Let’s cut to the chase. This bites. It is never good to have to write about the passing of anyone. It’s tough enough to deal with the passing of pets, let alone human beings.
As you all know by now, Steve Byrnes died on Tuesday after battling cancer for much of the past couple of years at the age of 56. This is a man who had Buford T. Justice’s seniority in the Sprint Cup garage and the respect of basically everyone in NASCAR. When you really think about it, having the respect of nearly everyone in your field is quite the accomplishment, no matter what you do. Most of us will never reach that point. I know I haven’t and probably never will.
As I wrote in Tuesday’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday, FOX turned a chunk of Sunday’s telecast from Bristol into a lovefest for Byrnes. Drivers spoke of their appreciation for Byrnes, in addition to Byrnes’ many co-workers. Not many people are really worthy of an honor, and in fact, I don’t know if Byrnes truly felt that he was worthy. I do know that he was touched by what FOX did on Sunday because he tweeted out his appreciation.
— Steve Byrnes (@SteveByrnes12) April 20, 2015
We’re in an era in which the media is probably the most detested that it has ever been. The media is viewed as constantly stretching the truth to fit some kind of veiled (or not-so-veiled) agenda. By sports standards, NASCAR drivers probably have a higher opinion of those who cover them than their colleagues in other sports. Tony Stewart, in particular, may be an exception to that rule at times. However, even when incensed, Stewart would still give good quotes to Byrnes and be courteous. An example of that is his interview with Byrnes post-confrontation with Joey Logano at Fontana in 2013.
It’s clear to me from the clip that Stewart has a lot of respect for Byrnes and understands that Byrnes has a job to do and that job will help the fans get a better idea of what happened. It’s OK to be angry about the on-track move.
Later this week, some of my colleagues here at Frontstretch will give their own favorite memories of Byrnes. After hearing the news of Byrnes’s passing (via the official statement from Brian France), I thought about this myself. The problem in this situation is that Byrnes has kind of been everywhere, either right out in front or in the background. As a result, I don’t have a concrete memory of Byrnes to share. Probably my favorite clip of Byrnes was the classic interview that he did with Dale Earnhardt on Lake Norman from around 1990 in which Earnhardt nearly dumps Byrnes (and an expensive camera) in the drink. It shows up in a number of places, including the film Dale.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Byrnes and shaking his hand, but I’ve also never seen anything mean-spirited said about him. It seems like he was a genuinely friendly man who loved everything about his work and his family, and not many people can say that. I knew that it was going to be a tough road for Byrnes to come back to work after hearing of the Stage 4 diagnosis, but I really wanted him to come back from it. FOX Sports needed Byrnes’s professionalism, work ethic and infectious demeanor on its airwaves.
I cannot recall the first time that I saw Byrnes on television, but I guess it was sometime in the early 1990s. Byrnes’s start in NASCAR was with Sunbelt Video, a Charlotte-based production company. You might recognize the names of alumni from there. In addition to Byrnes, Bill Weber worked there, as did John Daly, of The Daly Planet. Sunbelt Video was an independent outfit at the time. What was left of Sunbelt Video was purchased by NASCAR around 2002 and was renamed NASCAR Images. Today, it’s part of NASCAR Digital Media.
In 1986, Sunbelt Video launched a show known as Inside NASCAR that aired on TNN, a cable network that was only in its fourth year of operation at the time and had no sports production staff (racing telecasts had been on the channel since essentially day one, but they were aired as part of Diamond P Sports’ American Sports Cavalcade). Ned Jarrett was tapped to host, while Byrnes was his co-host. Eventually, the show was renamed Inside Winston Cup Racing. Here’s an early episode from 1986.
Inside NASCAR, later renamed Inside Winston Cup Racing before reverting back to Inside NASCAR, ended up becoming a staple on TNN, airing on Saturdays and Sundays. By the time I started watching the show, it was already 1991. I don’t recall Byrnes on the show, but as you can see from the clip above, the Byrnes of 1986 is not that different from the most recent footage we have of Byrnes.
From there, Byrnes moved over to World Sports Enterprises, the production company that produced race telecasts for TBS (and later, TNN as well) in the 1990’s. Here, Byrnes became a pit reporter for the first time. You can see Byrnes at work on TBS’s broadcast of the 1995 Miller Genuine Draft 500, which just so happens to be the first Cup race that I ever went to.
When FOX and NBC/Turner Sports acquired full-season rights to the then-Winston Cup and Busch Series starting in 2001, it triggered large scale movement for on-air personalities. After the dust settled, Byrnes landed with FOX Sports. When he started with FOX Sports, he was likely already established in the garage. For the past 14 years and change, he worked himself into a very high level of respect in the garage. At least in NASCAR, you can’t just show up and expect to be respected. You have to earn it through hard, but fair, work. Even before the cancer diagnosis came down, you would likely have had a very hard time finding someone with anything negative to say about Byrnes.
As a TV writer, it is my job to write about the broadcasts and give my opinion on what I’m seeing. If you’ve been reading my articles over the past couple of years, I’ve never really said all that much about Byrnes here. It’s much easier to criticize than to praise in these articles, believe me. With Byrnes, I never really had much to criticize about because he’s the consummate professional. Given a number of his co-workers, he could be the ray of sunshine in the middle of a storm.
For longtime fans like myself, it’s hard to imagine that Byrnes worked as a pit reporter as long as he did. Over 20 years of experience in the pits. Few commentators have the body of work that Byrnes had in NASCAR. He was the second most experienced NASCAR on-air personality at FOX Sports behind Mike Joy. For those who were introduced to the sport later than me, perhaps after the death of Dale Earnhardt, they wouldn’t remember him not being around. That’s rare by today’s standards.
I feel that he was the glue that held the broadcast together. Sure, everyone at FOX Sports was bummed when Dr. Dick Berggren retired, but Berggren is still around and I’m sure he still talks to a number of his former colleagues on a regular basis. Byrnes’ colleagues won’t have that luxury this time. It’s going to be a tough final couple of months of the FOX portion of the season.
What will FOX do in the coming weeks? Grieve, then get back down to business. It’s going to be hard to do for everyone involved, but they’ll have to get used to this new reality. There will be some conversations at FOX Sports that will have to take place in the future surrounding the holes that now exist in FOX’s NASCAR programming as a result of Byrnes’ passing, but that’s an issue for another day.
For now, FOX Sports and the entire motorsports community is bummed out. This bites, simple as that.
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