Fireball Roberts: NASCAR's First Superstar

F.Roberts

To his legion of fans, Edward Glenn Roberts Jr. was known as "Fireball." His friends, however, simply called the pioneer NASCAR superstar "Glenn." (Photo: ISC Archives)

(This is part of a series in advance of the 2014 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.  Motor Racing Network - "The Voice of NASCAR" - will have live coverage starting at 7 p.m. (ET) with live streaming at MRN.com.  Tim Flock, Jack Ingram, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty and Fireball Roberts comprise the Class of 2014.)

To his legion of fans, Edward Glenn Roberts Jr. was known as "Fireball."  His friends, however, simply called the pioneer NASCAR superstar "Glenn."

Legend has it that Roberts, the 1962 Daytona 500 winner, acquired his nickname as a fastball-throwing baseball pitcher.  Others, including Roberts’ family, disputed the story, noting that the teen’s alleged American Legion baseball team – the Zellwood Mud Hens – never existed.  Fellow competitors said the moniker mirrored the Daytona Beach, Fla., driver’s devil-may-care approach to stock car racing.

Roberts wasn’t afraid of anything, especially the towering banks of the brand new Daytona International Speedway ... where he won seven points-paying races from the superspeedway’s opening in 1959 through 1963.  He also won Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500 in 1958 and 1963.

"I’m going to run the hell out of ’em every lap," Roberts said in a February 1964 Sports Illustrated interview with Barbara Heilman.  "I’ve never won a race stroking."

And win Roberts did.  Over 15 seasons, he won 33 of 207 Cup Series starts beginning with an Aug. 13, 1950, victory at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C. - a .90-mile dirt track.  Roberts, driving an Oldsmobile, defeated Curtis Turner.  He posted at least one victory in nine consecutive seasons (1956-64) topped by eight wins in 1957 behind the wheel of Peter DePaolo’s factory-backed No. 22 Ford.

Roberts never came close to running a full season’s schedule but finished among the top five in points three times.  His best was a runner-up finish, to Bill Rexford, in 1950.  He also won 32 poles, tying him with Fred Lorenzen and Jimmie Johnson for 21st on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series list.

Roberts’ last victory came Nov. 17, 1963, on a three-mile road course in Augusta, Ga.  Driving a Holman-Moody Ford, Roberts finished a lap ahead of teammate Dave MacDonald.  Ironically, the pair would perish in separate accidents in May 1964 - MacDonald at the Indianapolis 500 and Roberts succumbing to burns suffered during the then-named World 600 a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Roberts died July 2, 1964, at the age of 35.

He was born Jan. 20, 1929, in Tavares, Fla., and raised in Apopka near Orlando.  His family moved to Daytona Beach, where Roberts graduated from Seabreeze High School, a few miles from Daytona International Speedway.  He attended the University of Florida, where he studied mechanical engineering; leaving early after deciding that modified stock car racing would become his profession.

His 1939 Ford coupe, carrying the No. 11 and dubbed "White Lightning," was a frequent winner on Central Florida tracks.  Roberts competed on the Daytona Beach & Road Course in 1947 and won a 150-mile Modified race there the following year.  The 4.17-mile circuit became Roberts’ introduction to NASCAR’s Strictly Stock – now NASCAR Sprint Cup – Division.  On Feb. 5, 1950, Roberts completed 8 of 48 laps in a Hudson, finishing 33rd and winning $25.

The Hillsboro victory was his last until 1956, when he was signed by Ford’s DePaolo.  Roberts won 13 races in the No. 22 Ford before Ford Motor Co. and the other Detroit automakers exited racing at the conclusion of the 1957 season.  The car itself became as famous as its driver with musician and songwriter John Hiatt later penning "Fireball Roberts" for his "The Open Road" album.

"Got a '57 Ford, babe ...
Painted Fireball Roberts white and red.
Got a '57 Ford, baby ...
I haven’t run my last race, darlin’
But sometimes wish I did."

Roberts switched to Chevrolet in 1958, won six times and was voted Florida’s Professional Athlete of the Year – a first for a racecar driver.

The inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 truly ushered in NASCAR’s superspeedway era and with it came Roberts’ teaming with crew chief Henry "Smokey" Yunick and Daytona auto dealer Jim Stephens.  The trio won the track’s first Firecracker 250 (now the Coke Zero 400) and defended the victory in 1960.  Roberts set consecutive Daytona 500 qualifying records from 1960 through 1962.

Roberts was 13 laps away from winning in 1961 when the engine in his car expired, handing the win to teammate Marvin Panch in the 1960 Pontiac that Roberts had driven in the previous year’s Daytona 500.  The following year, he won the Daytona 500 by outdueling NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty.  The race was Roberts’ last with Yunick.  He returned to Daytona in July with Banjo Matthews calling the shots and became the first driver to score a season sweep at DIS.

Driving for the Holman-Moody Ford team, Roberts won four races during the 1963 season – including his second Southern 500 five weeks after suffering spinal injuries in a spectacular, roll-over crash at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In NASCAR’s early era, drivers didn’t contemplate racing into their 40s like today.  By 1964, with a lucrative personal services contract in hand to represent a major brewing company, Roberts announced he would compete in just a few more races before retirement – including the Charlotte’s 600, the major event he’d been unable to win.

Seven laps into the race, Roberts hit the wall attempting to avoid an accident involving Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett.  The No. 22 Ford overturned and caught fire.  Roberts, who declined to soak his driver uniform in flame retardant chemicals because the fumes worsened an asthma condition, suffered critical burns that ultimately proved fatal.

Tens of thousands of fans mourned Roberts’ passing.  He was called a pathfinder of the superspeedway era and arguably stock car racing’s first superstar.

"It was like awakening to find a mountain suddenly gone," newspaper columnist Max Muhlman wrote at the time.

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