Robert N. "Red" Byron's name is prominently etched in NASCAR's record books, He was NASCAR's first Modified champion (and its first champion in any division) having won the inaugural championship in 1948, and the first NASCAR Strictly Stock (Sprint cup) title in '49. Known for his courage throughout his life, he refined the art of slinging dirt, at places from a cow pasture at Talladega, to an old dirt track in western North Carolina, North Wilkesboro speedway.
Byron was born in Colorado and moved to Anniston, Alabama at an early age. He claimed he first drove an automobile at age five and owned a car when he was 10. "It was a Model T Ford and that was in 1926," Byron said.
Byron's professional racing career began in 1932 when he was only 16, doing his own car preparation at a garage he owned. The determined Red stripped the Ford down, slashed off the fenders, stiffened the suspension, and doctored the engine. He accepted the challenges of older kids to participate in unorganized races around a homemade track carved out of a local cow pasture in Talladega, AL. It was there that he won his first of many races in his illustrious career.
In the 1930s, he was interested in any form of racing on four wheels, whether it is open wheel cars, chopped-up roadsters, powerful Midgets, or stock cars. During his early life, Byron rose through the ranks of small time racing and developed into a consistent winner, but his racing career was about to be interrupted.
With the outbreak of World War II, Byron's racing career was put on hold as he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and served as a flight engineer and tail gunner on a B-24 bomber. He completed 57 successful missions in Europe, but was shot down on his 58th over Kitka in the Aleutian Islands. Ironically, he flew that mission for a friend whose wife was expecting their first child. Critically wounded and suffering a particularly serious injury to his left leg, Byron’s leg injury from the bomber crash was so severe that doctors initially said it was doubtful he would ever walk again, let alone race. After numerous surgeries over a 27-month span, Bryon finally limped out of the hospital in 1945.
After 27 months of determination Red returned to racing in February 1946 at Seminole Speedway near Orlando, Florida in a car owned by LLOAR Director Raymond Parks. With his badly damaged leg in a steel stirrup bolted to the clutch, Byron posted a win over some impressive competition, Roy Hall, Mad Marion McDonald, Bob and Fonty Flock, Bill Snowden, and Bill France.
Byron’s next start was the Daytona Beach, road race in April. He chased Roy Hall for the first half of the 50-lap race. Around the 16th lap the tide started coming in, and Hall, knowing that the harder the sand the faster the car ran with his right tires in the water. On lap 19 Hall’s car veered toward the fans in the North Turn. He quickly turned to the right and went into the surf. Moments later he was back in the race, but Byron had passed him.
In 1947, after a brief career in AAA cars, Red Byron finished third in points in his return to stock cars. He competed in less than half of the races and won half of the 18 he did start.
In 1948, Byron became a part of the newly formed NASCAR Modified Series. Again driving for Parks, Byron won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race ever, a 40-lap event held February 15, 1948 on the 4.15-mile Daytona Beach Road Course. This was also the first of eleven victories Byron would enjoy on his way to the championship.
In 1949, Byron competed in six of the eight official NASCAR races in his 1949 Oldsmobile that year, winning two and finishing in the top-five in two others. He won $5,800, earned 842½ points and went into the record books as the first NASCAR strictly stock (Sprint cup) champion, beating out eventual three-time champ Lee Petty.
Despite his game leg and relatively frail appearance, Red Byron could dazzle and bewilder the best stock jockeys in the business. He developed patience and savvy to compliment his undiminished aggression, and it paid off with his back-to-back NASCAR strictly stock (Sprint cup) championships, in 1949 and 1950.
Poor health forced him out of driving but not out of racing. He worked for a time with Briggs Cunningham, who was trying to develop an American sports car that could win Grand Prix races, and then became manager of a Corvette team that had the same goal. Neither project succeeded, but Byron enjoyed sports cars. When he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four, he was managing a team in Sports Car Club of America competition.
Along with Donnie Allison, Davey Allison, and Harry Gant, they enshrined him into the Talladega Hall of Fame, at the track which was built only 20 miles from Byron’s hometown.
Byron was inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1966.
In 1998, as a celebration of NASCAR’s 50th anniversary, Red Byron was named one of the top 50 drivers in NASCAR history.