Local racing mourns the loss of Mike Butler
December 2009 Dale Wilkerson
For most of his life, Mike Butler stood behind the spotlight.
His work as a photographer captured some great moments across the upstate. Whether he was roaming the sidelines at The Reservation, working the corners or the Winner’s Circle at an area racetrack, working a wedding ceremony, or just taking pictures of the countryside, Mike’s work brought smiles to thousands and captured memories that will last a lifetime.
Mike passed away Christmas morning; leaving behind his parents, sisters, nephews, and a list of friends that would have The Reservation at Gaffney filled to standing room only.
Butler did so many things below the radar that some folks never knew about. He provided results and photographs for many publications across the Carolinas including The Hometown News. Many race nights, Mike would stay at the track well after the stands had emptied due to winner’s car going through a post race tear down, or the dreaded tech-room as it is known. "When I send the results, I want them to be right, and the same with the winner’s pictures. I would hate to have the picture of a driver that was called wrong in the paper, so I will wait until I know the information I have is correct," Butler said to me one race night at Gaffney this past season, as we waited for the results of a tear-down.
That night, Mike pulled his camera out around 2:00am to get the picture of the Young Guns feature winner. Both the first and second place cars were called wrong and Mike was able to get Andrew Wilson’s picture posted as the winner.
Whether he was working Union County on Friday night or Cherokee Speedway on Saturday, Mike would take his post for every lap of practice, all of the heat races, then he would move to the Winner’s Circle, checkered flag in hand, to capture the smiles of the race winner’s each night.
"Mike had a way of making every race winner feel like they had just won the biggest race of the year," said current Cherokee Speedway PA-Man Kevin Wray. "Mike would wait for the dust to settle so the pictures would look their absolute best. He never said no to a request, if a driver had 20 family members or crew members that wanted their picture taken with the winner holding the checkered flag, Mike would take every picture with a smile," Wray added.
Being a track photographer was not without its dangers. This past summer, Mike was hit by a huge mud-clog during practice at Gaffney. "I saw it coming so I spun around to protect my camera and it nailed me in the back!!" Butler said. He lifted his shirt and he had a bruise the size of a football.
On Droppin’ the Hammer last spring, I asked Mike if he was ever scared while taking pictures during a race, and he responded without hesitation, "Yes, Union County any race night!!!" He told me I needed to stand with him for one race at Union, but I thought better of it. Then during the Southern All Stars East Late Model race last May, Mike could have touched several cars as they dipped onto the infield area in turn four lap after lap. In fact, his pictures showed just how close those cars were to him.
Mike gave nicknames to folks he liked. One that he coined has become a track favorite. Mike was the first person to call Zack Mitchell ‘Kid Quick’. This name suits Zack to a tee. He is just 13-years old and he already has a Super Late Model win at Cherokee Speedway. Mike made Zack some postcards and license plates with the Kid Quick logo.
Butler always took time for kids at the racetrack. He would host the Kids Meetings at Cherokee Speedway. Many nights he would provide the candy for those meetings. Other nights some drivers would help out by dropping a sack full of treats off at Mike’s van or they would catch him while he was making his rounds before hot laps. Mike always made sure the driver that donated the candy received credit for it. Mike enjoyed watching the young drivers each week. "These kids are the future of local racing, we might be watching the next dirt legend or even a kid on their way to NASCAR out here," Mike said during practice at Gaffney last summer.
Mike was a huge help for myself and the crew of Droppin’ the Hammer. He made numerous contacts for the show and arranged several guests over the past two years. "Come on Charlie Brown; get on this golf cart I have somebody for you to meet." Mike would say to me (yes he called me Charlie Brown) and he would take me to a car hauler to meet a driver. "Dale has a racing show and you need to be on it" would be Mike’s line and I would have another guest lined up. That even worked with NASCAR driver A J Allmendinger.
Butler encouraged Mary Beth Hicks to come on Droppin’ the Hammer in November. Mary Beth, along with racing, sings the National Anthem at local tracks and I asked her if she would come on the show for Veterans Day. She said yes but she also filled a request for Mike. "Mike said he would love to hear me sing God Bless America so I worked on it before going on the show," Hicks said. "When I arrived at the track that night, Mike was so happy and he thanked me for singing that song for him," Hicks added.
Mike would give me story ideas for my articles and he even proof-read a few of them. The last one he read was last week’s 2009 year in review. I sent it to him around December 11th to get his opinion on it. I didn't hesitate to make the changes he suggested, made a phone call to Timmy McAbee for clarifiction at Mike's suggestion and sent the finished product back to Mike before sending it to Hometown News Sports Editor Jed Blackwell. Mike even suggested what pictures to run with the story.
Things just will not seem right when the gates open at Cherokee in a few weeks. I will miss the time we spent down in turn one at his normal post. Mike invited me out there on night last summer. We would talk racing of course but many other subjects always came up. We would talk about religion, football, his Gaffney Indians, my Chapman Panthers, the race from the week before, work, our families, politics, the price of gas, well you name it and we probably hashed it out down in turn one between hot laps and heat races each night.
Mike Butler will long be remembered for being a true friend with a big heart. A man who never wanted to be in the spotlight, but always made sure the spotlight, or flashbulbs, stayed focused on those around him. The next time you open your photo album and you see a picture with Mike’s trademark, just remember the smile on Mike’s face as he handed that photograph to you..