made Fireball Roberts a star?
Other drivers of his era -- Lee Petty, Tim Flock,
Ned Jarrett, Herb Thomas -- won more races.
Many of his fellow racers were more outgoing, and a few
-- though very few -- might have been more articulate.
poses by his car in 1960, a year in which he
started from the pole in six of his nine Grand
National races and finished first in two.
Junior Johnson was more exciting to watch,
while Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner were
certainly more flamboyant.
What appears to have made a household name of
Edward Glenn Roberts was a combination of things
adding up to one big colorful package.
· He was good at what he did: "I've had 60 guys drive
my cars," says Speedy Spiers, one of Fireball's
earliest car builders. "Fireball was as good or better
than any of them."
· He was bright: "He just seemed to have a whole lot
more in his head than just racing . . ." says former
journalist and public relations man Max Muhleman.
· He had that great nickname: "I think his name,
Fireball, drew a lot of attention," says Marvin Panch,
another winning driver of Fireball's era.
· He won some big races, including four of the first
10 big-league events at Daytona (along with five poles
and three Daytona 500 qualifying races).
Combine that with his all-American looks of the era
(flat-top haircut, tan face, big smile) and a knack for
the manly things (hunting, fishing, flying,
motorcycling, shooting pool), and you get a guy who,
except for his dangerous line of work, was a rather
"He could be with someone for 10 minutes," says
Judy Judge, Fireball's fiancee at the time of his
1964 death, "and, you know, the men wanted to be like
him, and the women wanted to be with him."
"EVER HEAR OF FIREBALL ROBERTS?"
It really wouldn't have made much sense for a
name like "Fireball" to be hung on a racer like Ned
Jarrett, who was among a group of successful drivers
who preferred to keep the fenders intact and pick their
spots for the occasional hell-bent-for-leather moments.
No, "Fireball" was a perfect tag for Glenn Roberts,
because he loved running up front, and often had the
horsepower to do that -- thanks in large part to fellow
Daytonan Smokey Yunick, the builder and crew
chief for many of Fireball's hot rods.
But, of course, this was a case of a driving style
finding the nickname, and not vice versa, because
Fireball earned his label on a youth-league baseball
diamond -- it seems he had a decent fastball. There's no
doubting what Panch said -- the nickname helped build
Some often wondered if Fireball enjoyed his star
status. To hear his contemporaries talk, it seems that
Fireball had a side to him that modern fans would
associate with Tony Stewart.
"He didn't get along very good with the press," says
Muhleman. "They'd ask Fireball some dumb question and
he'd tell them what he thought of it. One time he was
driving one of Smokey's Pontiacs and he blew an engine
in a qualifying race. Somebody stuck a microphone in his
face and he batted it away. The reporter asked him,
'What happened, Fireball?' He said, 'You dumb (SOB),
don't you have eyes? Did you think I started a campfire
out there with all this smoke?' "
He was usually a little more patient with the fans,
though not always in love with them.
"He loved talking with people who were knowledgeable,
and he took time signing autographs," says Judge. "But
he had no patience with questions that were dumb. I can
remember fans coming up after a race that he lost and
saying, 'Goddamn, Fireball, you cost me 50 bucks.' He'd
say, 'Sorry about that,' and then he'd drag me off and
say, 'That dumb SOB, it cost me $50,000. Think I wanted
to lose that race?' "
But when he was away from the Southeastern hotbed of
stock car racing -- either on vacation or going off to
race in the North or West -- it wasn't long before he'd
start missing everything about the home turf, perhaps
even missing everyone knowing who "Fireball" was.
"Whenever we were off somewhere, he would always
bring up stock car racing," says Judge. "Once, in Cape
Cod (Mass.), we were talking to the owner of a
restaurant, and Glenn asked him if he knew about stock
car racing. 'Those guys are all moonshiners,' the guy
said. Glenn said, 'Not all of 'em. Ever hear of Fireball
Roberts?' The owner said, 'Hell no, who's that?'
"He was very big in the South, but in Riverside
(Calif.) and Las Vegas, nobody knew him. And that was
nice for a couple days, but then he'd get antsy. He
would want to be back where he could talk about racing
Judge would've been happy to stay away from town a
"I didn't like what he did; I liked what he was," she
"THE HOMETOWN GUY"
The Cape Cod story would be hard to believe for
many of Fireball's contemporaries, who actually remember
him being a bit on the shy side. It's not uncommon to
hear an old-timer remark that many from that era
considered him aloof.
"He was shy, and a lot of people took that for
aloofness," says Lowe's Motor Speedway president
Humpy Wheeler, who was running Firestone Tires
racing program in the 1960s. "He wasn't aloof; he just
didn't talk a lot. I can remember on tire tests, he'd
come in, and you'd have to get a driver to tell you what
was going on. The only one who was harder to get
something out of was Ralph Earnhardt -- Ralph
measured his words by the dozen.
"But basically, Fireball was a fun kind of a guy. He
laughed and all that. A lot of the drivers in those days
were shy. They'd been hanging around shops their whole
lives, and they weren't social beings like the guys in
the Cup garage are today. But he was very well-spoken,
In many ways, the same as all the others. But in
other ways, so very different. Muhleman recalls an
interview with Fireball while sitting in the infield at
"I said something like 'Did you ever think about
running around this track on foot?' " says Muhleman.
"You ask that of most stock car drivers, particularly
guys back then, and they would look at you sideways and
call security. He chuckled. He said, 'It would probably
take me 20 minutes to do that.' I said, 'I bet I could
do it under 10.' He told me I couldn't do it under 10.
This is the least likely conversation you could have
with a stock car driver."
Fireball bet Muhleman a steak dinner on the 10-minute
claim, and Muhleman left immediately to go find some
"He started laughing and called me back and said,
'Anybody that would try that deserves a steak dinner.'
So we went to dinner that night and we talked about
racing about 25 percent of the time, and about things he
liked to do, and current affairs. He was a renaissance
man. He had a wide appetite and interest in life. I
found that fascinating."
Fascinating, fast and fun-loving. But above all, not
just a star on the budding NASCAR circuit, but the first
beloved hometown hero for a small beach town in Florida
known for little more than automobile racing.
"Fireball was the hometown guy," says veteran racing
journalist Chris Economaki. "For many years,
racing was big in the South, big at the fairs. Drivers
came from far away, then they left. That was that.
"Fireball was really the first of the hometown guys
to be ultra-successful. He was from downtown. You could
bump into him on the street, perhaps."
An average guy in many ways.
"Polite, dependable," says Judge. "He was a man's
man. Hunted, fished, liked the things most men liked,
and was very good at the things he did."
Guys like that are missed, even four decades later,
regardless of their name and accomplishments.
"Good man, good racer," says Fred Lorenzen, a
fellow racing star of the 1960s. "It's been a long time.
God, it's been how many years? Forty years? Can't
2004 News-Journal Corporation |
news-journalonline.com (SM) |
Copyright © 1999 FireballRoberts.com
by Roland Via. All rights reserved. Revised:
05/07/12 20:55:48 -0400.
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