I experienced Steve Byrnes and his many superlatives personally
I'm saddened by the death of Steve Byrnes - he was a really good man. His death from cancer Monday would have struck me enough as a race fan and media member, if I had never met him. Just like many of you, I watched him for years from afar and marveled at his brilliant mix between professionalism, affability, and down home relatability not just to the fans watching, but to the subjects of his reporting.
Racing journalism presents a real fine line, because reporters are with the entire circus that is NASCAR each week. It's just like being a beat writer for one sports team - you're going to have to make relationships with the guys in the locker room. NASCAR's top three series are the single team. And Byrnes was on the beat for about three decades. So undoubtedly he had won over not just the throngs watching, but the officials, drivers, owners, and team members in the garage.
We have seen many speak out in support of Steve before his death and in grieving after. Being cynical at a time like this is easy - that person can't be THAT great can they? Just by watching Byrnes, I felt and observed some of his many great strengths. But I had the pleasure of actually experiencing his generosity and love for the sport first hand, something I will never forget and will always cherish.
NASCAR is really more of a hobby than a career for me. My full-time job reporting traffic for WSB in Atlanta is truly a passion and is a stable responsibility that I see myself doing for as long as they let me. Several years ago, when my future was less certain, I saw NASCAR as one of the few things that I would actually consider doing full-time instead. Late in my senior year at Georgia State University, I started my first gig writing about NASCAR for Frontstretch.com. They had me critique TV coverage from a fan's point of view. One of my early targets was the show Byrnes hosted, This Week in NASCAR on SPEED channel.
From what I remember, I didn't criticize Byrnes personally, but I really slammed the show for not being hard enough on NASCAR and for the silly Michael Waltrip gimmicks. I got an email out of the blue one day from Byrnes, whom I had never met. He wasn't nasty at all. He just offered some insight as to why the show was how it was. I wrote back to him and expressed gratitude, but also told him that I would love to be a NASCAR reporter like him one day.
Byrnes didn't just say, "That's nice - work hard and you'll get here." He had me call him and we picked each other's brains. I wish I could say that is something we did regularly, but we only talked on the phone once or twice. He was busy and I didn't really know him, so I didn't want to bother him. For all I knew, he did that for many. But he did invite me to tour the TV compound and to sit and talk with him at Atlanta Motor Speedway. We talked about broadcasting, racing (he shared some great scoops with me), family, and our faith in Christ. We did that in 2009. He never acted too rushed. We just sat and talked. He did. With a stranger.
I kept Byrnes' email address on a chain I would send to family, friends, and co-workers whenever I would write a new column or had some news. Every once in a while, Byrnes would write me. When I chose to leave Frontstretch and write my own blog, he sent a strong note of encouragement. When I started calling races at Gresham Motorsports Park, he gave me an electronic thumbs up. When Atlanta Motor Speedway sent out a release about trying to find a PA announcer, he forwarded it to me. I emailed him several times asking about different racing jobs and contacts and he always responded.
You may have gotten to this point and thought, "How selfish is this guy, making Steve Byrnes' death a personal narrative?" The only reason I share these things is to show that what Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson - and many other drivers have been saying is true. This is to show what we have seen or heard nearly every media presence write or say about him. Steve Byrnes was genuine.
Most public figures like Byrnes don't take the time to respond to criticism. If they do, their response if often negative or worse. Most don't bother writing or responding to fans' emails. Most certainly wouldn't remember these people and try to help them out. Byrnes did. And he was not smug about it.
Kaitlyn Vincie, a young NASCAR reporter for Fox Sports, tells a story similar to mine about Byrnes. In a series of vignettes that aired both during the Bristol race named in his honor Sunday and on FS1's Race Hub show mourning his death the day after, Vincie told how she was writing her own racing blog and emailed him out of the blue. He conversed with her and even invited her to the track to shadow him as he reported.
The seeds he helped sow have blossomed in different ways. Vincie is now a regular member of the Fox Sports NASCAR team. I get to work sometimes for Performance Racing Network and fill-in doing track PA at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Byrnes may not be the only reason either of us get to do what we do, but he gave us each the confidence to pursue them. And who knows how many other people in the NASCAR media corps he inspired to be where they are? He took his blessing of a job and paid it forward.
The last time I saw Byrnes he was leaving the suite tower after announcing one of the NASCAR practices on TV at Atlanta Motor Speedway last August. I was heading up there to help with the track PA announcing. I had just been in touch with him about trying to say something about the late Captain Herb Emory and an Xfinity Series car driven by Chris Cockrum honoring him. Emory was a huge influence in my life and both that car and the track were paying homage to him. I thanked Byrnes for trying to work it into the broadcast like he said he was going to do.
And that is why those two names should be tied together. Emory showed the same kind of generosity and leveled down to so many. They each were passionate about what they did and eager to help others do the same.
Captain Herb Emory and Steve Byrnes were alike in another way. They each left this Earth way too early. Emory at 61, Byrnes at 56. They each had just celebrated their last birthday just days before their death. But I said this about Emory and I will say this about Byrnes, too: they left the Earth early, because they finished God's work fast.
I never met Byrnes' wife, Katie, and son, Bryson. But I am praying for them and for all of you who are feeling that hole in your gut and that sting in your eyes. So many of you knew him better than I, but I am so glad that I did and for the example he showed to so many. Godspeed, Byrnesy - enjoy that new cancer-free body in Heaven!
Donate in honor of Steve Byrnes:
1055 Gold Hill Road, Fort Mill, SC 29708
Bryson Byrnes scholarship fund:
Charlotte Christian School - Byrnes fund
Attn: Barry Giller
7301 Sardis Road, Charlotte, NC 28270
One Daytona Blvd., 6th floor,
Daytona Beach, FL 32114