indy 500, laughed right along with them.
Age: Old enough to have two kids in their 30s
Family: Sons, Jonathan II, 39, and David, 38; seven grandchildren
High school: Indianapolis Wood (1970)
College: Baptist Bible College
Major: Christian education
First “500” memory: It was 1972, the year Mark Donohue won it. I thought, “Wow, this is really something.”
JONATHAN BYRD II
Family: Wife, Abi; son, Jeb, 10; daughter, Evelyn, 7
High school: Indianapolis Baptist (1993)
College: Wabash College (1997)
First “500” memory: I kind of remember the 1985 race. I was 9 and we were in the grandstands somewhere.