My Brain on NASCAR: Byrnes’ death a loss to racing family

col-cathyelliott (2)I don’t know how it works in other professional sports, but in NASCAR, when you lose a member of the press corps, you lose a member of the family.

“Family” is a word that you hear – and say – quite often in conversations about stock car racing. The thing is, it’s not just a word: It’s the truth. I can’t think of another professional sporting environment that consistently puts its athletes in such close proximity to each other on a regular basis for the better part of a year. At some tracks, the conditions in the garage are so “cozy,” for lack of a better word, that when teams working on cars “rub shoulders,” they can literally BE rubbing shoulders.

Similarly, although we all know that good fences make good neighbors, motorcoach parking has gotten so tight in some of the smaller infields that as few as five or six feet can separate one superstar from the next, a prime setup for the airing of laundry both clean and dirty. No matter how much you love Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne, you probably don’t want to smell their socks.

On the other hand, the drivers, NASCAR officials, team owners and the like do have the luxury of being able to retreat into those motorcoaches when they feel the need for some alone time.

Most of the motorsports media, however, isn’t in the same cushy boat. They are writers and publicists and photographers and statisticians. Their daily workspace mainly consists of a choice between a speedway’s media center (normally located in the infield in close proximity to the garage area) or the press box, where they are seated high above the grandstands, shoulder to shoulder in rows, with their laptops in front of them and on-track action showing on TV monitors scattered throughout the room.

If you’d like a mental picture, think of it as a smaller version of Buffalo Wild Wings without servers and beer – or wings, for that matter – where the same show is on every channel.

They travel by different means to the same places week after week. Like the rest of us, they tend to be creatures of habit, staying in the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants each year, spending time at home three days a week; four, if they’re lucky and that week’s race is within driving distance. From the outside looking in, it seems glamorous, but from the inside looking out, it’s a job, and a demanding one.

Like any workplace, it also binds people together by a common thread and creates an environment where casual relationships and close friendships form. Like a never-ending episode of Survivor, alliances come and go. Sometimes people work together; sometimes they don’t. Smaller local publications struggle for supremacy – which in this case would be defined as the best, and best-written, stories — with the big dogs like ESPN The Magazine and USA Today.

There are squabbles which occasionally turn into actual feuds, but mostly there is mutual respect, a pervasive feeling of kinship … and love. Which brings us back to Steve Byrnes, the NASCAR family’s most recent loss.

Byrnes wasn’t a guy who let celebrity go to his head. He was the consummate professional, an extremely talented and trusted broadcaster, a devout and devoted family man, and a beloved and respected co-worker who always found time to stop and say hello to his fans as well as his friends. His loss will be keenly felt for a very long time.

The French writer Andre Maurois is quoted as saying, “Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold.” Our shared experiences, whether they turn out to be fantastic or heartbreaking, nevertheless bind us together, so I know that for all their differences, the media men and women of NASCAR will always share a familial warmth for one another, and will therefore never be left out in the cold.

To read comments about Steve Byrnes from fans, friends and racing professionals on Twitter, visit #ByrnesStrong.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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