Jerry Caldwell welcomes the unenviable task of following a legend, albeit the legend from whom he learned most everything he knows about auto racing -- how to appreciate it and, certainly, how to promote it.
Caldwell is charged with making his mentor proud, by way of upholding the lofty standards he inherited in a sport that demands excellence of its leaders. Caldwell, a member of the Bristol Motor Speedway staff since 1997, was named the track's general manager late last year, following the death of former GM Jeff Byrd, to cancer. During Byrd's tenure -- he had held the position since 1996 -- Bristol became the sport's most coveted ticket.
"I'm humbled by it, blessed by it, honored by it," said Caldwell, 35. "I'm not Jeff, can't be him. I learned from him, but I need to put my own approach on things. He taught me to treat people the way you want to be treated. I think if you do that, you can't go wrong.
"If you can focus on those things in life, I think you'll end up being successful."
That's the cornerstone of Byrd's legacy at Bristol -- always side with the fan. It was his mission to produce a culture focused on assisting the paying customer.
"If at all possible, don't tell them no," Caldwell said.
More often than not, Caldwell and Byrd had the same goals, but typically chose different routes to arrive there. As a result, he said, day-to-day operations at Bristol haven't changed much. Byrd assembled a like-minded staff at BMS, one that shared his philosophy.
"It's really learning from the best in the business, learning from Jeff Byrd," Caldwell said. "There's no one else you'd rather learn from. There are other great ones, but Jeff Byrd is one of the best. A lot of times, in making a decision, I'm thinking, 'What would Jeff do?'
"He'd tell you over and over, 'We're Bristol, we're special, we're the most sought-after ticket in NASCAR, the best show on the circuit. We promise fans the most in the sport, and we must deliver on that. We work for the race fans.' Growing up here, that's what's drilled into your head."
Caldwell is excited as his first race weekend as GM approaches. It is the 50th anniversary of racing in Thunder Valley, and the folks in East Tennessee couldn't ask for a better scenario.
Trevor Bayne, the fresh-faced, gregarious, just-happy-to-be-here kid who won the Daytona 500, also happens to be local. He's a southern boy, grew up 90 minutes west of Bristol, in Knoxville. His victory, of course, returned the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane -- and to relevance.
NASCAR is a sport that celebrates history. It is wonderful to experience moments when historical appreciation collides with present-day significance. Follow up Bayne's victory with his hero, Jeff Gordon, snapping a two-year winless drought, and mix in a Carl Edwards' Vegas triumph, and Bristol is the epicenter of NASCAR's perfect storm.
Overall ticket sales at Bristol are slightly behind 2010 numbers, Caldwell said, mostly renewals. But since Jan. 1, he said, year-over-year sales are up. August sales, he said, are "very, very strong."
"I'm really encouraged," Caldwell said. "I'm excited about what's going on in our sport. I love it. We couldn't ask for a better scenario. What better place to have some of the scenarios we've seen so far play out? We're Bristol. It's a good position to be in."