How William Byron went from a Legend to NASCAR

Jerry Bonkowski
NBC Sports

William Byron needed just one race to know what his life’s aspiration was destined to be. He worried he’d never get a second chance.

“I did a go-kart race when I was 13 years old,” the 22-year-old Byron told NBC Sports. “I remember … waking up the next morning and having that feeling in my stomach if I never get to race again, I’m going to be devastated.”

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Instead, he had to settle for racing on a computer. But he was good, winning 104 iRacing events across two seasons.

By the time he reached 15 years old, Byron faced a dilemma: he was too old to start in go-karts and too young for late models.

One day, after researching various types of racing, William came upon Legend cars as his ticket into competitive racing.

Bill Byron was a bit skeptical about his son’s racing aspirations but placed the onus on his son to convince him. So William, an honor student at Charlotte Country Day School, wrote a five-page paper listing why the little boxy jalopies were the perfect fit for him.

Bill Byron acquiesced and his son quickly showed he was as good – if not better – in a real race car than an iRacing virtual reality car.

“I think that desire and feeling of, ‘Hey, I could do this,’ is what kind of led me to write a paper about (Legends racing) and persuade people just to get me in a car for a couple of times,” Byron said.

Despite his youthful enthusiasm, his first time driving a Legend car didn’t go smoothly.

“I had no idea how to use the clutch or anything,” he said. “I was really struggling and then once I got on the racetrack, I just felt like this comfort and this calmness about being on the track. I’ll never forget that. I knew then that I could be competitive at it.”

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A Legend car is a 5/8-scale replica of cars with body styles from the 1930s and 1940s that weigh between about 1,300 pounds and have motorcycle motors that pump out 130-plus horsepower, depending upon the model and class a driver is in.

Harrisburg, North Carolina-based 600 Racing Inc., produced the first Legend car in 1992. Now known as U.S. Legend Cars and a subsidiary of Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company has built more than 6,000 Legend cars, and shipped them throughout the U.S., as well as 28 other countries, according to the company’s web site.

Legend cars are not only a good training device for racers, they’re also economical. A family can get started in the sport for around $15,000 to $20,000. Legend car races are held at major NASCAR venues such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

William Byron with his crew chief and mentor in Legends racing, Dennis Lambert. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
William Byron with his crew chief and mentor in Legends racing, Dennis Lambert. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Dennis Lambert, who was Byron’s crew chief in Legends racing from late 2012 through mid-2014, said the class continues to flourish because of drivers like Byron and others.

“Parents see the William Byrons on TV that came from Legends and makes them think to put their kid in there and run a couple years and get feedback of them in that style of car, so I think that’s what keeps bringing them back,” Lambert said.

Lambert owns Dennis Lambert Racing, one of the largest coaching and at-track support businesses for Legends cars and drivers in the U.S.

Right from his first meeting with Byron, Lambert was impressed with how prepared and inquisitive the aspiring racer was.

“He and his father met me at my house and William came with a notebook and a pen to take notes to see what was going on in Legends and what they needed to do and what their next step was,” Lambert said. “He showed me right away he was all-in to what his next step was.”

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Lambert took Byron for his first Legends test at Concord (North Carolina) Speedway in October 2012, the same track where Byron would win the Legends Young Lions National Championship less than a year later.

“He was pretty impressive right away,” Lambert said. “It (transferred) over from the iRacing. It doesn’t necessarily happen like that for everybody, but for him he definitely picked it up right away.”

Byron credits his early success in Legends racing to Lambert’s guidance and influence upon his career. The two remain close friends and Lambert attends a number of Byron’s Cup races each season.

“(Lambert) really took me under his wing,” Byron said in an episode of NBC Sports’ Behind The Driver series last year. “He took care of my cars and took me to every race.

“The confidence as a driver is key, so you have to have the confidence to kind of go out there and do what you need to do. He was always out there coaching me.

“It was tough in the beginning. (Lambert) really didn’t want to work with me because I was so fresh and so clean, I had no races under my belt. It took a little time but he kind of developed me as a driver.”

Three weeks after his first test, Byron entered his first Legends race in November 2012 at Rockingham Speedway, starting on the outside pole and finishing fourth.

But there were  still a few bumps ahead. 

“I went to Florida to race seven times and I wrecked like five times but I was fast so I was trying to figure that out,” Byron said. “Once it all clicked it was just a lot of fun.”

William Byron after winning the 2013 Legends Young Lions National Championship. Photo: WilliamByron.com
William Byron after winning the 2013 Legends Young Lions National Championship. Photo: WilliamByron.com

Byron quickly went from Legends rookie to master in 2013. Competing in the Young Lions division, he won 33 races in 69 starts, won Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 10-race Summer Shootout title and capped the season off by winning the U.S. Legends Young Lions National Championship.

Byron moved up to the Legends Pro Division that winter and won several more races plus championships at the Winter Nationals at Auburndale Speedway and the Winter Heat Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

From there, Byron began his rapid climb up the NASCAR ladder, starting with the Whelen All-American Series and Pro Late Model Division in 2014. He moved to the K&N Pro Series East in 2015, Gander RV & Outdoor Series in 2016, the Xfinity Series in 2017 (winning the title) and Cup in 2018.

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Because a Legend car is small and seemingly nimble, it may look easy to drive, but it’s not.

“The cars are very difficult to drive,” said Lenny Batycki, host of Performance Racing Network’s syndicated “At The Track”  show and a Charlotte Motor Speedway Legends racing pit reporter. “I’ve asked a number of young drivers and to the racer, they’ll say it’s throttle control that those cars teach you how to drive more than anything else.”

Byron concurs. In a post on his personal web site, Byron said, “Racing a Legends car can be tricky at first. It took me a few months to really get the hang of things, but once I caught on it all made sense to me.

“The cars are great to drive and they really teach you many of the techniques you need if you want to move in up your racing career.”

Legends racing has become one of the best developmental pathways for young racers who seek to one day become NASCAR drivers.

Nearly half of the drivers in Sunday’s Daytona 500 are Legends alumni, including Byron – who sat on the pole for last year’s Great American Race – along with Kurt and Kyle Busch, Austin and Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto, Bubba Wallace and several others. Even NASCAR On NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced Legends cars early in his career.

Byron hasn’t forgotten his Legends roots. He turned a few practice laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway last year and also ran the Roval road course with Lambert in CMS’s Winter Heat series two years ago.

“William came out the first week and struggled,” Lambert recalled. “That week, he wanted my GoPro footage. I regretted it in the end, but I sent him the video from the week before and he studied it – he’s very intrigued and committed to figuring it out – and then came back the next week and beat me.”

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Because many Legends races are televised, Byron also learned early how to deal with the media, a skill that would prove beneficial for each step of the NASCAR ladder he climbed.

Motor Racing Network NASCAR announcer Steve Post has also been the lead public address announcer for Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Summer Shootout since 1997. He saw Byron and many others develop.

“One of the things I remember most about William is how polished and buttoned-up he was,” Post told NBC Sports. “This kid really had it together.

“He was the first iRacing to real racing guy. When he started in Legends, he was up front all the time and really did a nice job with his racing on the track, and to win (the championship) in his first year, that was really mind-boggling.”

Several other Legends alums stand out in Post’s memory. Daniel Hemric, then 19, won the biggest prize in Legends history, taking home $250,000 for winning the inaugural 2010 Legends Million.

And even though he’s a full-time Cup driver with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace ran most of the Summer Shootout schedule last year.

“The Legends to me was the first real rung on real racing on (Byron’s) ladder, and to get to the top of the ladder, you’ve got to climb all those rungs, and William certainly has done that,” Post said. “Even today on a Monday night Summer Shootout practice session (or at Tuesday night races), you’re standing in the garage area and there William is with some of his buddies that are still racing.

“That he still maintains that connection and reflect back to his roots speaks volumes for him as a young man.”

Batycki concurs.

PRN announcer Lenny Batycki interviews William Byron after his first Legends win during Charlotte Motor Speedway’s annual Summer Shootout in 2013. Photo courtesy Lenny Batycki.
PRN announcer Lenny Batycki interviews William Byron after his first Legends win during Charlotte Motor Speedway’s annual Summer Shootout in 2013. Photo courtesy Lenny Batycki.

“In the full Legends car, to step into it right away with no Bandolero experience, no nothing, there hasn’t been anybody that I can recall that just did it as smoothly and as strongly as William,” Batycki said. “Great kid, just picked it up naturally. Determination, awareness, friendliness to just everybody in the garage.”

Byron had that winner’s look in his eyes seemingly from the start, Batycki said.

“Him battling whether it was Hemric or whoever, his determination was the difference maker,” Batycki said. “If he didn’t beat you this week … he was going to try to go and learn and figure it out how to do it as soon as he could – and it usually didn’t take him long. Usually the next week, you were behind him.”

One of Batycki’s favorite memories of Byron’s Legends days was the so-called “garage neighborhood” at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the 2013 Summer Shootout season.

“Every 10 feet away from him were champions or about-to-be champions,” Batycki said. “You had Daniel Hemric, Christian Eckes, FastTrack dirt late model champion Carson Ferguson, last year’s FastTrack champion Cory Gordon, (Fox Sports NASCAR announcer) Mike Joy and his son Scott, Enzo Fittipaldi (grandson of F1 and IndyCar champ Emerson Fittipaldi), former Busch Grand National winner David Green and “Tiger Tom” Pistone.

“That was the kind of racing neighborhood William grew up in. He was going to be a winner, but that neighborhood definitely affected his esprit des corps.”

For guys like Batycki, Post and Lambert, seeing Byron and so many former Legends drivers reach the highest levels of NASCAR racing is rewarding.

When William wins (his first Cup) race, it’s going to be just as exciting – like, that little kid made it, that little pup made it. – PRN and Charlotte Motor Speedway announcer Lenny Batycki on William Byron.

“They become our kids because we’re with them when they’re at Summer Shootout,” Batycki said. “We got to know them as little kids, so that when one of them does well, it’s just like an uncle feeling good about it.

“When William wins (his first Cup) race, it’s going to be just as exciting – like, that little kid made it, that little pup made it.”

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Chad Knaus has taken Byron and turned the former Legends champ into a driver who appears on the verge of his first Cup win.

Post recalled one instance last season that, much like when Byron studied Legends racing, typifies how studious Byron remains.

William Byron and Chad Knaus debrief after Byron won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
William Byron and Chad Knaus debrief after Byron won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Last year at Dover, I saw William and Chad Knaus walking the track,” Post said. “They were talking about arcing the car down in (the corner) and Chad talking about different things as well.

“It just really did my heart well because one of the kids I used to talk about in the Summer Shootout is now debriefing and talking with Chad Knaus.”

Added Batycki, “It’s taken somebody that idolized Chad as a fan and now who listens to him as a driver, there’s that almost instant karma. … It’s hard to go against a seven-time championship crew chief, especially when you probably had a poster or picture of him up on your bedroom wall.”

What does Knaus think of Byron as they head into their second season together?

“He is very intelligent,” Knaus told NBC Sports. “I mean, there’s no doubt. He can diagnose, look at data, draw conclusions, watches (and) studies. Those are things that are going to take him to the top.

“I’ve seen a huge shift in him from a personality standpoint, which I think is good. He rolled into my office in October (2018) when Jimmie (Johnson) and I decided to split up. … William came in, he was kind of mousy, pretty quiet, a little intimidated and all that.

“And now he rolls in, he’s got his hair looking good, his shoulders are back. He’s wearing cool clothes. He’s got it. He’s got that thing that we want in all of our race car drivers.

“So his personality has changed tremendously, his confidence has changed tremendously. He gets in the race car now and he’s like, ‘Man, I’m going to go fast.’”

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