The late Jonathan Byrd was a personable, robust gentleman with a healthy appetite for both fine food and open-cockpit racing.

The first passion led him to owning and operating a number of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises before establishing a cafeteria and catering business that evolved into an Indianapolis institution.

Byrd's latter zeal led him to a role as a renowned financier of auto racing endeavors, all the way from weekly series events at the tiny bullring known as the Speedrome on Indy's east side to fielding cars across town and a world away for the Indianapolis 500, the largest single-day sporting event on the planet.

Byrd was also a devout Christian who — prior to his death in 2009 — amassed an impressive collection of very rare, ancient Bibles while also initiating and supporting a variety of ministry efforts.

When his son, David, texted Chris Windom of Canton this past offseason, David Byrd's words rang angelic.

"He messaged me after we won the (USAC national sprint car) championship and asked me if I wanted to work my way to Indianapolis," Windom said. 

Windom's answer was an obvious, immediate and resounding "yes" and his journey with Jonathan Byrd Racing has begun with an entry in this year's Freedom 100 Indy Lights race slated for Carb Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25.

"I think this can open some doors to eventually being in the Indy 500," Windom, 27, said of competing in the Lights series, the top rung of the Verizon IndyCar Series ladder system. "It's the first piece of the puzzle."

The first order of business in putting the pieces together was finding a ride.

Byrd, in conjunction with Baldwin Brothers Racing, secured a seat for Windom with Belardi Auto Racing, a Lights series powerhouse.

Windom was fitted for the seat and had his first laps at speed during a test session at Kentucky Speedway on April 30. First up was passing the IndyCar licensing phase of the test. The search for speed would immediately follow.

"The guys at Belardi did an awesome job of getting me up to speed," said Windom, who spoke with The Pantagraph not long after climbing out of the cockpit.

"There's just so much to learn from working with the engineers. There's a lot more technology than what I've been used to."

Windom enters the Lights series from the ranks of what many could successfully argue is the last pure form of auto racing in the world.

As the 2016 USAC Silver Crown Series champion and reigning sprint car king, Windom's accustomed to racing cars on both dirt and asphalt that haven't changed that drastically since A.J., Mario and Parnelli hopped into them and had at it.

His test at Kentucky was his first time in a rear-engine car. There's also the massive array of buttons on the steering wheel that can change the cars' speed, balance and handling. That presents the driver with the dilemma of knowing which to push and when, while knowing full-well he can mess himself up just as quickly as he can make the car better from the cockpit.

"Just the way you sit in the car is different from anything I've been accustomed to," Windom said. "There's not going to be a lot of time to learn everything, and I'm going to have to pick things up as quickly as I can."

Windom's next opportunity behind the wheel of the Lights car will come on a practice day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 21. 

That's when he hopes to accomplish something he's never done before, drive a race car at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour.

It will also be his first time on the track with other Lights cars. While the eye-popping speed is relative and can be quickly accustomed to, the turbulence it produces is not and Windom believes the buffeting around of his 1,590-pound car in traffic is going to take some getting used to.

"The main thing is going to learn how to work in the air off of different cars," he said. "That's going to be the toughest part, while learning how to save the tires and manage a longer race."

The May 21 practice day will be the beginning of what's known as "Windom's Wild Week." Over the course of the next seven days, Windom will attempt to compete in five different racing disciplines at six different race tracks, bouncing back and forth between pavement and dirt in both sprint cars and Silver Crown cars, as well as racing the Lights car at Indy.

Windom says more Lights races may be in the offing for this season. If things go according to plan, Windom would become the first Central Illinois driver since Springfield's Donnie Beechler in 2002 to compete in the Indianapolis 500. That opportunity may come as soon as next year.

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph. Contact him at (309) 820-3391. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes


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