It’s not even 24 hours since the news broke, but it seems as if it is still fresh in everyone’s mind. NASCAR isn’t just about wedge adjustments, tire management, fuel consumption or the distance of each race. It’s more than that, because relationships develop between the drivers, the teams, and especially the media. NASCAR and the media didn’t always have a working relationship, simply because it wasn’t covered much.
That all changed in 1979 and has since become a sport that is showcased and broadcast over all platforms.
Whether it’s television, radio, online and even now social media, NASCAR is booming. But now it’s more about the people involved, and how they communicate with the people in the sport. Steve Byrnes was one of those media members that had the ability to have a positive relationship with the sport both professionally and personally.
I unfortunately never had the opportunity to meet him in person, which is unfortunate considering how I never will, but you can see how professionally he handled himself in the garage area. He never went anywhere among the teams, the drivers, or the fans without having a smile on his face, and more often than not a microphone in his hand. He covered victories, wrecks, fights, and the ultimate sacrifice.
His interview of Ken Schrader in 2001, right after the final lap of the Daytona 500, likely stuck with him for many years.
“I’m not a doctor,” Schrader said. Even Byrnes knew during that interview that something was not good, and it struck a chord with him. Byrnes and Dale Earnhardt had a unique relationship both on and off the track, including trips to Earnhardt’s home in North Carolina, as was seen in the “Dale” documentary. His incident with the backhoe and also on the boat are among the times when he was not necessarily doing an interview, but just being a friend.
One thing about Byrnes is his ability to be very open with everyone about life, and the sport. When his first battle with cancer hit, he didn’t let it bother him, nor did he want us to worry. When it happened again, he was the same way. However, this time as the days passed, the hours clicked away, everyone couldn’t help but worry. I recently lost a close friend who began battling liver cancer shortly after she gave birth to her daughter, so it strikes home with me. The battle was long, and difficult, but she never gave up. There was always hope that she would come back and look into her daughter’s eyes, and then into her husband’s to say “I’m going to be alright.” Unfortunately, with family surrounding her, that battle ended, and she was called up to Heaven.
Byrnes was the same exact way, but his hope was beyond seeing his wife, Karen, grow old together and retire. It went beyond seeing his son, Bryson, grow up and pursue his goals in life, and make his dad proud. He wanted to get back to the sport that he loved, and to the other family that missed him so much.
It is appropriate that the final race he got to see, even if it was not at the track, was one that had his name attached to it.
At the very least, when his time finally came, he left us knowing the final race that he was a part of included his name being on the title. It brought that bright smile out again, and the love for his sport went to a level that likely no one could understand. Even though he may have known his time was coming, he wanted to see the race that included his name go to the very end, and not force everyone to wait one more day to see the conclusion. Byrnes likely knew his time was coming, and didn’t want to wait any longer, because there was no guarantee he would make it to the next day to see it.
That one last sentence he let the world see, it made it very real, but very true.
“I went the distance,” he said.
That final race he got to see, it went the distance. The life he lived went the distance, and beyond. His love of NASCAR, both in the garage and in the studio went the distance. More importantly, the love the sport gave him in return went the distance. Actually, it went beyond the distance, considering Bristol went into a green-white-checkered finish. Having 500 laps that night was not enough, and it gave him beyond the advertised distance to get things completed.
Mr. Byrnes, you have done your duty. Be sure to visit Earnhardt, Adam Petty, and many others when you reach Heaven. Rest easy.