Robert N. "Red" Byron's name is prominently etched in NASCAR's record books, having won the inaugural championship in 1948 and the first NASCAR Strictly Stock title (now known as the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series) in '49. Known for his courage throughout his life, he refined the art of slinging dirt.
Young 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. It was there that he won his first race.
Byron's professional racing career began when he was only 16. In the 1930s, he was interested in any form of speed on four wheels, be it open wheelers, chopped-up roadsters, powerful Midgets, or stock cars. During his early adulthood, Byron rose through the ranks of educational (small-time) racing and developed into a consistent winner.
With the outbreak of World War II, Byron's racing career was put on hold. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and served as a flight engineer on a B-24 bomber. He completed 57 missions in Europe, but was shot down on his 58th over the Aleutian Islands. Critically wounded, Byron spent more than two years in Army hospitals.
He left the hospital in 1945, able to walk on his own with the aid of a cane. Byron had authored countless feats of courage and resilience in the war, and he laid plans to return to auto racing.
In February 1946, Byron made a triumphant return to racing in a Modified event in Orlando, Fla. He nosed out Roy Hall and Bill France in a three-car finish. When he parked in the make-do confines of a roped-off victory lane, Byron had to be helped from his car. His left leg, so badly damaged in the war, had been placed in a steel stirrup that was bolted to the clutch. When he unbuckled the chin strap of his Cromwell helmet, he looked like a man twice his age of 30.
Despite his game leg and his 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 back-to-back NASCAR championships.
Byron only competed in 15 races from 1949 to '51 in NASCAR Strictly Stock and NASCAR Grand National competition. He posted two wins and registered nine top-10 finishes.
Declining health forced him to hang up his goggles in 1951, but he remained active in racing. He worked with Briggs Cunningham, who was trying to develop an American sports car that could win Grand Prix races, then became manager of a Corvette team with the same goal. Neither project succeeded, but Byron enjoyed sports cars. When he died of a heart attack in a Chicago hotel room on Nov. 7, 1960, at the age of 44, he was managing a team in Sports Car Club of America competition.