Robert “Red” Byron
Byron holds a record that can never be broken: he was the first NASCAR points
champion. Byron was born in Boulder, Colorado but moved to Anniston, Alabama at
an early age. He began racing in 1932 in unorganized races at a little-known
track at Talladega.
During World War II Byron served as a tail gunner on 57 missions in a B-24. He was shot down over Kikta in the Aleutian Islands on his 58th mission -- one he flew for a friend whose wife was expected to give birth to their first child at any moment. Although the doctors did not know if he would ever walk again, Red was determined to race.
After 27 months in military hospitals with doctors trying to rebuild his left leg, Red returned to racing in February 1946 at Seminole Speedway near Orlando, Florida in a car owned by LLOAR Director Raymond Parks. With his badly damaged leg in a steel stirrup bolted to the clutch, Byron posted a win over some impressive competition: Roy Hall, Mad Marion McDonald, Bob and Fonty Flock, Bill Snowden, and Bill France.
Byron’s next start was the Daytona beach-road race in April. He chased Roy Hall for the first half of the 50-lap race. Around the 16th lap the tide started coming in, and Hall, knowing that the harder the sand the faster the car, ran with his right tires in the water. On lap 19 Hall’s car veered toward the fans in the North Turn. He quickly turned to the right and went into the surf. Moments later he was back in the race, but Byron had passed him.
After a short career in AAA cars, Byron returned to stock cars in 1947 and won half of his 18 races. Although he competed in less than half of the races that year, he finished third in points.
Red won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race on the beach-road course on February 15, 1948. He won 11 races that year, finished in the top three 23 times, and captured the first NASCAR championship.
Red retired from racing in the early 1950’s to head a sports car racing team. He died in 1960 and was inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1966. In 1998 he was named one of the top 50 NASCAR drivers.
Byron was a pioneer of stock car racing, an Atlanta garage owner who prepared his own cars during the undocumented 1930s and won more than his share of races. An Air Force tail gunner during World War II, he was a founder of NASCAR after the war and he won its first championship, which was run in modified cars, in 1947. The following year, the Grand National division was established, and Byron won that, too.
Poor health forced him out of driving but not out of racing. He worked for a time with Briggs Cunningham, who was trying to develop an American sports car that could win Grand Prix races, and then became manager of a Corvette team that had the same goal. Neither project succeeded, but Byron enjoyed sports cars. When he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four, he was managing a team in Sports Car Club of America competition.
1949 Season Recap
1949 saw the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' (then know as the Strictly Stock Series) first champion crowned as the eight-race season gave birth to not only NASCAR, but many of NASCAR's early stars and future champions. The first champion of NASCAR's premier series was Atlanta native Red Byron, who piloted his '49 Oldsmobile to two race wins and a grand total of $5,800 in race winnings.
Unlike the NASCAR Winston Cup Series of today, many drivers did not compete in every race on the circuit for a number of reasons (cost, damaged equipment, travel expenses, etc.). The points standings were often skewed toward the drivers that were entered in the most races. Seven of the top eight in the final point standings in 1949 started in six of the eight races that season. Only two of the other fifty drivers that scored championship points in 1949 started in more than four races.
FIVE RACES TO GO: Langhorne, PA - Points leader Red Byron entered the fourth race of the 1949 season coming off of a 22nd-place finish in Hillsboro, NC. With five races remaining and a firm grip on the points lead, Byron turned in a third-place finish at the famed circular one-mile dirt track in Langhorne, PA. Most of Byron's rivals in the point standings also enjoyed success in the race, however. Curtis Turner edged Hillsboro winner Bob Flock by 20 seconds at the finish, while points contender Bill Blair also scored a top-five finish, coming in fifth. Lee Petty, who was entered in his third race of the year, came in seventh. Challenger Fonty Flock had engine trouble and finished in 45th position - last place in the largest field to start a race that season.
FOUR RACES TO GO: Hamburg, NY - None of the leading point contenders entered the Strictly Stock race at Hamburg Speedway. Jack White, who was making his first start of the season, took the checkered in a flag in a field dominated by Northern drivers.
THREE RACES TO GO: Martinsville, VA - Red Byron all but sealed the NASCAR Strictly Stock championship with his dominating performance at Martinsville Speedway. Byron finished 3 laps ahead of runner-up Lee Petty while pole sitter Curtis Turner faded down the stretch and finished ninth. Bill Blair stayed in contention for a top five in the points race with another fifth place finish. Brothers Fonty and Bob Flock damaged their championship hopes by turning in 12th and 14th place finishes, respectively, out of the field of 15 drivers.
TWO RACES TO GO: Pittsburgh, PA - Trying to make a late season run at the points title, Lee Petty did himself one better than last week's race in Martinsville by winning his first NASCAR race at the half-mile Heidelburg Speedway in Pittsburgh. It was not enough, though, as Red Byron was not entered in the 200 lap race and still retained the points lead going into the season finale. Bill Blair, Curtis Turner, and the Brothers Flock did not enter the race either, banking on a solid performance in the final race of the season to determine their positions in the year-end point standings.
FINAL RACE: North Wilkesboro, NC - Red Byron's challengers made a gallant effort to sneak back into the points race in the season finale at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Bob Flock, Lee Petty and Fonty Flock finished 1-2-3 in the race, while Curtis Turner ran ninth and Bill Blair followed him in tenth place. However, a top ten finish was not enough to catch Red Byron, who put the finishing touches on his championship season by finishing in 16th place. Lee Petty's late-season surge awarded him a second place finish in the final point standings and Bob Flock's two wins helped him clinch third. Bill Blair was winless on the season and finished fourth in points. Fonty Flock and Curtis Turner were both bitten by their inconsistency and finished fifth and sixth, respectively. Ray Erickson, Tim Flock, Glenn Dunnaway and Frank Mundy made up the rest of the top 10 in the final point standings in NASCAR's inaugural season.
NASCAR INAUGURAL SEASON FINAL STANDINGS (TOP 10)
1st NASCAR Grand National Champion
15 career races
National Motorsports Hall of Fame (1966)
Named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Driver's (1998)
Won the 1st NASCAR Sanctioned event February 15, 1948
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