NASCAR Cup Series (1949-1951)
After his plane was shot up in World War II, the B-24 tail-gunner spent more than two years in the hospital. His left leg remained so damaged that when the Alabaman returned to racing, he had to bolt his leg brace to the clutch pedal. It didn’t seem to slow him much. A sprint and midget driver before the hostilities, he concentrated on stock cars after. In 1948, he won NASCAR’s first ever championship, in the Modified Division. A year later he became the first NASCAR Cup Series champion, propelled in part by victory in the inaugural Daytona Beach Road Course event. Fading health caused him to quit driving at the end of the 1951 season. Throughout the ‘50s he was a mechanic for a number of sports car teams, including those of inductees Briggs Cunningham and Jim Hall, and crew-chiefed the multi-championship Meister Brauser team. He died of a heart attack in 1960. Byron was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and inducted into the 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.
By Will Strohmeyer
December 14, 1947 was a night to remember at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. Drinks, showgirls, music, and a gaggle of racers, several of whom would go on to become NASCAR icons: Bill France, Red Vogt, Raymond Parks, Fonty Flock, and on the far side of the room, Robert Nold "Red" Byron Sr. The meeting — one of many — would be the inception of NASCAR, and Red had a seat at the table.
Two months later, Byron would win the sanctioning body's first race, on the rough-and-tumble Daytona Beach and Road Course, on his way to capturing its first championship over Flock. The following year, 1949, Byron won NASCAR's first Strictly Stock title, precursor of today's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, in car-owner Parks' Oldsmobile.
But Byron's legacy is more than his status as first NASCAR champion — it's the circumstances he overcame to achieve it.
Byron was born in 1916 in southwest Virginia. Raised in Boulder, Colorado. Quit school after his mom died during the Depression to help support the family. Known as "Red" for his shock of ginger hair, he began racing in earnest after moving to Alabama, mostly in Sprint Cars and Midgets. He was said to have dominated at local tracks.
Then came World War II. Leaving racing behind, Byron headed to a recruiting office in Montgomery to enlist. Serving as a mechanic and tail-gunner on a B-24, he survived 57 missions before his plane was shot down over the Aleutians, his left leg so badly injured that doctors wanted to amputate. Red refused. It was two years before he was released from the hospital to his family in Boulder.
Byron became an avid reader and writer, and began sketching devices that would enable him to resume racing. In 1946, working alongside Vogt, Byron fabricated two stirrup pins on his clutch pedal to support his limp left leg. That combined with a full leg brace allowed him to operate the pedal. "I never gave up hope of racing again," said Byron after his first postwar victory. "Even when I was lying in the hospital and the doctors didn't know whether I'd ever walk again."
Byron's titles in '48 and '49 took a toll. Thereafter, NASCAR expanded the number of races, but Red only had the physical endurance to participate in a few cherry-picked events. He hung up his helmet after 1951, becoming a mechanic and crew chief first for inductee Briggs Cunningham's Corvette team, then inductee Jim Hall's, and finally Harry Heuer's Meister Brauser sports car operation in the Midwest, which he turned into winners. "Red brought together a team of stock car (mechanics) and ran them," said the late Heuer. "It made a hell of a difference. I had run my big mouth to our board of directors and said I would bring a championship home every year, and Red made that true."
Byron wouldn't live to see it. He died in a Chicago hotel in 1960. He was 44.
So when someone brings up Red Byron, don't think of just NASCAR's first champion or someone named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers, but a man who fought through every roadblock that life threw at him and came out a victor on the other side.
Will Strohmeyer is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio. He is a contributor to sports blogs, newsletters, and discussion boards and is currently pursuing a career in copy and content writing.