Robert "Red" Byron was a true NASCAR original – the sport’s first crowned champion (NASCAR Modified Series) and first Strictly Stock Series (the current-day Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) title winner – and now he will join the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a nod to his historic achievements and the exciting foundation he helped establish for the sport.
Byron’s racing career will be formally honored as he is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame during its Friday, Jan. 19 ceremony in Charlotte, N.C. joining a fittingly accomplished class that also includes the late engine builder/team owner Robert Yates, Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr., championship crew chief Ray Evernham and pioneering broadcaster Ken Squier.
Byron, who passed away in 1960 at the age of 45, was the sport’s first champion, and bona fide head-turner. He answered his 1948 Modified Series title in 1948 with that historical Strictly Stock crown a year later winning two of the eight Strictly Stock races that season en route to that championship in a car owned by another NASCAR Hall of Famer, Raymond Parks.
Like many others of his era, Byron’s story and his contributions to the sport are even more incredible considering his service to his country long before he thought about a checkered flag.
He served in the United States Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. Assigned to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Byron suffered a severe injury to his left leg while flying in a combat mission during the war and later had to wear a specially created steel leg brace while racing. A version of the brace, which had to be attached to the clutch pedal of his race cars, is mounted in one of his cars displayed in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
It hardly slowed Byron down. The Virginia native-turned Anniston, Ala. resident had nine top-10 finishes in 15 starts, winning a pair of races and a pair of pole positions in three years of Strictly Stock competition.
He won on the Daytona Beach, Fla. road course in 1948 – earning one of the most iconic checkered flags in NASCAR history - and he answered the victory at another of the sport’s most storied facilities, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway months later.
He was recognized in 1998 as one of NASCAR’s all-time Top 50 drivers for his historic efforts.
"In so many ways he was the perfect first champion," the late NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. once said of Byron. "A guy who loved racing so much, he refused to give it up. And he loved his country so much he gave it all he had."
Following his stock car career, the former flight engineer turned his focus to developing a sports car to race in the famed 24 Hours of LeMans in France, however Byron died of a heart attack while finalizing details for the effort.