Around central Indiana, the Byrd family has cast quite a legacy in the hospitality industry and auto racing, ranging from short tracks to the greatest race of them all — the Indianapolis 500.
It all started with Layla Byrd, later Layla Isom, who owned cars that competed in the USAC stock car series during the early 1970s.
“She either gets the blame or the credit for sending us down this path,” quipped 44-year-old David Byrd, who has continued the legacy his grandmother created.
Layla’s son was Jonathan Byrd, who became owner of the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” in Greenwood, Ind., south of Indianapolis. Prior to that, Byrd owned a collection of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, earning him the nickname “The Chicken Man.”
Jonathan Byrd was larger than life, both in personality and in size. His charisma made him many friends and he began sponsoring race cars at the Indianapolis Speedrome.
Enter Rich Vogler, one of the best USAC drivers of all time.
“When we had to start racing midgets at the Speedrome, dad said he was going to have to have the best driver,” recalled Byrd’s 45-year-old son, Jonathan Byrd II. “Funny enough, he didn’t like midgets in the early ’80s, but said he wanted the best. When he watched the races, he couldn’t help but notice what Rich Vogler did at the Speedrome around the outside. That was really his impetus. Realizing Rich’s successes already in USAC, that was even better. Rich in 1980 or ’81 had already passed his rookie test so they aspired of running at Indianapolis.
“Dad wanted to take him to the Indianapolis 500. Rich had heard it before, but dad made it happen.”
Jonathan Byrd brought Kentucky Fried Chicken sponsorship to Pat Patrick’s race team for the 1985 Indianapolis 500. Vogler started 33rd and finished 23rd, crashing after 119 laps.
It was the start of the Byrd family’s legacy at the Indianapolis 500.
Byrd sponsored Vogler for five Indy 500s, with the USAC great’s best finish of eighth coming in 1989.
But it was in USAC that the Byrd/Vogler tandem achieved the most success and notoriety with two USAC mMidget national championships.
“What I remember is winning all the time,” David Byrd said. “It was a foregone conclusion that when we went to the race track at the Speedrome or IRP or Winchester or Terre Haute, that Rich Vogler was going to win. It was expected.
“Obviously, that’s not what happened, but that’s the feeling that I remember having.
“With Vogler, dad wanted to have the best guy and we did. We went to win and if we didn’t win, something wrong must have happened.
“Obviously, as a kid, you have skewed perceptions and you realize as you get older, it’s not quite the way it was. It made it a lot of fun. There was lots of time in the car and lots of late nights and lots of time in the bleachers on race tracks that certainly made it fun and worthwhile.”
With Byrd as Vogler’s benefactor, there appeared to be little this combination couldn’t do.
But auto racing has a cruel side to it.
Days before his 40th birthday, Vogler was killed during the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial sprint car race at Salem (Ind.) Speedway.
“As you can imagine, it was very tough,” son Jonathan recalled. “I was 14 years old when Rich died and he had not even turned 40 yet. You see people like Sammy Swindell, and can you imagine what the record would have been if Rich Vogler had lasted another 25 years.
“He was just moving into NASCAR. The sport at that time, experience was a big deal and the older guys were a big deal. It’s all about experience. That was really tough.
“Rich was still in his prime.”
It wasn’t the only time the Byrd family experienced the worst that auto racing has to offer. Other drivers that Byrd sponsored who suffered fatal injuries from auto racing crashes included Scott Brayton and Bryan Clauson.
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