Commentary

A salute to NASCAR's veterans on Veterans Day

As the nation observes another Veterans Day, Ryan McGee recounts the pasts of two of NASCAR's more decorated men, on and off the track.

Updated: November 14, 2008, 1:17 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Veterans Day has become one of those holidays we tend to forget about. Many Americans don't even realize it's a holiday until they go to the mailbox and there's nothing there.

In the NASCAR world, there are no days off. Certainly not this week, with only one weekend remaining in the season, three championships to be decided and a gaggle of teams fighting for first, 10th and even 35th in points.

But the sport in which so many now have the opportunity to win trophies and make millions was built by men -- more accurately, boys -- who deserve a bit of a pause on this Veterans Day. The boys who started as farmers and factory workers and unwittingly became soldiers, veterans and eventually racers, legends and the forefathers of big-time American stock car racing.

Here are the stories of two of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of racers who held the line in the Pacific, Europe, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. The guys who put their lives on the line in foreign countries as well as on the racetrack so we can sit on our couches or in the grandstands each and every Sunday to safely and securely root them on.

Let's make sure we are forever fans of what they accomplished on and off the track.

Robert "Red" Byron
Red Byron hailed from Anniston, Ala., just up the road from racing-crazed Talladega, where teenage Red cut his racing teeth on the short tracks of the Yellowhammer State. He was especially tough on the red clay of the old Talladega dirt track and had his eyes on making his living as a racer when his life, along with everyone else's, was interrupted by World War II.

B-24 Liberator
AP Photo/Ford Motor CoRobert "Red" Byron flew on a B-24 during WWII as an engineer and tail gunner.

Byron signed on with the U.S. Army Air Corps, and his mechanical skills landed him on a B-24 bomber as an engineer and tail gunner. Eventually, his wing was dispatched to help protect the Aleutians, a long, thin stretch of Northern Pacific islands that extends from the southwestern tip of Alaska across to the northeastern peninsula of what was then the Soviet Union. Understandably, American history books focus on the more famous battles of the South Pacific between Japan and the United States, but the Aleutians were a hot-spot crossroads of Japan, China, Russia, Canada and the United States, and the daily tension there was a precursor to the Cold War.

It was over the Aleutian island of Kikta that Byron's 58th and final B-24 mission came to a near-tragic end. He had volunteered for the mission so a friend could stay on the ground while his wife was giving birth to their first child back home. The bomber ended up caught in a hell of a firefight, and Byron's left leg was on the receiving end of Japanese airplane bullets and the resulting shrapnel. The plane was forced to the ground, and Byron was forced into more than two years of hospital after hospital and endless surgeries to rebuild his leg.

In 1946, Byron and his mangled leg finally returned home, and that summer, he was back behind the wheel of a race car. He drove for car owner and mechanic Raymond Parks, who came up with the idea of bolting Byron's leg brace to the clutch.

"If there'd been a big crash, he would have been stuck," Parks said during a 1998 interview. "But he didn't care. He wanted to race."

Byron won the first NASCAR-sanctioned event in 1948, a modified race on Daytona Beach, and won the first NASCAR Modified Championship. The next year, NASCAR introduced the Strictly Stock division, which is now Sprint Cup, and Byron won that championship as well. Declining health eventually forced him out of the driver's seat, and he died of a heart attack on Nov. 11, 1960.

"It hurt him every time he got in that car and raced," Parks said. "But winning was more important to him than the pain."

Walter M. "Bud" Moore
While Byron was flying over the Pacific, Bud Moore was a 19-year-old corporal in the U.S. Army's 90th Infantry Division, and in the dawn hours of June 6, 1944, he was on a boat bobbing up and down in the waters of the English Channel.

[+] EnlargeBud Moore
Getty ImagesWalter "Bud" Moore had his hand in championships and fielded cars for some of NASCAR's greatest drivers. He also landed on Utah Beach on D-Day.

To this day, the Spartanburg, S.C., native likes to describe himself as "an old country boy who likes to race," but when the lift gate on his transport boat dropped into the water, he was a scared young kid, scrambling through the tide onto Utah Beach with a 50-pound, 30-caliber machine gun strapped to his back. He watched friends drown in the surf and get mowed down by German artillery fire, but he survived those panicked first few minutes to return that fire back up the beach.

For nearly a year, Moore and his fellow soldiers fought their way through Europe in what Moore still remembers as "The Big Push." He started in England and eventually marched through France, across Germany and into Czechoslovakia to fight alongside the Russians in Eastern Europe while Byron fought with them in the North Pacific.

During the legendarily brutal Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944-45, Moore and a Jeep driver were sent up the road to secure a group of homes. When they got to the first house, Moore fired into it and a Nazi soldier came out with a surrender flag. They put him in the Jeep and moved on. Moore and his driver engaged two more Germans with gunfire and ran them into another house, whereupon Moore started shooting out windows and the driver shouted in German that they were about to call on U.S. artillery to blow up the house.

"The Germans just started pouring out of there," Moore recalled in 2001. "We ended up capturing 15 enlisted men and two officers. Just me and the driver. We got back, and our commanding officer said, 'Where the hell did all these Germans come from?!'"

Moore earned two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts before finally going back home to Spartanburg in November 1945. He soon caught on with the brand-new NASCAR league, serving as crew chief for Buck Baker's championship ride in 1957 and as car owner for Little Joe Weatherly's back-to-back titles in '62 and '63.

Over 37 years as a team owner, Bud Moore Engineering won 63 races, including the 1978 Daytona 500, and 43 poles. His driver roster included Fireball Roberts, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Geoffrey Bodine and Cale Yarborough.

Now, Moore is enjoying retirement back in Spartanburg, where he loves to talk to fans, although he's still reluctant to accept praise for his accomplishments on and off the track. However, here's a word of advice in case you decide to go down and see him. Never, ever use a war cliché when talking about sports -- "It's a war out there," "They won the battle but lost the war." You get the picture.

"Anyone who does that has never been in a real battle," Moore always growls. "There's nothing that compares to war. There's nothing else awful enough to do that."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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