SBJ/March 14-20, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Food City CEO: Changing Bristol race name was the right thing

Food City CEO Steve Smith wanted to pay tribute to friend and longtime business partner Jeff Byrd at this spring’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Byrd, longtime president at the Tennessee track, died last fall at age 60, and Smith proposed giving up Food City’s title sponsorship of the race in Byrd’s honor. As a result, this weekend’s race will be known as the Jeff Byrd 500. Smith spoke with staff writer Tripp Mickle about the decision.

Food city
Food City CEO Smith (right) with Darrell Waltrip (left) and Rusty Wallace
How did the leadership at Bristol react to the idea of naming the race in honor of Jeff Byrd?
Jerry [Caldwell, general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway] got a little emotional with that thought. We talked about it and he said, “Jeff wouldn’t like that.” I said, “I know, but what Jeff meant to the sport and the drivers and the community, I’d like it.” That’s what set it in motion. It felt like the right thing to do for us.

What kind of value have you given up to do it?
I know what we pay for the race, and it’s certainly in the big dollars to give up, but when you do the right thing and the right reasons, we’ll get value back. We’ll get value from the loyalty from our customers and our fans. The local media has picked up on it and written about it.

We’ll see it on Fox. Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace were gracious enough to come up and help us with the press conference [announcing the name]. There’s no contract that anybody would do anything [on Fox], but ... if they get the chance to talk about Jeff and what he’s meant, that will be good. And the fact that it is a one-time event [means] it will be a one-of-a-kind trophy.

What’s your hope from all of this?
My hope is first and foremost that we salute a great leader in Jeff Byrd, and equally important we help provide some revenue that flows to the Jeff Byrd Foundation and continues in his area of concern: youth initiatives and education.

Over the years, what has the race affiliation done for your business?
When we started in 1992, we were about a third of the size we are today in retail volume. We’re almost a $2 billion company today. The track has tripled its size and seating, and we’ve tripled our volume. It’s an interesting parallel. We’ve been on parallel courses to grow our business. It’s a big investment to be a race sponsor, but when you have a marquee event in your backyard and you’re a race fan like I am, and most of our customers are you, you have to do it. The race hits that sweet spot for a supermarket company.

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