Robert “Red” Byron was born on March 12, 1915 in Virginia, however, while Byron was still at an early age, his family relocated to Colorado before they finally moved to the small town of Anniston, Alabama, which Byron eventually considered to be his hometown. While this would be a deterrent to starting into any profession, let alone racing, however Byron did not let this faze him. As a young adult, he became very interested in mechanics and engineering, particularly with automobiles, and was more concerned with how they were able to operate rather than just how they looked. According to Raymond Parks, who was his car owner when he took the first ever NASCAR championship, there didn’t seem to be anything that would get in the way of him learning more about mechanics and that’s what helped him to stand out from many the other drivers, even at the time of the pre-NASCAR era.
"He just thought about everything different than most folks," Parks explained in a 2007 conversation. "You might look at something and think, 'Wow, isn't that pretty,' but Red, he was thinking, 'How in the world did they make that?' Like an engineer, you know. That's what made him such a great race car driver."
However, Byron was also smart enough to know that, with as small of a town as Anniston is, he wouldn’t have much of a chance to make a name for himself as a racing mechanic, so he moved to Atlanta to find a better opportunity to work with and learn from other mechanics/drivers. An important distinction to understand is that, when NASCAR first began, the mechanics were known as the most skilled aspect of racing, while the activity of driving the car itself was more of a secondary job.
However, Byron was able to make his big break when he first met mechanic and illegal gambling tycoon Red Vogt, who had also worked with several talented drivers in the past, and saw something that he liked with the serious attitude that Byron took towards working with cars and racing.
"Byron was just the total opposite of that. He was what we called a teetotaler," Parks recalled before his death in 2010, adding with a laugh: "Those boys were kind of hard to find around the racetrack back then."
It looked as though Byron’s career was on a positive trajectory, however it all changed when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, leading the U.S. into entering into World War II. Feeling that his mechanical expertise could be useful towards the war effort, Byron enlisted into the U.S. Air Corps and was trained to become a flight engineer and a tail gunner. However, while Byron was flying in a B-24 looking to drop bombs over Japan, one of the bombs got stuck in the plane’s fuselage. As Byron made his way over in an attempt to free it, an explosion occurred, leaving Byron’s left leg badly injured, and caused him to fall into a depression, feeling that his racing career could be over.
While that would be all for Byron’s military career, he still tried to make a comeback so that he would be able to race again. But finally, after over two years of recuperation, Byron made his way back behind the wheel in 1946 at Seminole Speedway near Orlando, as he had the clutch especially made to be bolted to the leg brace that he used to walk, and, in his very first race back, Byron won the event, which helped him to go back to feeling like himself again because it gave him the confidence that he still had the ability to win races, according to Parks.
"He was kind of always back after that," Parks recalled during a meeting of the Daytona-based Living Legends of Auto Racing in 1999. "His attitude was always a good one. But after the Seminole win, he was back to his old self. We got back together after that, with Red Vogt, and had a pretty nice run."
Byron carried on the momentum into 1947, winning the famous Daytona Beach road course race. Meanwhile, the idea for a national racing circuit was starting to be formed, as Parks and Vogt became integral people in the formation of NASCAR, as Vogt was even the one who suggested the ‘NASCAR’ acronym. As Vogt was already involved in the new tour, Byron decided to join in as well and teamed up with Parks to drive and work on his cars. In 1948, the pair won the first incarnation of NASCAR with the short-lived Modified Series . However, NASCAR believed that they could attract more manufacturer sponsorships by using regular street cars, they started the Strictly Stock Series for the 1949 season, and Byron as well as Parks made the move to the series which would eventually become the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
However, again Byron faced obstacles on his road to recovery, as the team was only able to race a total of six races out of the eight that were on the schedule, due to traveling costs, equipment issues, and the continued leg pain. Nonetheless, Byron was still able to take the first NASCAR Cup Series championship by 117.5 points over future NASCAR legend Lee Petty, getting two wins on the season in the process to go along with four top fives and four top 10’s.
However, that would the peak of Byron’s racing career, as despite a strong start to the 1950 season, Byron would be unable to find his way back in victory lane as he was only able to start four of the now 19 races on the schedule. In 1951, he wouldn’t fare any better, this time just getting one top five in five races, before retiring at the end of the season. However, Byron still remained active with working on cars and even managing a team in the Sports Car Club of America. Unfortunately, Byron passed away from a heart attack on September 12, 1960 at the age of 45.
While Byron’s NASCAR career wasn’t long enough to be put on the same pedestal as household name NASCAR legends such as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, the fact that he was able to race with such a severely damaged leg in the 1940’s, where race cars don’t have nearly the amount of safety features that they do today, should give Byron some more credibility as one of the greatest drivers of all time.
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