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Down Memory Lane With Fireball Roberts
By Patty Kay
Long before Dale Earnhardt became "The Intimidator", and even before Richard Petty was "King", the sport of auto racing had another #1 man. His name was E. Glenn Roberts, but he was known the world over as "Fireball."
Born and raised in Apopka, Florida, young Roberts is said to have been a terror on local roads, and US Highway 441 in particular, which he and his friends saw as one huge drag strip. (Keep in mind, at that time 441 was a two-lane highway, and one of them went the other way.)
Glenn spent one year attending classes at the University of Florida, but quickly decided that life wouldn't wait until he finished college. Besides, all he'd ever wanted to do was go racing, and go racing he did! He began his career on the dirt tracks of the brand new Grand National stock car circuit that we now know as Winston Cup. In 1950, the 21-year-old Roberts ran second to Johnny Mantz in the first race ever run at the new Darlington "Superspeedway," a paved 1.3-mile track in Darlington, S.C. and the first of its kind on the circuit. To Fireball, the highlight of that day was not running second, which he merely considered losing, but finishing ahead of Red Byron, one of the toughest racers of the era. (Byron finished third.)
In the early 50's it was men like Herb Thomas, Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts that were the stars of the show that now is dominated by names like Gordon, Wallace, Earnhardt and all the rest we are familiar with today. When asked about the nickname, "Fireball," Glenn always said that it came from his high school baseball days, when he was a pitcher. However he got it, that name would become very descriptive of his driving style throughout his career. From beginning to end, he only knew one way to race and that was hard, with the only acceptable outcome being first place.
Stock car racing in those days was a very different animal from the pageantry we see today, with specially built cars and engines that have nothing to do with the word "stock." In the 1950's and early 1960's, it was pretty much "drive what you brung," and many did just that, driving to the track, racing and driving home again, all in the same car. What came from the showroom floor was what was legal to run, although of course, being racers, there was a never-ending quest to stretch the term "stock" just as far as the limits would allow. Some call it cheating, while others refer to it as "experimenting in the grey areas." That part hasn't changed.
Safety equipment was pretty much unknown back then. There were no roll cages and the car doors actually opened. Heck, some of them even had four doors. Things like padded seats, head restraints and automatic fire extinguishers hadn't even been thought of, the tires on the car were just round and black, not designed for a specific track, and of course, there were no inner liners. For several years in the late 1950s, these early knights of the road even raced a convertible series. Now, that's scary! Have you ever seen a car on its roof? Still, I guess it was something about the incredibly high danger factor that made auto racing so exciting; that and the fact that the cars they drove looked exactly like the ones in your driveway, because they were.
In 1959, Big Bill France opened his brand-new "dream track" in Daytona Beach, Florida, and in 1960 three more superspeedways opened their doors, in Charlotte, Atlanta and Hanford California. The face of stock car racing was about to change, as more and more tracks opted for paving over dirt and hard packed clay, and the onset of these high-speed tracks would make the name Fireball Roberts a household word. Once having tasted the speed at the big tracks, Roberts just wanted more and more. Not caring at all about running for the title, he picked and chose his races, leaving the little bullrings for others to race, and concentrating his efforts on the bigger and faster tracks. The world will never know how many titles he might have won if he'd raced full seasons, but one has to imagine it would have been several.
In that same year of 1959, Fireball began to drive for one of the most revered men in all of motorsports, the legendary Henry "Smokey" Yunick. Smokey was the proprietor of what he lovingly called, "The best damn garage in Daytona" and was very simply the best auto mechanic in racing. In fact, many of the improvements that have evolved into the sleek, super fast models of today can be traced back to Smokey Yunick's garage. With a driver of Fireball's character and ability seated in Yunick's black and gold #22 Pontiac, we witnessed one of those magical combinations that seemingly could do no wrong. In a three-year period, Fireball ran in 30 races on the superspeedways, winning 5 of them and putting that #22 on the pole an astonishing 15 times. In later years, Smokey would confide that there was no secret to the speed they produced together. "When you get the mechanic, the driver and the money on the same page, they're about unbeatable."
Not surprisingly, although he loved all the superspeedways, Fireball's favorite track was Daytona, from the very day it opened. He won the Firecracker 250 in its inaugural year, but much like another driver of a later time, the 500 eluded him in the first three years, even though he was the fastest car. At the first Daytona 500 in 1959, he climbed steadily from his 46th starting place to lead the race, only to have a fuel pump fail on lap 56. In 1960, he started from the pole and led until the 19th lap, when a faulty engine took him out of the race. In 1961, after starting from the pole again, he led almost every lap until another engine failure ended his hopes with only 13 laps left in the race.
Finally, in 1962, it would be Fireball's turn, and after winning his qualifying race as well as a 10 lap "all-star" race much like "The Winston" of today, he would start that 405 hp black and gold Pontiac on the pole and finally claim that elusive prize, the Daytona 500. Of course, he did it in true Fireball style, leading the last 49 laps and finishing nearly a half lap ahead of second place Richard Petty. To put an exclamation point on that win, he came back in July and won the Firecracker another time. So dominant was he there that fans began calling Daytona "Fireball International Speedway."
However, something else was going on that year as well, as Smokey Yunick watched his driver change. According to Smokey, Roberts had become agitated and nervous, had begun sweating noticeably before each race and looked ill at ease in the racecar. What was Yunick's advice to Fireball?
"I told him, 'I'm proud of you, but I'll never race with you again. You should quit.' "
Fireball didn't quit, (although he later admitted to Smokey that he should have) but instead signed a three-year contract with Holman-Moody to race for Ford. After winning three races for his new car owners in 1963 and into 1964, the racing world had to bid farewell to Fireball Roberts. It happened at the World 600 in Charlotte, when Junior Johnson struck the rear of Ned Jarrett's Ford, sending Ned's car into Fireball's, which in turn hit the wall and burst into flames. The instant Jarrett was free of his own car, he ran to the burning car of his friend, who cried out to him, "My God, Ned, I'm on fire! Help me!" Heroically, Jarrett did pull Roberts from the inferno that had been an automobile just moments before. Sadly, it would be too late. Seriously burned over 75% of his body, Fireball would lie in pain for some 40 days before succumbing to his wounds. Ironically, he died on July 2, 1964, the 27th birthday of Richard Petty, the man who would become "King." He was only 35 years old, but what an impact he made on the racing world in the short time we were privileged to know him.
It's been one of my deepest regrets, that I never got the chance to see Fireball Roberts race. He was one of a kind, and truly one of the "greats" of all time. Several years ago, I discovered a poem, written by a gentleman named Charlie Harville and entitled "The Ballad of Fireball." I've located it on the web, and I'd like to take this opportunity to share it with you, gentle readers. Since I have no permission to use Mr. Harville's work here, please follow this link, which will take you to Living Legends of Auto Racing.. Believe me, it's worth your time.
You can contact Patty Kay at.. Insider Racing News
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