Among the dozens of cars at this weekend’s ARCA race at Pocono Raceway, one will stand out. Not for the color scheme or the lines. For the decals.
When the No. 48 of Ricky Byers Racing rolls out onto the track, it won’t be sporting the usual array of auto parts or alcoholic beverage stickers. Byers’ red-and-black Ford Fusion will decorated for those who have made his dream a reality, the 90 or so people who have given the two-time throat cancer survivor a chance to fight back at the disease that nearly cost him his life.
“It’s the greatest feeling of my life,” Byers said. “Those are the people who support what I’m doing, believe in what I’m doing and they’ve given me a chance to go out there and race for cancer.”
Byers has been around motorsports long as he can remember. His dad was a lifelong racer and little Ricky spent his early days racing motocross and go-carts before moving on to full-sized cars. The Birmingham, Ala., native went on to race for 20 years, winning five different track championships in Pony, Super Pony, Dwarf and Late Model cars.
But when Byers was 33, his career took a back seat to something much bigger: a race for his life.
Byers had lost his voice and wasn’t able to get it back for weeks, but six different doctors told him it just was a sinus infection, that he had nothing to worry about. Then came the real diagnosis: stage one squamous cell carcinoma.
The good news was Byers’ throat cancer was in the early stages and treatable. And, after 35 radiation treatments over seven weeks, Byers was told he was cancer-free.
Not long afterward, however, Byers started feeling weak. Doctors told him the cancer was gone and he was making himself sick by worrying. But Byers kept getting worse, eventually so bad he could barely eat or get out of bed.
Eventually, doctors discovered the problem. The cancer was back, this time in stage four.
“I was physically going downhill when they found it again,” Byers said. “In a couple of months, I was going to be dead.”
Faced with the same disease that had recently killed 49-year-old NASCAR driver Bobby Hamilton Sr., Byers was terrified but not ready to give in.
At first, the doctors said he’d need a laryngectomy, meaning he’d spend the rest of his life with a tube in his throat, speaking through a handheld device. Unwilling to accept the loss of his voice, Byers did some research and found a specialist in Philadelphia who said he could remove the cancer with a less drastic procedure.
Byers lost his left vocal chord, part of the right and had his voice box reconstructed. He was cut from ear to ear, had a tracheostomy tube in his throat for two months, a feeding tube stuck in his side for three. He had to learn how eat, swallow, talk all over again.
A harrowing ordeal, but Byers was alive — and still had a voice.
“I don’t talk the best, but I do talk,” he said.
Now that voice, gravelly and barely above a whisper, has been spreading the message for cancer patients across the country.
Byers returned to work about six months after surgery and later rode in the Lance Armstrong Tour of Hope in Washington, D.C. Not long after that, Byers’ story got attention and people from all over the country started contacting him, looking for help in finding cancer treatments and better doctors, with finances and travel.
Pretty soon, Byers was spending nearly every non-working, non-sleeping hour helping people, often at his own expense.
“I paid it out of my pocket and I couldn’t afford to do that anymore,” said Byers, who’s in the swimming pool business.
That’s when he decided to go back to racing. Not for himself. For all the people he’s trying to help.
Byers created his own racing team last year with a purpose of donating all of its winnings to cancer research. So, despite the limitations of his voice, Byers hit the pavement, the phone and the Web, spreading the word of his cause, convincing sponsors to join in.
Just as when he was fighting for his life, Byers never gave up.
“One of the things that impressed me the most when I met Ricky for the first time was that I knew he was genuine in what he was going to do,” said Charles Robinson, the host of Burning Rubber Radio in southeastern Kentucky who has helped Byers promote his program. “He was going to do it regardless. He was going to use any means to get the word out.”
Still, it hasn’t been easy.
The 40-year-old Byers had a deal lined up to race the entire season, but the sponsor died of a stroke just days before the opener at Daytona in February and the money fell through. He’s spent the five months since working on deals — from donated products to sponsorship money — trying to convince people his cause is worthwhile.
Byers finally pulled enough together, getting just enough money to run at Pocono. So on Saturday, the driver who’s helped so many cancer patients will hit the pavement for the first time in seven years, the support of those 90 decals pushing him along to help so many more.
“We’re about $6,000 short, but we’re going,” he said. “If we can get the word out, get a sponsor to come on full-time, we could raise millions of dollars for cancer research.”
He’s already off to a good start.