Nine months ago the biggest fear Jonathan ’97 and David ’98 Byrd had was that their father, Jonathan Byrd, might suffer complications after heart surgery. Two days after he returned home from successful surgery, the elder Byrd suffered a massive and debilitating stroke.
The incident inspired the two brothers to combine their resources and talents to put together an Indy 500 racing team to honor their father, who is paralyzed on his right side and can no longer effectively communicate. (Click on the Carb Day Photo Album below.)
When the driver of the Byrd Brothers/Panther Racing team's number 95 car, former 500 champ Buddy Lazier, signed on for the race, everything seemed like a dream come true. Parking the car solidly in the Indy 500 field on the outside of row three, Lazier was happy to salute Jonathan Byrd's Cafeteria for 18 years of involvement at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The happy dream turned to a bad nightmare on Carb Day when Lazier "felt something lay over" before the car crashed into the turn four wall at the Speedway. Lazier was not injured in the wreck, which occurred even before the veteran driver had gotten the car to full speed.
"The engineers are estimating it will take something between 700 to 1,000 man hours to repair the car before Sunday's race," said a visually emotional Jonathan Byrd II. "We've had such a long and trying year, and I suppose this is just another of God's tests for us."
Lazier's #95 Jiffy Lube/Jonathan Byrd's Cafeteria/ESPN 950/Chevrolet combination had been fast the entire month of May. Now the Panther Racing team will have to draw on all of its resources to have the car repaired by the start of the 500 on Sunday. Lazier will not have the opportunity to drive the rebuilt car prior to the pace laps before the "greatest spectacle in racing."
"The two worst things we ever imagined could happen to our family have now happened," added Jonathan. "We feared that something bad could happen to Dad following his heart surgery and it did. And our only fear this month was that we would crash on Carb Day."
The engineers were quick at work to repair the front and rear right side of the car. Both the front and rear suspension systems were damaged, and there was extensive damage to the exterior cowling on the right side of the car.
The mood was bright at the start of Carb Day. The Byrd Brothers, who say their role is "mostly PR and keeping the sponsors happy," were doing exactly that — shaking hands with fans and sponsors, doing radio interviews, and posing for photographs. David Byrd even spent a moment affixing a temporary Wabash College decal to the side of the car for the morning's pre-practice photo sessions.
The crew took the car to the pits, and at 11:01 a.m., fired the engine of the car. Lazier took it for one warm-up lap, then brought the car in for a minor adjustment. He had just returned to the track when "something broke," causing the car to crash into the turn four wall. Even before the car had been hooked by the Indy Safety Patrol, mechanics and engineers were packing up tools and scurrying for the garage area in anticipation of 48 hours of non-stop repair work.
While disappointed and very emotional, the Byrd Brothers know that what they are attempting to do on Sunday is to both honor their father and raise awareness of the dangers of heart disease and strokes. They remain keenly focused on their father, knowing that the car they co-own and sponsor will be rebuilt. Stroke victims are never the same.
"For all of us who have overcome so much just to be here, this is just another obstacle," said David.
"And remember, Wabash Always Fights!"