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By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
The Jonathan Byrd family racing legacy began 33 years ago at the Indianapolis Speedrome; it is being renewed after a 10-year absence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Patriarch Jonathan Byrd, who died after having a stroke in 2009, owned several Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Johnson County and sponsored a figure-8 late model car driven by Greenwood’s Jim Begley.
The Speedrome was owned and promoted by Greenwood businessman John Stiles, who scheduled figure-8 and USAC Midget Car doubleheaders where Byrd noticed the daring and intimidating driving style of Rich Vogler.
In 1985, Byrd sponsored Vogler with the KFC label in their first Indy 500, the rest became the Vogler-Byrd-Indy legacy. Vogler was killed in a racing accident at Salem Speedway in 1990, but Byrd continued to partner with team owners at the Speedway.
Among subsequent drivers were Arie Luyendyk, whose one-and four-lap qualifying records have stood since 1996, Stan Fox, Gordon Johncock and John Andretti, who Byrd backed in doing the first Double (Indy 500 and NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in same day) in 1994.
Byrd enjoyed his best finish in his last year at the 500 when Buddy Lazier was fifth. Byrd died two years later, after fielding cars in 15 Indy 500s.
Widow Ginny and sons Jonathan II and David are reviving Jonathan Byrd’s legacy with driver Bryan Clauson in the 99th running of the 500 in the No. 88 Jonathan Byrd’s Racing/Cancer Treatment Centers of America Dallara/Chevrolet.
In a dramatic and controversial day of time trials Sunday, four-time USAC champion Clauson qualified a Byrd car for the 500 for the first time since 2005. His speed of 221.358 mph is the slowest in the field of 33.
“Rich Vogler, Jonathan Byrd and Indy became synonymous years ago,” David Byrd said. “Hopefully, we can accomplish that with Clauson-Byrd-Indy.”
The Byrd family acknowledged the appeal of grassroots drivers Vogler and Clauson, who will attempt the “Indiana Double” by racing in the 500 and USAC’s Kokomo Classic on the same day.
“There was just something special about bringing in short-track champions, USAC champions especially,” David Byrd said. “It resonated so well with the fans, and that became our benchmark. Even when we went away from short-track guys and their roots, they had stories that resonated, too.”
The family’s emotions run deep in returning to the IMS.
Ginny and Jonathan dated in high school and went together to the 1973 race.
“It is a bittersweet moment because Jonathan would have been so proud of the boys with the way they are running everything, but he is not here to enjoy it,” Ginny said. “Once Jonathan was a part of the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, he never wanted to look back. He wanted always to be a part of it.
“Our first experience was with Pat Patrick with a late deal with our driver (Vogler). Rich was so excited to be at Indy; he was like a kid with a new toy. He was pumped, and he qualified for the race with a bonsai run on the final day.”
It took Jonathan Byrd II several years to realize what the 500 meant to his dad, whose grassroots attracted the attention of longtime Indy fans.
“I didn’t fully comprehend the magic of what Indianapolis meant, but it is the Centurion Prize,” he said. “And being a small team, it’s having a special car and a special driver and knowing that anything can happen.”
Byrd’s death also transformed Ginny, Johnathan II and David into astute business leaders, but it didn’t happen overnight. They were involved with their dad in Jonathan Byrd’s Cafeteria and Banquet Center in Greenwood and hotel properties in Arizona.
Ginny’s sons originally told her that they wanted to return to Indy for the 100th 500 in 2016, but they already had a plan for this year’s race.
“There was never a chance that it was going to wait that long,” David Byrd said. “It was beginning to make sense for us with the initial funding and the sustainability for this year. Had we waited we would not have the partnerships in place that we have now.”
As a principle of Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, Ginny is one of two female car owners at the Speedway along with Franklin Township resident Sarah Fisher.
The Byrd family would like nothing better than to see its driver and car wheel into victory lane to enhance the legacy of the late Jonathan Byrd.
“We know we have a 500 win in our future,” Jonathan Byrd II said.