Robert "Red" Byron won one of the first NASCAR sanctioned races on a beach course at Daytona on February 15, 1948. He also won the very first NASCAR Championship in 1949.
Robert Byron was from Anniston, Alabama. Byron claimed to have learned to drive at the age of 5 and bought his first car, a stripped down Model-T, when he was 10. He began racing on the back roads of Alabama and in unofficial races at a small track at Talladega, taking on the other local kids for pocket money, and started racing professionally in the early '30s as soon as he was old enough.
By the end of the thirties he was well established, racing anything and everything, anywhere and everywhere. But big-time success eluded him.
Then came WW2 and Red signed up as a Flight Engineer on B-26s. He flew 57 successful missions in Europe and Asia, but on the 58th they were shot down over the Aleutian Islands, crashing heavily. Byron was left feeling very poorly. It was to be 2 years before he was able to leave hospital, and a badly smashed left-leg meant that he had to walk with a stick for the rest of his life.
So on release from hospital, it was inevitable that he would want to celebrate his narrow escape by getting his backside back into a racing car ASAP. So, in February 1946, he returned to racing at Seminole Speedway near Orlando, Florida, driving a car owned by Raymond Parks.
His comeback was the stuff of legends. With his left foot placed in a steel strap bolted to the clutch to keep it in place, he edged out established stars Roy Hall and Bill France to win a thrilling 3-car finish.
The photo above was taken immediately after this race, just before he had to be lifted from his car, and gives some impression of the impact his experiences had had on his health.
He then went on to win the next race at Daytona beach-road course, beating Roy Hall again.
Now his career really took off. He found that the increasingly popular Stock Car racing suited his style and in 1947 he won half of the 18 races he entered. He finished third in points despite only competed in less than half the races that year.
For 1948 he became part of the newly formed NASCAR Modified Series. On February 15, driving for Raymond Parks, he won the second official NASCAR race ever held at the Daytona Beach Race Course and, after winning 11 races and finishing in the top three twenty-three times in the 52 race series, he was rewarded with the inaugural NASCAR championship title.
Byron ran in 6 races in 1949 in NASCAR's new "strictly stock" series winning two and earning 842.5 points to win the championship beating Lee Petty, Bob Flock, Bill Blair and Fonty Flock to the title.
But his health was failing, he raced less and less after that, and in 1951 he packed it in for good. Red now turned his hand to team management, and sports car racing. He played a significant role in Briggs Cunningham’s attempts to win at Le Mans, and worked for various other teams during the fifties. Then in 1960, at the age of just 44, he died of a heart attack in a hotel room in Chicago.
He was inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1966 and in 1998 he was named one of the top 50 NASCAR drivers.