Red Byron was racing from the day he owned his first car at ten years old, the story goes that he actually drove his first car at five. Being ten years old didn’t stop him from racing and neither, years later, did a war injury that required his foot to be literally strapped to the pedals. Born in Alabama, Byron grew up behind one wheel or another, eventually becoming one of the best modified drivers around. He raced in NASCAR before it was NASCAR. Before World War II, the loosely organized but growing world of American automobile racing drew men in from the back field tracks to compete against other wheelers.
Fonty Flock was the first National Championship Stock Car Circuit champion in 1947 but by 1948, Byron overtook him and was crowned champion. To give you some perspective, for winning that Cup Season, he made $1250.00. Bill France first organized modified competitions and simply dabbled in stock car races. However, the overwhelming popularity of the stock car races brought us to the very beginnings of our sport. Byron followed right along. Originally a modified champion, Byron refocused his efforts on stock car racing and was almost an instant success.
Red was not the first NASCAR champion, but he was the first Strictly Stock Champion. His second championship in 1949 was won with two first place finishes and a 117.5 point lead over Lee Petty. You’d probably recognize Red if given have the chance, the photo of him covered head to toe in red dirt from Martinsville Speedway is always kicking around. His glasses hide his eyes and he lounges in the seat of his car, looking just about as tired as a man can get.
Red Byron is one of those men who probably weren’t meant to do anything other than race. As I mentioned, his story starts out with him behind the wheel at 5. Byron fought in WWII; he joined the US Army Air Force and was a B-24 bomber pilot. He flew more than 50 missions and was shot down during a mission over the Aleutian Islands. His leg was so badly damaged that the doctors wanted to amputate it. Knowing that he would never race again if they did, he refused to let them. Probably one of the most determined men in NASCAR, he returned to racing in 1946.
Red had his mechanic, Red Vogt (another legend in NASCAR) build him a special brace which fixed his foot to the clutch. That’s the foot he raced with to become NASCAR’s first stock champion. His racing career lasted until 1951, his health forced him to move into engine development and team running. Byron had, officially, a very short NASCAR career. But his years of racing make him truly one of the great racers.