Good times or bad, NASCAR entourage is a family first

Steve Byrnes’ very public battle with cancer meant the entire NASCAR community fought with him. Now, his loss is their loss.
Steve Byrnes’ very public battle with cancer meant the entire NASCAR community fought with him. Now, his loss is their loss. Brian Gomsak/

For all the controversies, the heated competition, the rivalries and the rule-breaking, there remains one undeniable bond in NASCAR and, I suspect, racing in general.

It’s a family.

Even if you don’t want it to be, even if you could never imagine yourself being a part of it, over time everyone who works in or follows NASCAR becomes part of the racing community.

It’s nearly impossible not to be. NASCAR is unlike every other professional sport in that virtually all of its participants, officials and media find themselves in the same cities at the same time nearly every weekend of the season.

Yes, there are driver feuds. But drivers also share the same motor-home lots each weekend. It’s not like they can say, “I’m never going to see that guy again” It’s more likely that drivers recently involved in a dust-up will share a ride in the back of a pickup during pre-race ceremonies (that’s happened more times than I can count).

Sometimes drivers don’t like something a member of the media reports. But you’d be surprised how many hurt feelings are healed by a trip to Victory Lane.

Because those involved in the sport spend so much time around each other, it’s hard not to share more than just results.

Everyone, at some point, has personal issues – health-related or family-related, happy or sad – that blend into work. And work in NASCAR is near constant for 40 weeks a year.

Perhaps that’s why when bad things happen to those in the NASCAR community, the sport wraps its collective arms around them and shares the pain, even if individually we may not know the person all that well.

They are one of us. Whether you’ve had a run-in with them in the past, whether you really never got to know them, you still share the hurt; you still want to help.

I got an up-close view of the power of the NASCAR community several years ago when my longtime Observer colleague David Poole passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack.

David had friends, fans and a loving family that I had grown to know, but he also had his detractors and those he angered while covering the sport. Yet when he died, he was all of those things but also something more: he was part of the NASCAR community, and his place in it was treasured and remembered.

We find ourselves in much the same position this week with the death Tuesday of longtime broadcaster Steve Byrnes, a familiar face to those at the track and the fans at home.

Steve did not hide his battle with cancer. Because of that everyone became invested in the outcome, whether they actually met him or not.

That’s why so many people are hurting this week. We shared the battle, and we now share the loss.

With the help of Fox, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and NASCAR, last Sunday’s race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway was renamed the “Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up to Cancer.”

Because of rain delays, the race dragged on for nearly nine hours late into Sunday night. The last tweets on Steve’s Twitter account were with a fan who asked him if was able to watch the race all the way to the end.

His response: “I went the distance.”

That is what the NASCAR community will remember and what it has always embraced.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

Next race

Toyota Owners 400

What: 400 laps, or 300 miles.

Where: Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

When: 7 p.m. Saturday.

TV: Fox.

Radio: Motor Racing Network.

Last year’s winner: Joey Logano.

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