In a way, NASCAR racing began with Robert “Red” Byron. After all, Byron is credited with winning the first NASCAR-sanctioned race (in 1948) as well as the inaugural NASCAR championship (in 1949).
And he did it all with a bum leg that he hurt during World War II, an injury that kept him hospitalized for more than two years.
In honor of being one of the sport’s earliest and most successful pioneers, Byron has been named to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame 2008 Induction Class. He is joined in the Class of 2008 by Art Arfons, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Everett “Cotton” Owens, Frank Kurtis and Ralph Seagraves. The group will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame on April 24.
A native of Anniston, Ala., Byron began racing as a teenager in the early 1930s. It did not take him long to realize that he had discovered his true passion, according to Byron’s daughter, Bette.
“He lived for it. He loved his racing,” Bette Byron said. “He was a master mechanic, and his dream was to race.”
But like most young men in the 1940s, Byron’s dream was put on hold because of World War II. And it appeared that the dream would end forever when Byron’s B-24 bomber was shot down over the Aleutian Islands in 1943.
Byron’s leg injury from the 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 with the help of a cane.
Less than a year later, in February 1946, Byron returned to the track in a Modified event at Seminole Speedway near Orlando, Fla. He had his damaged leg placed in a steel stirrup, which was bolted to the clutch. He then went out and won the race, edging out a fellow named Bill France at the finish line.
“He taught himself to walk again, and then went straight back to racing,” Bette Byron said. “They strapped his foot into the car, and he used his arm to move his leg for the clutch. He didn’t let (the injury) stop him.”
Two years later, with the strong support of Byron, France was able to organize stock car racing under the banner NASCAR. Byron then made history by winning the first official NASCAR race, a 40-lap event held on the 4.15-mile beach/road course at Daytona Beach, Fla.
In 1949, Byron competed in six of the eight official NASCAR races held 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 champion, beating out eventual three-time champ Lee Petty. Byron’s leg injury and other health problems cut short his driving career. He competed in nine more NASCAR races in 1950 and ’51, finishing in the top-10 five times, before retiring. He remained interested in auto racing and was trying to develop an American car capable of winning the famous 24 Hours of LeMans when he died in 1960 at age 45.
Byron was inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1966, and in 1998 he was named one of the top 50 drivers in NASCAR history.
“It wasn’t just a job to him. It was his life,” Bette Byron said. “The main thing was that he got to sit down with all the people from NASCAR back in the day and be a part of it starting out. I think he was very proud of that. I wish like heck he had lived long enough to see how much it has grown.”