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Thursday, November 8, 2012
Updated: November 10, 5:18 PM ET
Byron was great champion, veteran

By Ryan McGee
ESPN The Magazine

Red Byron
Red Byron won the first NASCAR-sanctioned national points race, at Daytona Beach in 1948.

The cold wind blows over the dark green building night and day.

It swirls in and around concrete bunkers that once anchored heavy artillery and skyscraping radio towers. The sound of the distant, bone-chilling waters of the Bering Sea churns against the rocks far below. Some days, only a handful of people make it up from the local cruise-ship port to pass through the visitors' center, a once-abandoned military building that sits along a sometimes busy, but often silent Unalaska Airport runway. Other days -- a lot of days -- no one stops by to scribble their name into the guest book by the door.

This is life at the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area, a National Park Service installation located on the site of Fort Schwatka at Ulakta Head on Amaknak Island. Amaknak sits squarely in the middle of the 59-island chain that forms the Aleutians, the long connect-the-dots arm of Alaska that reaches 1,200 miles out into the North Pacific. The park is a fittingly quiet and downright lonely monument to the campaign WWII historians often refer to as the "Forgotten War."

These islands were once occupied by thousands of soldiers, American and Japanese alike. The ocean around them was filled with warships and submarines. The air above buzzed with military aircraft, snapping photos, intercepting radio transmissions and dropping bombs.

Aboard one of those bombers was a 26-year-old dirt-track racer named Robert Byron. Everyone called him Red. The sergeant was a flight mechanic, working a third of a world away from his home in Anniston, Ala.

As he boarded a B-24 Liberator one day, Byron had no idea that he had just jumped onto the plane via what would be the final full Earthbound use of his left leg. He also didn't know he was five years away from becoming NASCAR's first official race winner and first champion.

A hero, twice over. Exactly the kind of man we should pause for and pay tribute to on Veterans Day.

Red On The Red Clay

Byron was born during the first World War, on March 12, 1915, in Virginia. His family soon moved out west to Colorado before finally settling in the tiny town of Anniston, on the road between Birmingham and Atlanta. As a kid he was relatively soft-spoken and polite. As a young adult, he never drank. As both, he was known as a shade-tree mechanical genius, tinkering with anything and everything he could get his hands on.

"He just thought about everything different than most folks," team owner Raymond 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."

Raymond Parks/Red Vogt/Red Byron
The combination of, from left, owner Raymond Parks, mechanic Red Vogt and driver Red Byron was tough to beat in NASCAR's early years.

Byron made his way to Atlanta to do just that. After racing around the Anniston and Talladega areas, he started wheeling his way around the legendary Lakewood Speedway in whatever ride he could find. His skill caught the eye of Parks, a bootlegger and illegal gambling kingpin-turned-vending machine mogul, and his master mechanic, Red Vogt. Parks and the other Red had worked with legendary Georgia racers such as Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, but those moonshine runners had a hard time either staying out of jail or staying alive.

"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."

Red, Red and Raymond blistered Lakewood. But a world war was raging. In the spring of 1941, Byron traveled to Montgomery, Ala., and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He likely assumed that he would eventually be sent to the South Pacific, Europe or even Africa.

He was headed to Alaska.

The Forgotten Campaign

Occupation of the Aleutians dates back to the Ice Age, when humans walked the bridge of volcanic islands from Asia into the Americas and back. The people who settled there are often incorrectly referred to as Aleuts, a name tagged onto them by the U.S. government in one of the first acts of a long history of inhumane treatment. In reality, they are called the Unangan. Russians moved into the area in mid-1700s. The United States purchased Alaska, including the Aleutians, from Russia in 1867.

On May 21, 1942, nearly six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet that was already steaming its way through the South Pacific, received an intercepted Japanese coded message that revealed an imminent attack on the westernmost Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu. They were only 650 miles from the nearest Japanese naval base at Paramushir.

The Japanese were on their way to invade United States soil, no matter how far from the continental mainland. So Nimitz, already preoccupied with the Japanese push toward Midway Island, scrambled to bolster the small number of troops already stationed there. According to historians at the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area, by June 1 there were 45,000 U.S. troops in Alaska, 13,000 spread throughout the islands, frigid even in the middle of summer. The station was remote, cold and, to most who worked there, downright depressing. But to America's military leaders, it was no less important than the higher-profile theaters of war.

Right on schedule, a massive group of Japanese ships and planes, originally assembled to take Midway Island, overran the small U.S. base at Dutch Harbor, then seized Kiska and Attu. Japanese forces now occupied a portion of the United States.

For the next year, the United States fought to reclaim those islands, finally extracting the Japanese forces via an invasion force of nearly 35,000 that attacked Attu in May 1943 and Kiska three months later, fought mostly in snow and ice while wearing standard-issue olive-green fatigues. Once the Aleutians were finally back in American hands, they were transformed into a jumping-off point, the perfect place from which to launch bombing runs on the Kuril Islands that lined the waters just north of Imperial Japan.

Enter Red Byron.

The Flying Boxcar

From the fall of 1943 until the end of World War II on Sept. 2, 1945, more than 1,500 bombing runs were flown out of the Aleutians and into points throughout the North Pacific. Byron flew 58 of those sorties, more than twice the typical maximum of 20.

To carry out those missions, the plane of choice was the B-24 Liberator, a super-light-for-its-size, thin-skinned silver beast known as "The Flying Boxcar" by some, "The Flying Coffin" by others. It is still history's most produced heavy aircraft, thousands of which were built by the Ford Motor Co., manufacturers of Byron's preferred race cars. The more glamorous B-17 was coveted by pilots, but the B-24 had longer range and could carry more bombs per run.

Byron was the flight engineer and sometime tail-gunner. If anything went wrong, it was his job to fix it. A lot went wrong. On short flights searching for enemy ships, the planes flew low and quick through cold fog -- as one veteran explained, "So close you might get splashed by either sea water or vomit."

On long flights into the Kurils, the plane achieved high altitudes where temperatures plummeted to the point that it turned lubricants into sludge and chilled the bones of the crew leaning against a thin sheet of metal and surrounded by open spaces, including the bomb bay doors below.

"We were heading to Paramushiru," former airman and radar man Jim Schroeder recalled in an interview with the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area about his B-24 experiences. "As we were getting close to the target … I was sitting right next to the bomb bay when I smelled the gasoline. And I looked in the bomb bay, and one of the fuel lines broke. And all the gasoline was going into the bomb bay. So I got a hold of Mitch, our engineer, and he went into the bomb bay and shut off one of the valves for the line. By that time, there was about three inches of gasoline in the bomb bay."

The crew talked. They could land in "Paramush" and be captured. They could land in Russia and be interned for six months. Ultimately, Mitch the engineer determined that, using three of the four engines, they could turn around and hope against hope that they'd make it back to the Aleutians. They did. Barely.

On his 58 missions, Red played the role of Mitch.

"It Was Byron's Job To Get It Loose"

Military records of Byron's 58th mission are sketchy at best. What we do know is that in the second half of the yearlong Aleutians bombing campaign, he boarded the B-24 for a trip he wasn't supposed to take. A fellow serviceman's wife was going into labor, so Byron volunteered to sub for his pal so he could stay back and wait on news from home.

B-24 Liberator
Red Byron's office during World War II was inside a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber stationed in Alaska.

Their target was Paramush, a place now accustomed to being bombed and thusly now reinforced with a wall of antiaircraft weapons. With each mission, fewer planes were coming back without damage, if they came back at all. Now, weaving its way through exploding clouds of black smoke and the whizzing of large-bore projectiles, Byron's B-24's roller-type bomb bay doors cranked open, removing the floor of a big piece of the aircraft's interior, and dropped its full complement of bombs.

Except for one.

"That last bomb got hung up in the plane," Parks recalled. "It was Red's job to get it loose."

Thousands of feet above Japanese soil, traveling hundreds of miles an hour, Byron climbed down into the chasm, scooting on his knees either out along the narrow ledges surrounding the open doors or onto the narrow, 9-inch-wide catwalk that separated the front and rear bays.

The 29-year-old recognized the problem and cut the last bomb loose. As it fell away and he was still exposed in the open fuselage, there was an explosion. Byron always believed it was antiaircraft fire that had made its way into the belly of the plane. Others have speculated that the distressed bomb exploded as it left the plane.

Either way, the racer's left leg was shredded, instantly filled with shrapnel of all shapes and sizes. As the Liberator turned for home and the bomb bay doors cranked shut, Byron's fellow crewmen tried to stabilize his wounds for the 600-mile flight back to the Aleutians.

"Bolt It On There And Let's Go!"

In a makeshift air base hospital, doctors cut the metal from Byron's leg, piece by piece. Because of one large chunk of shrapnel that had lodged its way deep into the muscles and nerves, amputation seemed inevitable. But ultimately they elected to send him to a military hospital in Colorado, not far from where Byron had spent his childhood years, for further evaluation.

For 27 months, well past the end of the war, Byron convalesced in Colorado. He suffered fits of depression as his leg seemed to get no better but found some relief in that, as limited as it might be, it had been saved.

According to Neal Thompson, author of "Driving With The Devil," it was Byron's family who suggested he might rediscover happiness behind the wheel. He bought in. And soon he was tooling around the United States in a Ford. His left leg was encased in a steel brace, so he drove with a hand-operated clutch, which he designed.

In 1946, at the behest of Parks, he entered a stock car race at the Seminole Speedway outside of Orlando. To solve the problem of his left leg, they fashioned a clutch pedal that they could bolt to his leg brace. No, it wasn't particularly safe, especially had Byron's car flipped upside down or caught on fire. But after a few shakedown laps, they realized they were too fast not to risk it. (Remembered Parks: "Red said, 'This is working. Bolt it on there and let's go!'")

Also in the field that day was fellow Parks go-to driver Roy Hall, Bob and Fonty Flock and a promoter/racer named Bill France, who had driven down from Daytona Beach. Byron beat them all.

Red Byron
Red Byron leads the field at Daytona Beach in 1949.

"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."

They won again. And again. Including an April 1947 victory on Daytona's fabled Beach and Road Course. On Dec. 17 of that year, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona, Parks and Vogt were in the meeting during which NASCAR formed. Vogt even came up with the name. In 1948, the new sanctioning body held its season, a 52-race Modified series. Byron won the championship.

The following year, NASCAR unveiled its Strictly Stock division, what is now the Sprint Cup Series. Byron finished third in the inaugural event in Charlotte and won two of the eight races run -- Daytona and Martinsville -- to become champion once again. His leg still hurt, as evidenced by his constant popping of aspirin pills on and off the track.

"In so many ways he was the perfect first champion," Bill France Jr. said of Byron at NASCAR's 50th anniversary celebration in 1998, during which he was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. "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."

Eventually his declining health forced Byron out of the stock car cockpit. He continued to work in racing in open wheels and sports cars, occasionally returning to drive. He died of a heart attack 52 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1960, in a Chicago hotel room, there to talk to Anheuser-Busch about starting a sports car team. He was 45.

Pause To Remember

Red Byron is not in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Not a member, anyway.

Up on the fourth floor, his statue stands alongside those of Vogt and Parks, welcoming visitors to the artifact-laden exhibit of the "Pre-NASCAR" days. Downstairs, just inside the main entrance, his black No. 22 Ford, the car that won NASCAR's first title, leads the 18-car field down Glory Road. Inside, bolted to the clutch, is the bracket where his leg brace was fastened.

Visitors pause to look at his racing machine, but typically rush off to gawk at more familiar rides, such as those of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. It's not at all unlike the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area, more than 4,000 miles away.

It is easy to forget what Byron did on the racetrack. Just as it is easy to forget what he and his fellow veterans did in the Aleutians. That's why it's important that we take the time -- and accept the responsibility -- of remembering them both this Veterans Day. Just as Red Byron's name will always be the first inscribed on NASCAR's championship trophy, it should also be inscribed on the minds of motorsports enthusiasts.

The man who chose country over racing, and then racing over pain. American race fans continue to benefit from both.