Charlotte’s William Byron has successfully navigated through what has so far been a spectacular rookie season in the NASCAR Truck Series. He has five victories – most ever by a first-year driver on the circuit – and is the top seed as the Truck’s Chase begins Saturday in the UNOH 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
But there is another part of Byron’s life in which he also has first-year status. He’s a freshman this fall at Liberty University. And that brings about its own set of challenges.
“The first couple weeks were important, just learning how things work on campus, figuring out who your friends are, how to get to class, which rooms to go to,” Byron said. “Once you figure that out, you’re more relaxed.”
Juggling college and a burgeoning NASCAR career is something Byron, 18, seems uniquely suited to do. Working with his father, Bill, Byron has already shown an instinctual grasp for the competitive and business sides of motorsports.
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That has helped him embark on a quick, dazzling rise through the sport, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing. In August, Byron signed a multi-year contract to drive in the Xfinity Series in 2017 for Hendrick Motorsports, one of NASCAR’s top teams.
“I think he’s an amazing talent with a great head on his shoulders,” said Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson, a six-time Cup champion who was also Byron’s boyhood idol. “I’m very excited that he’s under the Hendrick umbrella now.”
And it all started in front of a computer screen in Byron’s SouthPark-area home.
That’s where Byron first sat behind a steering wheel – albeit a virtual one – in iRacing, a highly competitive and realistic simulator where drivers compete with each other online. Starting when he was 13, Byron won 104 races in two seasons, getting a feel for the NASCAR tracks on which he would some day race.
Byron had been a NASCAR fan since he was a toddler.
“He knew who all the drivers were and their statistics,” said Bill Byron. “I didn’t know where that was coming from.”
Byron also knew Johnson lived in his Foxcroft neighborhood. One Halloween, Byron and a group of friends went trick-or-treating at Johnson’s house. Johnson happened to be there, invited the kids in and autographed the pillow case in which Byron was carrying his candy.
When Byron was 7, he convinced his dad to take him to his first NASCAR race. Wearing a Jimmie Johnson No. 48 hat, Byron was transfixed by what he saw at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway that day.
Being on campus and having people not notice you is about the best reality check you can have.
William and Bill began traveling to at least one race each year, going to Atlanta, Darlington, S.C., and Bristol, Tenn., in addition to regularly attending events at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“He would watch those races like I would a football game,” said Bill. “As long as I can remember, he understood strategy. He was always the one to explain something to me – why they took two tires, track position. He would study it.”
‘I’ve got to do it now’
One day four years ago, Bill was driving with William down Interstate 77 in Charlotte.
“Dad, if I’m ever going to get into this racing and become a pro driver, I’ve got to do it now,” Bill recalled William saying. “I’m 14 years old and these kids are passing me by. They’re racing go karts and different things and I’m not doing any of that.”
Bill told William he wouldn’t know where to begin. So he asked his son to do some research and get back to him. That research came back in the form of a five-page report written by William, who had discovered the U.S. Legends Cars developmental series, based in nearby Harrisburg. It sounded like a good place to start.
“That was on a Tuesday,” Bill said. “On Friday, we drove up there and William took a look around the shop and said, ‘This is exactly what I need to be doing.’”
There happened to be a dirt-track race that night at Concord. Bill and William went to watch.
“Dad,” William said, “I can compete with these guys.”
The first time Byron practiced in a Legends car, he couldn’t get it out of gear. But after a few months and with the help of a part-time crew chief, he was ready to race. In November, he entered a race at Rockingham Speedway. He qualified on the outside of the front row and finished fourth.
“I thought, this is good, this is something he likes and is passionate about,” said Bill. “This is something he can do on the weekends and have fun with.
“The next week he came to me and said, ‘Dad, we have to make a crew-chief change.’”
That was the instant Bill Byron knew his son was serious about racing in a manner far more advanced than his 14 years. Bill wasn’t sure firing a crew chief after one race was such a good idea. The next morning, William delivered another five-page letter detailing why the change was needed.
So they hired a new crew chief, Dennis Lambert, who helped Byron more closely grasp the fundamentals of racing.
Byron will go for his second consecutive championship starting Sunday when the Truck Series’ Chase begins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“It was amazing how he picked it up so quick and he’d never raced,” said Lambert. “He always wanted to get better. I’d tell him things and he’d want to learn more. We still text back and forth. And now I’ll see him on TV and he’s done what you’ve talked about with him. And you say, ‘He gets it.’”
Byron would go on to win 33 races and take the 2013 Legends national championship. Then things really began to happen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports noticed and signed Byron in 2014, when he was the N.C. rookie of the year in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series.
He moved up another step in 2015, rolling through the K&N season as a rookie, winning four races and the series title.
This time, another NASCAR superstar noticed Byron, who signed with Kyle Busch Racing’s Truck team.
It’s been a memorable, record-setting year. Despite having a rough time last week at Chicagoland Speedway (where he wrecked twice and finished 30th), he enters the Chase with a solid chance to win another championship.
Adjusting to college life
Byron commutes to each race from Liberty’s campus in Lynchburg, Va.
Four months after graduating from Charlotte Country Day, Byron lives in a dorm and, like other freshmen, parks his pickup truck in an off-campus lot. His roommate is from Colorado, so they were able to share some good-natured barbs when the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos opened the NFL season against each other two weeks ago.
Byron also did laundry for himself for the first time that night. He got so caught up in the game that he forgot to remove the clothes from the drier before they became wrinkled.
He is taking four classes – U.S. history, Biblical Worldview, a new-student seminar and psychology. His schedule is set up so that he is free to leave campus by Thursday night to travel to that weekend’s race.
Being at college has also give Byron a unique perspective on the career path he’s chosen. He said most of his fellow students don’t know about his racing career, but when they find out about, they ask questions.
“Being on campus and having people not notice you is about the best reality check you can have,” Byron said. “I think there are a lot of people who start racing at a young age, have success early and don’t go to (college). So they don’t ever face people who don’t know who they are. It doesn’t set in that there’s another world out there.
5 Victories by Byron this season, a Truck Series rookie record.
“Here, if there’s a football game, a football player is going to be way more popular than I am. So if some people know who I am, they might think it’s cool, but it doesn’t make me any different from anybody else.”
Still, with Byron’s schedule with the Chase gearing up (he will have seven races over the next 10 weeks) and his step up to the more time-consuming Xfinity Series next season, a decision will have to made on whether he will continue to attend Liberty full time.
“We’re just thinking one semester at a time,” Byron said. “Liberty has been great working with me on my schedule. But I’ve got to make sure things are balanced, that I can get my studying and the race in each week.
“As long as we can manage it, we’ll see how it goes this semester. Then we’ll see about next year.”
Byron has also benefited from a sponsorship with Liberty, which has backed him since his start in late model sportsman racing in 2014. Bill thought William’s i-Racing background would be a good fit with Liberty’s new Online Academy for children and teens.
William and Bill traveled to Lynchburg to make their pitch. Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. agreed.
“William, like so many of Liberty’s students, applied the skills he developed and refined through virtual education technologies to achieve practical success,” Falwell told the Liberty Journal.
Bill Byron said the Liberty sponsorship wasn’t a factor in Hendrick’s decision to sign William.
“(Hendrick) said they were fully sponsored and would pay for (the ride),” Bill Byron said. “We haven’t gotten to next year with Liberty, but I’m sure they will want to continue.”
Listening to his instincts
Next season, Byron will be a rookie again, this time in the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s equivalent of Class AAA baseball.
He understands that coming from his success this season and with his new Hendrick ride, the expectations will also be high.
“People take me seriously now,” he said. “There are actually people who come up to me and ask me for advice, ‘Hey, what is it that you’re doing here?’
“So it’s a little bit of a challenge. There will be more expectations. But people aren’t treating me as a true rookie now. They’re respecting me as they’re getting to know me.”
Byron is working with veteran driver Max Papis, who serves as his “performance adviser.”
“William has so much intelligence,” said Papis, who also works with drivers Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon. “But that intelligence doesn’t really help you be a fast race-car driver, as I see William being. You have to do certain things and push certain limits that are not really human. William has this ability to use the intelligent approach, but also listen to his instincts.
“And those instincts are what make him special.”
William Byron’s season
Truck Chase Grid
1. William Byron (5 victories, 2,015 points)
2. Matt Crafton (2, 2,006)
3. John Hunter Nemechek (2, 2,006)
4. Christopher Bell (1, 2003)
5. Johnny Sauter (1, 2,003)
6. Ben Kennedy (1, 2,003)
7. Daniel Hemric (0, 2,000)
8. Timothy Peters (0, 2,000)