It’s a word that holds a variety of meanings to people across the world. Some associate it with fear, others think of flooding medical bills. When asked what the word ‘cancer’ meant to him, Steve Byrnes’ answer was simple: “Fight.”
Last fall, the host of Race Hub was diagnosed with head and neck cancer that spread to his throat and lymph nodes. It was a day that changed his life –and how he looked at that life—forever.
How Byrnes ended up covering NASCAR was a self-described “accident.” After playing football at James Madison University, he transferred to the University of Maryland, majoring in broadcasting. Charleston, South Carolina became his home when he landed a job as a sport anchor. That’s when racing entered the picture.
“One of my friends moved to Charlotte, and he called me, saying they were looking for someone to host a NASCAR program…I got the job and started working at Sunbelt Video in 1995.”
Sunbelt Video, a small company with “not even 10 people there,” went through multiple transitions before settling into its current form as the NASCAR Media Group. Byrnes and that handful of people became the frontrunners for reporting on the series and its personalities.
“Only half the races were televised,” he pointed out. “We were sometimes the only cameras there if TV wasn’t covering the event. It made for connections with drivers. You know, this was the time before motor homes, so a lot of the times, we’d share hotels with the drivers…some of my best conversations came from sitting around the hotel pool with Neil Bonnett and his crew.”
That simpler era led to a unique friendship with one of the sport’s largest personalities, Dale Earnhardt.
Byrnes said, “My relationship with Dale Earnhardt was pretty unusual…it was a much more personal relationship. One time, Dale asked me what kind of VCR to buy…I understood his personality and his friendships. With him, he could wrap his arm around you one day, and the next he wouldn’t even look at you. I accepted him and his personality, and I think that’s what made us close.”
“The thing with Earnhardt was…his big thing with him was respect. In his mind, respect on the racetrack was earned. In life, it was the same way. [Earnhardt] had this big regret about not finishing high school. So, the way he looked at people had nothing to do with education or profession. He treated everyone the same.”
It is advice that Byrnes thinks about every day while doing his job. Being the face of Race Hub isn’t easy work. Juggling that with his new role as a NASCAR Camping World Truck commentator? It’s a trip.
“When Rick [Allen, FS1’s lead NCWTS commentator] left, it was difficult because he was so immersed in the Truck series. He’s a great guy, a good friend of mine, but it just got complicated [for him to balance responsibilities].”
Allen was doing juggling of his own; along with his Fox obligations, he began hosting NASCAR America on NBCSN. Signed on to join their NASCAR on NBC coverage in 2015, it soon turned into a hassle. Byrnes stepped in, splitting the race load with fellow FS1 broadcaster Adam Alexander.
His transition was more about the content than the dynamic. “It was a huge transition in not covering [the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series]. In 1995, I was at the first Truck race at Phoenix. I remember I really enjoyed it, and I was a Truck reporter before I moved to Fox in the late ‘90s. But [being in the booth] requires a different skill set. When you’re doing play-by-play, you see the entire track, the race as a whole. The other thing is that, on Race Hub, the time for each segment is very restrictive. During the race, things are pretty organic.”
It is a role he is thrilled to take on, even after a difficult year.
“One day, I was on Race Hub, and one day, I wasn’t.”
Cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes requires immediate attention, and that’s what happened; Byrnes took chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously. It resulted in his wife, Karen, becoming his caretaker.
Despite the rigorous treatments, his faith never wavered.
“I wasn’t going to let cancer take away my happiness. I went to every one of [his son] Bryson’s football games. It didn’t matter how sick I was, I wanted to be there. There were times me and my wife would just sit on the couch and watch funny movies all day. [Cancer] puts perspective on what is and isn’t important.”
Everything in his career –pit reporting, hosting, things that took over his thoughts constantly—paled in comparison to his family. Out of the bad came something good, and he wants to share that good with other survivors. “I want people to know your biggest resource is people who have fought the same battle. It’s not a death sentence.”
“You have to be grateful for every single day. I felt that way during treatment, and I still feel that way now. It’s about having a grateful heart.”
Steve Byrnes fought hard and came out victorious, returning to TV and taking on an extra broadcasting position. Though it may be overwhelming at times, there’s no doubt that he’s thankful he has the opportunity to take that on.
Cancer. It changed him for the better.