Racing beat: Racing pioneer

Robert “Red” Byron

NASCAR’s first champion has finally made his way into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in the recently announced Class of 2008. Robert “Red” Byron, a Colorado native who originally came south looking for gold, is one of six inductees in the HOF.

Byron is joined by Art Arfons, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Frank Kurtis, Everett “Cotton” Owens and Ralph Seagraves.

Byron (1915-’60) drove in dirt track circuits for years, and it appeared the story would end there when he volunteered for the Air Force in 1942. Serving as a tail gunner on a B-24 during World War II, Byron completed 57 missions up to 1943. On his 58th, he was shot down over the Aleutian Islands and hospitalized for 27 months.

But when released he vowed to get back in the game. By then Big Bill France was planting the seeds of NASCAR – a series that would feature guaranteed purses and give grease monkeys the chance to get paid decent wages for speeding. Byron moved to Atlanta, hooked up with soon-to-be-famous car owner Raymond Parks, and the pair decided to give NASCAR a go.

On Feb. 15, 1948, NASCAR held its inaugural Modified event on the Daytona Beach road course in Florida. Marshall Teague led the first lap, but when 149.6 miles of racing on the hard, hot sand was done, it was Byron who took the checker to become NASCAR’s first winner, guiding his 1939 Ford past the likes of Teague and Fonty Flock. When a whirlwind 52-race season was on the books, Byron had scored 11 victories and claimed the Modified championship. A year later – in an effort to make NASCAR the cream of the stock car racing crop – France conducted eight “strictly stock” races throughout the South with championship points at stake in all events. Once again, Byron proved to be the most consistent pilot, claiming the crown over Lee Petty. That title is generally considered to be the first-ever Cup points championship awarded in NASCAR.

“Congratulations are in order for all these motorsports legends,” said Talladega Superspeedway President and IMHOF Executive Director Rick Humphrey. “This induction class is a perfect example of what makes the International Motorsports Hall of Fame so unique. With this class we are honoring drivers, an owner, a fabricator, an engine builder and a promoter. These men comprise the building blocks of all motorsports.”

A quick look at all the inductees:

ART ARFONS (1926-2007): Best known for setting the unlimited Land Speed Record three times in his “Green Monster” racers, Arfons also made significant contributions to drag racing, tractor pulling and powerboat racing during a five-decade career.

BILL “GRUMPY” JENKINS (1930-): Jenkins’ innovative use of his mechanical engineering skills in the mid-1950s produced many of drag racing’s most successful vehicles. Considered the “Father of Pro Stock,” Jenkins built engines for 61 NHRA Eliminators, producing five championships and three ARHA championships. Jenkins also earned a considerable reputation as a driver, winning a combined total of 13 NHRA national Pro Stock events from 1965 to 1975 with one championship as a driver.

FRANK KURTIS (1908-’87): Though he never drove a race, Kurtis’ cars crossed the finish line many times. His Kurtis-Kraft Inc. firm produced some 550 midgets in kit and “ready to run” forms. The combination of the Kurtis chassis powered by a smaller version of the famous Offenhauser engine was virtually unbeatable for more than 20 years.

EVERETT “COTTON” OWENS (1924-): Known as the “King of the Modifieds,” Owens won more than 100 NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour races during the ’50s before making the transition to the NASCAR Grand National series. As a car owner and driver, Owens’ combined career statistics include 41 wins and 38 poles in 487 races.

RALPH SEAGRAVES (1928-’98): Seagraves helped initiate R.J. Reynolds Tobacco’s sponsorship of motorsports in the 1970s. He was president of Reynolds’ Special Events Operations, now known as Sports Marketing Enterprises, from 1972 until his retirement in January 1985. During that period, Reynolds forged sponsor relationships with several motorsports sanctioning bodies, including NASCAR and the NHRA.

Modified Tour Returns
While the NASCAR Nationwide Series and ARCA often serve as feeder systems to Sprint Cup, the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modfied Tour has been a proving ground for future stock car racers for the past three seasons.

“The schedule for the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour is very strong. It encompasses new markets and positions both series well for the future,” says George Silbermann, NASCAR’s managing director of racing operations. “With the support of Whelen Engineering, a terrific group of track promoters and a strong field of competitors, we’re looking forward to continued excitement and close racing throughout the season.”

The points season starts March 22 at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C., and will conclude Oct. 4 at the .455-mile oval. The schedule features 12 races at seven different tracks. It will also feature several stops at tracks that date back to the earliest days of NASCAR, highlighted by its annual midseason visit to historic Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., the .25-mile oval that features tremendous side-by-side, short-track Modified racing.

For the first time, the tour will race at the 3/8-mile Lanier National Speedway in Braselton, Ga. Lanier opened in 1982 and is considered to be Georgia’s premier short-track facility.

The early-season portion of the schedule includes stops at three of the fastest tracks in the southeast: March 29 at the high-bank 4/10-mile oval of Southern National Raceway Park in Kenly, N.C.; April 5 at South Carolina’s Greenville-Pickens Speedway, which has been hosting NASCAR races since 1957; and a stop at the tight, high-speed 4/10 mile of Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, N.C. Ace has a history of NASCAR racing dating back to the 1950s.