ROCK HILL, S.C. — Editorial by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America photo —
April 21, 2015 may be the hardest day the NASCAR community has faced since the day we lost Dale Earnhardt back in 2001. At least, for me — that is the case.
Steve Byrnes, one of my personal inspirations, a mentor from afar, and one of NASCAR on FOX’s shining personalities and voices, died earlier today at the age of 56 after a long fight with head and neck cancer.
He was one of the most beloved people in the NASCAR garage area, he was a friend to anyone who knew him, and even if he didn’t know you — he made you feel like you had known him for years when he got a chance to talk to you.
He was a husband. He was a father. He was an uncle. He was a friend.
But above all, he was loved. Now, he has left this earthly world — and his suffering — behind.
Our hearts are hurting.
For his wife Karen; for his 12-year-old son Bryson (who was the epitome of strength and light in a time of so much hardship); for his niece Samantha and nephews Tyler and Dylan; for his entire family; for his FOX Sports colleagues and for all of us who knew him: this is a day and a moment we knew would eventually come, but it didn’t mean we could ever truly prepare ourselves for it.
It was also a reality Steve knew he was facing from the very beginning, but if you knew Steve and watched his valiant fight through social media and those who knew him best, it was not a reality he was ever afraid of — and he certainly did not let it get him down.
Instead, Steve used his diagnosis as a means to spend time uplifting his family and friends, making every moment count and teaching every one of us what it means to “live for each moment, because you never know if or when the next one will come.”
Steve’s passion for 30 years was NASCAR, spending time as a pit reporter for FOX’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series coverage since the network’s debut in the sport back in 2001 and taking over the play-by-play duties for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2014 after his colleague and longtime friend Rick Allen moved to NBC, but his heart was defined by his family.
Once he was forced to step back from his duties at FOX, his life became about Bryson and Karen — and you never had to go but further than his Twitter feed to see a shot of him spending time bringing a smile to Bryson’s face or with Karen doing the thing that meant more to him than anything else — supporting his family and fulfilling his personal motto to “Be present.”
The quieter side of Steve was that side he shared with family and close friends — the gardener, the traveler, the photographer, the former football player — but it was his warrior’s spirit in the public eye that shined through and made him appear larger-than-life, even in the face of such a devastating illness. Steve taught everyone what being a champion truly means and showed all of us that it doesn’t matter how big the hurdles are in your path, they can be taken head on and with a smile regardless of the circumstances.
That was no more evident than in his final days these past two weeks, when — despite respiration problems, being in and out of the hospital and the struggle to keep fighting — Steve continued to carry a smile, both on his birthday and this past weekend, when he was recognized for all his contributions to the sport and his never-give-up attitude in his fight against cancer with the renaming of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in his honor.
It was a special moment for all involved. Steve’s son Bryson was on the microphone during the NASCAR on FOX opening to the broadcast — no teleprompter required! — and Bryson, along with Steve’s nephews and niece, brought back a replica of the winner’s trophy earned by Matt Kenseth to present to the man who was a winner in every sense of the word.
I know it was a pleasure for Steve to be able to see it all come together, and I am confident it touched him to see just how much he meant to the NASCAR community and how everyone came together, even though he was so humble and would always take time out for everyone else before he would ever make the moment about himself. That was what made Steve so special — he took time for you and made you feel like you were the most important person in the moment — and that is what I personally will miss the most.
My family knew Steve and his wife Karen for years while they were in the NASCAR garage, and maintained those ties long after selling our NASCAR team and moving on to a new chapter. My memories of Steve from that time are slightly limited, and I hadn’t seen him in person in quite some time, but I can’t recall a single time when he wasn’t able to bring a smile to the faces of every single person around him.
In thinking about all of this, truth be told: I’m not sure if I would have ever made it as far as I have in the sport without thinking of all the lessons I learned from Steve and how much guidance they gave me along the way.
I learned what it means to handle oneself with class and dignity, I learned what it means to do the job — the right way — until the job is done, and I even learned how to keep cool under fire, or sometimes Smoke. (Yes, thank you Tony Stewart, for helping Steve provide me with one of my most impactful and resounding lessons of how to work in this industry.)
So from me personally, thank you Steve. You taught me what it means to be a successful broadcaster, media member and friend in this industry — and if I ever live up to be half of the man that you were, I will feel like I have done something truly special.
For FOX Sports, they have lost one of their most well-known voices, and it will mean that watching NASCAR coverage on the weekends is never truly the same. Our hearts resonate with theirs. We share in their pain.
But, we also recognize — as they did — what Steve was and what he meant.
“A symbol of strength, compassion and dignity, Steve was a source of inspiration to everyone, sharing his fight in a very courageous and public way,” FOX said in a statement. “A shining example of husband, father, friend and consummate professional, [he] will forever be remembered as one of the good guys – his time with us cherished and appreciated.”
“Steve was defined by his journalistic integrity and kindness,” added Twenty-first Century FOX Senior Executive Vice President David Hill. “His ability to communicate everything from complex technical issues to the highly emotive human dramas in this sport, where injury and or death are constantly just one mistake away, [was unmatched].
He was indeed, one of the good guys. And now, those of us in the media look not to fill the void he leaves behind — rather, we look to embrace the mold he created for all of us to follow and carry on the legacy of professionalism and ultimate class he impressed upon us all.
Perhaps SPEED SPORT’s Derek Pernesiglio said it best earlier today, when he said that “as broadcasters, we all stand on the shoulders of the ones who came before us, and Steve Byrnes’ shoulders were probably the broadest out there. He is the epitome of what every person working in our sport should be. We didn’t work together very often, but [I] always looked forward to the times we did.”
Going forward, yes, we will spend time grieving. Yes, we will hurt. And yes, we will all miss Steve. But take solace in this: his faith and determination and will were as strong in his final days as they were in his first, and he will be watching and guiding all of us who come after him for all the years to come.
If there’s anything I am sure of in all of this, it is this: Steve would not want us to cry because he is gone. He would want us to smile because he lived, and he would want us to carry the sport he loved so dearly forward not just for him, but for all of us who love it every ounce as much as he did.
This Saturday night at Richmond will be our time to do that. It will be hard. But we will do it as we always do — by coming together — except this time, we won’t just be coming together as a racing family, we will be coming together #ByrnesStrong.
I leave you with three thoughts today.
First, Steve’s final tweet was one that truly epitomized his entire life and summed up his strength and his heart in four simple words: “I went the distance.”
At the time of the tweet, he was referring of course to making it through the entirety of the rain-delayed, rain-extended and marathon broadcast of the Bristol Cup race on Sunday afternoon and Sunday night, but his words mean so much more when you stop and think about them.
In his fight, in his work and in his actions, Steve always made sure that no stone was left unturned, no lead not followed and no person left alone where he had a chance to help them. And in his relentless battle with cancer, he hung on, clawed and fought until the very end — never giving up even when life looked its bleakest and showing all of us what it truly means to live.
My friend, you did indeed go the distance.
Second, Steve Byrnes will never be forgotten, and his impact is so far-reaching it is immeasurable. One of my favorite songs, For Good (from the musical Wicked), says within that “so much of me is made of what I learned from you, you’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart…” and for me, Steve’s handprint on my heart has molded who I am and what I will strive to be forevermore. For that, I am truly grateful, and I have been changed…for good.
And finally, I am asked often by those who hear me on the radio why I always end my broadcasts with “Keep it off the wall until we meet again, and we’ll see you at the race track.” I do so…because the words good-bye are always far too final. They signify an end, and they signify a resolution of all we have done.
And now…they are all that is left.
Good bye, Byrnesy.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.