I can still remember those days as a child. My mother picking me up from school, pulling into the driveway at my house and seeing my neighbor, a mid-30s man with dark hair, gym shorts, and a pair of well-used sandals, tending to his garden, simply enjoying life. He would stand up from his work, yell “Hey Matthew! Want to ride with me to the gas station, grab a soda?” I’d get the nod from my mother and jump into his car, the radio blasting the B-52s or EMF as we cruised down the roads of suburban Charlotte. His name was Steve Byrnes.
I grew up with Steve as my next-door neighbor. I don’t know if he was already living in that house when we moved to Charlotte when I was less than a year old, but I have very few memories that don’t feature him in some way. He and his wife, Karen, were like family to me. I used to wander over to their house constantly, just to hang out after preschool and kindergarten. Some days he and I would run errands, some days we’d watch one of his TV shows, and some days we’d just chill on the porch, enjoying a nice Fresca or Tab Cola, which his fridge never seemed to run out of. I was even the ring bearer at their wedding when I was very little, probably only three or four years old. He even came home from the store one day with a new computer game, a rainbow-themed race car adorning the box. Across the top of the box read “NASCAR Racing.” We must have played that game until the CD wouldn’t spin anymore. We were the true definition of “pals.” Back then, I didn’t understand what Steve did for a living. He would film his shows in the early parts of the day and was home by the time I got home from school. Some weekends he was gone, and others were spent watching his Washington Redskins play. Of course, there was enough Fresca and Tab to last us long into overtime.
We moved away when I was six years old to a small town just south of Charlotte. After that, I didn’t get to see Steve that much apart from seeing him on television. As I grew up, I watched his shows almost nightly, hoping that someday I would also make it to NASCAR, and we’d be able to hang out again like old times. I remember coming home from school one day in the early months of 2004, walking through the front door to see my mom on the phone. She stopped mid-sentence and said, “He just walked in the door, I’ll give him the phone.” She walked over to me and said, “Here, someone wants to talk to you.” Puzzled, I took the phone and said, “Hello?” A booming voice on the other end said, “Matthew! How was school?” It was the same voice I’d heard just the night before, and I must have been a little dumbstruck because he said, “Hello? You there?” He told me he had two tickets in his hand for the next race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first running of the NEXTEL All-Star Challenge. I said, “I don’t know…I don’t think I can afford race tickets…” He laughed and said, “Nah man, this is your birthday present!”
It was my first NASCAR Cup Series race ever. Well…technically it was my second. I was at the 1990 race at Watkins Glen, but I was a baby so that doesn’t count. I was so excited to finally be able to hang out with Steve again. I went to my Dad’s house and said, “Steve got me tickets to the All-Star race!” It was something I’ll never forget. Steve had recommended I get a scanner to listen to the drivers, and that I did. However, I didn’t listen to the drivers at all. The scanner I rented had the FOX reporters channel on it, and when I first heard Steve’s voice crackle over the speakers, that’s when I stopped scanning the frequencies. My dad and I were seated at the exit of Turn 4, and were witnesses to the silky-smooth bump-and-run Matt Kenseth threw on Ryan Newman to win the race. It was spectacular, and when the checkered fell, I didn’t want to leave. The bug had bitten me again, and I knew that someday I would be on the other side of the fence. I returned to see the All-Star race in 2006 with my mother and attended every year until 2012.
Most people saw Steve as the television personality that he was. On television he was kind, impartial, and the entire garage respected him. Outside of the race track, he was exactly the same. I never saw him angry at anyone, I never saw him get frustrated and quit, and I never saw him treat anyone badly. He was a jokester, a prankster, and had an incredible ability to put a smile on the face of everyone he met. He was also a family man, and in 2003 his son, Bryson, came into the world. I had been at Steve’s house while Bryson was running around as a kid, but I was able to talk to him this week for the first time. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, he’s a good kid.
Our paths had separated in the 2000s when Steve began working for Fox as a pit reporter. I finished high school in 2007 and moved back to Charlotte a few months later, where I began working on a Mechanical Engineering degree. In 2010, I began working at US Legends International as a technical inspector, which had me working at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the summer and Concord Speedway in the spring and fall. When I was little, I wanted to be on TV with Steve when I got older, and that dream came true (indirectly) during the 2010 season. We had a little race known as the Legends Million, which was covered by Speed Channel. I’ll never forget Steve explaining to me how many cameras there would be and giving me a run-down of how to move around the cameramen. I’ll never forget coming home from school a few nights after that race and hearing my mom yell, “Come here, you have to see this!” On the television was NASCAR Race Hub, paused at a single frame. In the foreground, Steve was sat at his desk with the text “Hemric wins Legends Million” across the bottom. In the background, just over Steve’s shoulder was a shot of the frantic pit road, and just off-center in the frame was this bean-pole of a man, holding the hood from a car while the mechanics worked on the engine. That bean-pole was me. I was 21 years old and finally, if only for a split second, I was on the television with Steve. For the rest of my tenure as a race official I got loads of advice from Steve, from who to talk to in the garage to what kind of sunglasses don’t pinch your head while you have a radio headset on. It’s a real problem, I swear!
In October of 2012, my mother passed away suddenly from a heart disease. It was literally overnight, she was normal that day, going absolutely crazy that afternoon when her driver, Brad Keselowski, passed underneath the checkers to take home the trophy from Dover. She went to bed that night, and passed away just a few hours later. My dad helped me to arrange the funeral in a small funeral home a few days after she passed away. It wasn’t a large funeral, just her friends, co-workers, and family. I surprised myself at how composed I was through the whole thing, but that facade came toppling down when I saw Steve and his wife Karen walk through the door to the funeral home. We didn’t really say anything to each other. He just put his hand on my shoulder and said, “She loved you and was so proud of you. Never forget that.”
Another year passed and I was slapped with devastating news: Steve had Cancer. It was a shock. I was barely over Mom’s passing, and to get hit with something like this was almost too much. I watched in silence as the entire NASCAR community gave him their support and best wishes. I was too scared to say anything, I didn’t want it to be real. I heard people on the street mention his diagnosis, I heard people in restaurants look up at the TVs on the wall and ask, “Isn’t that a different host?” I was once in a mechanic’s shop getting my car inspected when a shot of Steve was shown on TV. The mechanic said, “I heard he’s got cancer. Man, that’s gotta be tough. Hopefully he gets better, I like him on this show.” I simply said, “Yeah, he’s a pretty cool guy.” After a while, the report came that he was better, and things were going to be alright. I broke my silence and sent him an e-mail, apologizing for not even making an effort to say anything. His response was unexpected:
“I understand about staying away from my diagnosis…Cancer weirds people out. It weirded me out, in addition to making me incredibly sick. Cancer makes people look at their own mortality…or in your case, identify with a loved one who is sick, or who has passed away. Please don’t apologize for that.”
In the final years of his life, his role as a mentor returned. He was always willing to listen, and again was an inspiration for me, a reminder of where I wanted to be and that anyone was capable of getting what they wanted if they worked hard enough for it. But it wasn’t just about racing, it was about life itself. In early 2014 I was frustrated with racing as a career and wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to continue pursuing this. So many people said things like, “You’ve worked too hard to stop now”, or “What are you going to do? You’ve spent your entire life going for this.” Steve told me something that changed my life, it was ironically in the same e-mail as the quote above:
“As far as racing goes…NASCAR is a cruel mistress. Karen and I have made a good living from the sport, but it has taken much as well. I’m getting ready to pack for Phoenix, and I don’t want to leave my family. I don’t have much time left in the sport, and I’m OK with that. I’ve done my best to represent the sport, and the people in it, with dignity and respect. Bryson is 11 and I want to be here for him, and watch him grow up.”
This made me take a step back and see what really mattered in life, and it’s changed the way I approach many things. My father was diagnosed with cancer last year, and not long afterwards Steve’s cancer returned, much stronger than the first time. My dad was sidelined from the things he enjoyed, like cycling, flying his glider, and autocross. When I saw that Steve was taking the majority of his time to spend with his son, I wanted to find something to do to spend time with my father as well. I chose the most expensive option and bought a go-kart. I bought it completely unassembled, and it’s since become the thing my father and I both work on together. I work on the chassis, he tunes the engine. He’s also been able to start autocrossing again, giving us more time to spend together.
My dad’s cancer was removed, and he’s recently been given a clean bill of health. Steve, however, underwent aggressive treatments to try and get rid of the disease. Karen frequently posted pictures of Steve seated in a chair at the hospital on Mondays, ready to endure hours of chemotherapy, holding nothing but his phone and wearing that giant grin that everyone knew. I saw pictures of him with racing royalty, the likes of Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and even Kenny Schrader. He did a few radio shows from his bedroom, went to all of his son’s sporting events, and even took short vacations with his family. I saw his name on the roofs of race cars, an “SPB” decal over the windows, and even a race that had his name in the title, and fans holding signs reading, “I stand up for STEVE.” I even made a decal for my go-kart that featured three “awareness ribbons:” One for my mother’s heart disease, one for my father’s cancer, and one for Steve’s cancer. Those ribbons are on the front of my kart and the back of my helmet, and always will be.
Last Tuesday, I woke up and went to my computer. I pulled up Jayski to see four words that hit me in the center of my chest: “Sad News – Steve Byrnes.” I didn’t want to believe it, I wanted it to be a message that his cancer treatments were going to be continuing for a little while longer, but that wasn’t the case. I only read the first line of the posting: “Mr. Steven Patrick Byrnes, age 56, of Fort Mill, S.C., went to be with the Lord on April 21, 2015.” I shut my computer off, got in my car, and drove. I didn’t go anywhere, I just left. I was devastated. This man I’d known my entire life, someone I considered to be like Superman, lost his fight. I saw thousands and thousands of people sending their condolences to Karen, and even saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweet about him. I went to the memorial service for Steve on Monday, along with hundreds of other people. It was amazing to see, and at the same time a very emotional experience. I saw how many people he inspired, befriended, or simply supported in whatever way he could. When I got to his family, Karen and I looked at each other and we both broke down in tears. She hugged me and said, “You were so important to him Matthew…” She then turned to Bryson, who was trying to hold his own composure and said, “Bryson, this is Matthew Holden. He moved in next door to us when he was a baby. He and Dad hung out every day, long before you were born.” I reached out and shook his hand, knowing exactly what he was going through, and said, “It’s nice to finally meet you Bryson. Your father loved you and was so proud of you. Never forget that.” As I walked away, I put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Take care buddy, stay strong.”
As I left the sanctuary I paused a table full of pictures of Steve. There were some of him from his school days, some in his football uniform, some in his NASCAR on Fox gear. There was one that caught my eye though, and it was in the center of the table. It was from his wedding. Everyone in the entire service in one big photo. In the middle was a little boy, not even four years old, wearing a rented tuxedo stood just to the side of the groom, a mid-30s man with dark hair, sporting a similar tuxedo. His name was Steve Byrnes. He will be forever missed, and never forgotten. I love you Steve, may you rest in peace.