Going the Distance: Steve Byrnes, Rest in Peace

Steve Brynes

Photo courtesy of NASCAR.com

Going the Distance: Steve Byrnes, Rest in Peace
| published April 26, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

“Rest in peace” would be an ironic term to apply to the good-natured and well-liked Steve Byrnes: his more-or-less full time job for decades was television reportage and analysis of NASCAR events for Fox Sports and other networks, which meant, on a good day, noise levels that one would hardly characterize as peaceful and restful.

But the sounds of those cars, whether in the pit areas or roaring by at close to 200 mph were the sounds he loved, and Byrnes became as closely associated with NASCAR as many of its drivers and crew members.

After decades of broadcasting, Byrnes joined the Fox Sports crew in 2001, the network he called home until his passing on April 22. Over the years, Byrnes became as closely identified with NASCAR as Dick Enberg had become with tennis at the French Open and Wimbledon. A sports reporter friend in Birmingham, Alabama—someone who has covered dozens of races in Charlotte, Atlanta, Talladega and Daytona—emailed me to top that analogy, telling me that Byrnes was “the Pat Summerall and John Madden of NASCAR, combined.”

Byrnes covered every part of the track, serving as on site reporter, analysis show host, and anchor of many major races, as well as producer. His forte, however, was the pit, where he seemed the most at home, and where he made some of his most lasting friendships and connections. According to Variety, Byrnes first started covering NASCAR back in 1985 as co-host of the show “Inside Winston Cup Racing” alongside Ned Jarrett. Over the years he worked for CBS Sports, TBS, and TNN, eventually making Fox Sports his more-or-less permanent home.

Byrnes died last week at the young age of 56. He had battled neck and head cancer ever since his original diagnosis back in 2014, but that diagnosis came late, and made his well-publicized struggle to fight the disease into a battle he would inevitably lose. Within hours of Byrnes’ passing those on the inside lanes of NASCAR—drivers, crew members, other racing reporters, even fans—began sharing their feelings of loss upon the news that he had died.

“So sad to hear that Steve Byrnes passed away,” Danica Patrick said on Twitter, “his last tweet—I went the distance—you did my friend. Heaven gained a real fighter today!”

“His level of professionalism,” said NASCAR CEO Brian France, “was matched only by the warmth he showed everyone he met. He battled cancer with tenacity, and was a true inspiration to everyone in the NASCAR family. Simply stated, we’ll miss Steve dearly.”

Byrnes' fight with cancer drew the attention of fans, drivers and much of the wider NASCAR family. As recently as the week before he died, the Sprint Cup race in Bristol, Tennessee was renamed in his honor; new name “Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes.” Last week, at least two drivers—Josh Wise and Clint Bowyer—paid homage to Byrnes and his impact on racing by displaying giant photos of Byrnes on the hoods of their cars at Richmond. The number 98 Ford belonging to Wise has an image of Byrnes which takes up the entire hood.

Physically unable to attend the race in Bristol a week ago, he watched the entire event on television instead, communicating with friends and race fans via social media. “I went the distance,” he announced on Twitter to the thousands of NASCAR enthusiasts who were tracking his battle with cancer.

For racing fans, Byrnes was both a staple of the commentary and a legendarily good-natured person. On the NASCAR news website, one fan recalls Byrnes’ well-known approachability and good humor.

“I remember my very first trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in 2004,” a fan named Rafael Vantolra wrote about seeing Byrnes standing near the Speed Channel stage, prompting Vantolra to run over and request a photo and autograph with the busy Byrnes. “He gave me a huge smile and said ‘absolutely’ and [even] signed my ticket. He was a class gentleman.”

Another NASCAR fan summed up why Byrnes was so well-loved by fans, drivers and crew alike.

“He was so great at his job,” Gloria O’Lear wrote, “he was always gracious in his interviews and always made each person he talked to feel like their comments were the most important thing he had heard.” O’Lear’s eulogy reflects the commentary of hundreds of other racing fans who posted similar sentiments about a reporter and a commentator who always kept his balance and his sense of humor, even in a sports field unfortunately known for its occasional hotheads and purveyors of ill-manner.

Indeed, Byrnes was one of those people with an infectious form of good humor and warmth that was hard to resist. Go to Google, type his name, and request his image, and you will find yourself hard-pressed to find a photograph—any photograph—in which he is not smiling. That big smile was his trademark, and it was genuine.

“He was always humble,” said Richard Petty, a seven time NASCAR champion, “I never saw him treat anyone unfairly. That’s just how he did his job and lived his life.”

Even President Obama weighed-in on Byrnes’ passing, commenting during a ceremony last Tuesday at the White House and offering words of condolence to Byrnes family in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I know a lot of fans’ thoughts and prayers today are with his wife Karen, and his son Bryson,” Obama told reporters.

Broadcasting colleague Elliott Sadler called Byrnes a “fun co-worker and the best friend.” Most of those who worked with Byrnes said it was his smile, his professionalism and his gracefulness that made him an easy person to like. David Hill, a Fox vice-president and someone who worked often with Byrnes, said that Byrnes fused “journalistic integrity and kindness.”

Byrnes was, Hill said, “the consummate television professional.”

Besides NASCAR—which was his most passionate sports interest—Byrnes was occasionally tapped by Fox to do play-by-play of football during those weeks when the network talent was stretched thin due to multiple NFL games spread across the time zones. For his NFL gigs, Byrnes normally worked alongside football analyst Bill Maas.

Byrnes, who was born in Chicago and raised in Maryland, died in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

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