Friday, April 04, 2008

Red Byron, NASCAR's first truly ROCKIN' driver (1948-1950), of ROCKET 88 fame

(above) the 1949 Oldsmobile ROCKET 88, of early NASCAR fame.
(and, two years later, the focal point of the Ike Turner-penned #1 R&B hit song)
(above) Robert N. "Red" Byron, who piloted his ROCKET 88 to the
NASCAR Strictly Stock late-model tour championship in 1949
(above) "Red Byron, galloping out of Daytona's south turn during his
runner-up effort in the opening event of the 1950 NASCAR Grand National season."
(above) "Red Byron's courage and grit earned him a place in NASCAR lore."
(above) the #22 car, with Red Byron aboard, posing on Daytona's beach
(above) war hero returned home, as NASCAR's first champ, Red Byron
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"You may have heard of jalopies
You heard the noise they make
Let me introduce you to my Rocket 88
Yes, it's great, just won't wait
Everybody likes my Rocket 88."
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Music and lyrics by Ike Turner, who wrote this #1 R&B 1951 hit, although ironically Chess Records credited "Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats." (Brenston wasTurner's cousin, and the sax player in Turner's Kings of Rhythm band).
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In ROCKIN' DOWN THE HIGHWAY (pages 26 - 27), I go into great detail about this song, the musicians who played on this first rock-sounding record, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 which inspired it, and the Charles Kettering-created engine which was at its core. I also noted that the Rocket 88 won 6 of 9 NASCAR races in 1949, 10 of 19 in 1950, and 20 of 41 in 1952 (before being eclipsed by the Hudson Hornet).
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What I didn't mention is that NASCAR's principal Oldsmobile driver during those years was a war hero returned home, Robert N. "Red" Byron."
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This from http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/red-byron.htm (actually created by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide):
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"Robert N. "Red" Byron's name is prominently etched in NASCAR's record books, having won the inaugural championship in 1948 and the first NASCAR Strictly Stock title (now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series) in 1949. Known for his courage throughout his life, he refined the art of slinging dirt.
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"Byron, from Anniston, AL, claimed he first drove an automobile at age five and owned a car when he was 10. "It was a Model T Ford and that was in 1926," Byron later said.
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"Young Red stripped the Ford down, slashed off the fenders, stiffened the suspension, and doctored the engine. He accepted the challenges of older kids to participate in unorganized races around a homemade track carved out of a local cow pasture. It was there he won his first race.
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"Byron's professional racing career began when he was only 16. In the 1930s, he was interested in any form of speed on four wheels, be it open wheelers, chopped-up roadsters, powerful Midgets, or stock cars. During his early adulthood, Byron rose through the ranks of "educational" (small-time) racing and developed into a consistent winner.
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"With the outbreak of World War II, Byron's racing career was put on hold. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and served as a flight engineer on a B-24 bomber. He completed 57 missions in Europe, but was shot down on his 58th, over the Aleutian Islands. Critically wounded, Byron spent more than two years in Army hospitals.
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"He left the hospital in 1945, able to walk on his own only with the aid of a cane. Byron had authored countless feats of courage and resilience in the war, and he laid plans to return to auto racing.
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"In February, 1946, Byron made a triumphant return to racing in a Modified event in Orlando, FL. He nosed out Roy Hall and Bill France (NASCAR's founder) in a three-car finish. When he parked in the make-do confines of a roped-off victory lane, Byron had to be helped from the car. His left leg, so badly damaged in the war, had been placed in a steel stirrup that was bolted to the clutch. When he unbuckled the chin strap of his Cromwell helmet, he looked like a man twice his age of 30.
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"Despite his game leg and his frail appearance, Red Byron could dazzle and bewilder the best stock jockeys in the business. He developed patience and savvy to compliment his undiminished aggression, and it paid off with back-to-back NASCAR championships (1948 and 1949).
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"Declining helath forced him to hand up his goggles in 1951, but he remained active in racing. He worked closely with Briggs Cunningham, who was trying to develop an American sports car that could win Grand Prix races. When Byron died of a heart attack on November 7, 1960, he was managing a team in Sports Cart Club of America competition."
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The 1948 NASCAR season was the first official year for NASCAR-sanctioned racing. It also featured three female drivers: Sara Christian, Louise Smith, and Ethel Flock. The cars were pre-war coupes, known as "Modifieds."
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Red Byron won the first NASCAR-labeled race, on February 15, 1948, at Daytona Beach, with an average speed of 75.47 mph. That year, out of 52 races, he would also win at North Wilkesboro (twice), Lexington, Wadesborough, Richmond, Greensboro, Charlotte (twice), and Macon. He beat out Fonty Flock by 37.75 points.
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In 1949, Byron won his second straight NASCAR title, and became the first champion of the new Strictly Stock late-model tour on the strength of a pair of wins during the abbreviated eight-race campaign. Byron, who drove Oldsmobiles for owner Raymond Parks, finished 117.5 points in front of runner-up Lee Petty, who won once. Byron only finished out of the top 10 in two of his six starts.
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The 1949 NASCAR Strictly Stock season came about when Bill France recalled the idea of a circuit for late-model American cars. Prior to the war, nearly every stock car race was entirely composed of late-model sedans. But after the war, a shortage of new, postwar automobiles had delayed any thought of racing late models. The first Strictly Stock race was held on June 19, 1949, open to the fastest 33 cars in qualifications.
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Byron was again competitive in 1950, and was among the leaders in the points standings, when all of his points were stripped by NASCAR when he was found to have driven in independent "outlaw" races. NASCAR from the beginning had a strick policy that licensed drivers must stay within the sanctioning boundaries or accept the loss of all championship points.
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FYI, in 1951, the year of Ike Turner's song, the championship was won by Herb Thomas, ahead of Fonty Flock, Tim Flock, and Lee Petty (father of Richard Petty).
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There is a wonderful account of Oldsmobile's racing cars at http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20040501/news_lz1d1history.html
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In part, the piece, by Jerry Garrett, notes:
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"Within GM, Olds was known as the technology division. The 1949 Rocket 88 V8 engine would create a sensation in the auto industry. Bill France's NASCAR racing association would be dominated by Oldsmobiles in its first three seasons.
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""The combination of the Olds chassis and the Rocket V8 was unbeatable in the hands of the right driver," France said years later. France knew firsthand. He and famed driver Curtis Turner, in a Lincoln, would be beaten in the first Mexican Road Race, in 1950, by a Portland lumberjack, Herschel McGriff, driving a showroom-stock Olds 88. Oldsmobile would hire McGriff to crisscross the country in the Rocket 88, making promotional appearances and racing the car.
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"After finishing ninth in the inaugural Southern 500 in 1950, McGriff would drive the Olds back from South Carolina to Portland--arriving with 15,000 miles on the odometer. "Those were all hard miles," McGriff (then 74, when interviewed), remembered. "That was one tough little coupe." The prize money McGriff won in five years of racing Rocket 88's set him up for life in the lumber business.
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"Oldsmobiles helped put racing's famed Petty family on the road to riches too. Lee Petty drove one to victory in the first Daytona 500. His son Richard would make his debut there in a convertible model."
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22 comments:

Anonymous said...

hey paul...chuck from the so cal road devils here.
we met at the peterson and then again at the grand national roadster show in 2007.
just wanted to let you know that there will be an art show/car show in el segundo at gasoline gallery coming up on may 12th, 2008.
this is going out as an anomymous blog but check out gasoline gallery on line.
later dude
chuck

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Well I think that it is a great topic,Red Byron is so important to the National Motorsports Hall of Fame because He was NASCAR's first Modified champion , I remember that my father said that Red B was spectacular in the races.

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