For many, the number 22 may represent a deficient number or a pentagonal number. For others, it may symbolize chaos and disorder. But for NASCAR fans, the number 22 holds importance because it was Red Byron’s number, a World War II hero, and the first champion of the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division.
Let’s take a sneak peek into the life of Red Byron, the man behind the blisteringly fast number 22 on NASCAR tracks.
Insight into Red Byron’s early life
Robert Nold Byron, commonly known as the Red Byron, was one of the best drivers in the late 1940s. He didn’t really start off as a stock car racing driver, but was a dirt track racer, racing around the Anniston and Talladega areas.
His passion for racing would come to a halt as war loomed around the corner. At the age of 26, he became an engineer on the early B-24 Liberators, American heavy bomber aircraft, in the Second World War. Byron was a mechanical genius, and he was responsible for fixing anything that went wrong on the B-24.
An unfortunate incident occurred during a mission over the Aleutian Islands where an explosion in the aircraft nearly cost Robert his leg. His left leg was severely shredded with shrapnel from the bomb explosion near the fuselage. You could say it was the destiny of a man born during the First World War.
The doctors managed to save his leg from amputation, but it never got any better than that. Byron spiraled into depression after spending 27 months in a military hospital and not fully recovering from his leg. His family suggested that he get back into racing as a way to rediscover happiness, and he did.
Rediscovering his passion for motorsports
Byron was discharged from the hospital with his left leg in a steel brace and a will to conquer the race tracks. He drove around the United States in a Ford with a hand-operated clutch that he had designed.
Byron was too fast, and in 1946, he entered a stock car race at the Seminole Speedway. His team designed a clutch pedal that could easily attach to his left leg, and to everyone’s surprise, Byron beat Roy Hall, a pioneering American stock car racing driver, and Bill France, a NASCAR promoter and racer. The Seminole Speedway victory cemented Byron’s ambition to become a legend in the stock racing car world.
Byron participated in the NASCAR Modified Series in 1948 and won the championship with a tricked-out 1939 Ford. Little did Byron know that he was about to make history a year later. In 1949, NASCAR announced the Strictly Stock Division, nowadays popularly known as the Sprint Cup Series.
Throughout his life, after the hospital discharge, Byron was constantly popping aspirin to subdue the pain, but it was the adrenaline from racing that truly pushed him forward to new heights. Byron went on to win two of the eight races, securing a score of 842.5 points and becoming the first champion of the Strictly Stock Divisions, a record that can never be broken.
After winning the Strictly Stock Division title, Byron scaled back his racing activities due to his declining health and never truly achieved anything as great as the 1949 victory. However, he remained involved in racing, secretly tinkering around in a garage to put together an American car that would be able to win the notorious 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Unfortunately, he had a heart attack at 45 in 1960 and died at a hotel in Chicago where he was supposed to speak with Anheuser-Busch about starting his own sports car team.
Red Byron’s entry into the Hall of Fame
Over his brief racing career, Byron accumulated several wins and titles to his name. However, his achievements came after his death when, in 1966, Byron was selected to the National Motorsports Hall of Fame and, in 1998, he was named one of NASCAR’s top 50 greatest drivers.
In 2018, Red Byron made it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and his legendary black No. 22 Ford is just inside the main entrance (located in Charlotte, North Carolina.) If you glance inside the Ford, you’ll see his left leg’s bracket bolted to the clutch.
Today, many may have forgotten Byron, but it is our responsibility to recognize the man who left racing behind to serve his country and then chose racing over pain. Byron achieved more in his brief history than any other NASCAR champion. He won the first-ever NASCAR championship, which will forever be instilled in the minds of motorsports enthusiasts around the world.
Here is the information if you want to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame Museum:
400 E M.L.K. Jr Blvd
Charlotte, NC 28202
Admission: $25, 3-7 $12 8-12 $18
Combo packages available from $34 to $39
Open: WINTER HRS Oct 27 – Mar 31 Daily 10am – 5pm, No General Admission on Tuesdays