Mentors, friends helped launch career

Motorsports Editor
Last update: 01 July 2004   Back To Fireball 7/3/04 N-J Article     Back Home
DAYTONA BEACH -- Edward Glenn Roberts did not grow up in a racing family.

He discovered the magic of speed on his own.

John Gontner
Smokey Yunick, left, and Fireball Roberts peer under the hood during the 1961 season. In 1961, the only year when Fireball drove a Yunick-owned Grand National car, the two combined for three polls and a victory in three Daytona Beach races.

Roberts was born in Tavares then moved with his family to Apopka at a young age. When he was 16 years old in 1945, his mother and father bought a small beachside motel near the Main Street area.

"We hated it," his younger sister JoAnne Funderburke said. "Bubby and I would drive back over there almost every weekend to see our friends."

Roberts, who had picked up the nickname "Fireball," spent most of his junior year at the original Seabreeze High School, which was located on Grandview Avenue.

"We grew up in a good time," Funderburke said. "It was an easy time to grow up. We had a happy, loving childhood in a small town."

In May, 1945, Roberts quit school and joined the Air Force but spent most of his time in a base infirmary because of asthma attacks. He received a medical discharged after 90 days of service.

Irwin "Speedy" Spiers

Fireball Roberts is pictured in a mid-1950s trophy ceremony with Font Flock, a legendary driver who survived a horrific 1941 crash in Daytona Beach and went on to win the 1947 National Championship.
Roberts battled a chronic asthma condition his entire life. As a child he spent many hours indoors while other kids his age were outside playing.

"In his youth, he was a little ol' skinny nothing," Funderburke said with a slight giggle.

He did have an adventurous side to him. When Roberts was 11, he knew how to drive the family car. At the age of 12, he flew an airplane. Family members say he never raced go-karts as a child.

After leaving the service, he returned here and earned his GED and attended graduation ceremonies at Apopka High School.

It was sometime at this point in his life, in 1946 or '47, when he met Marshal Teague, who was a successful local racer. It was Teague who mentored Roberts in the fine art of stock car racing, according to friends and family.

Irwin "Speedy" Spiers said he and Roberts attended the meeting of racing promoters and track owners at the Streamline Hotel in December 1947 that led to the formation of NASCAR.

"We were out in the hallway trying to listen to what was going on," Spiers said. "We weren't big fish back then. We didn't get to sit at the big table with the older men."

Roberts' first race was on a dirt short track in Jacksonville, most likely when he was 18. Before he turned 21, Roberts' mother had to give him written permission for him to race in various events.

"My mother signed for him to race the first time on the beach, the summer of '48; I remember that because I just graduated from high school," Funderburke said. "I was 17 and he was 19. Daddy wouldn't sign it."

Edward Glenn Sr. didn't like the idea of his son racing. He had little to do with his son's career until Glenn Jr. was well into his racing days.

After obtaining his GED, Roberts attended the University of Florida for five consecutive semesters, and his interest in racing was evident from the number of speeding tickets he collected commuting back and forth from Gainesville.

"About every time he came through Bunnell, the police would stop him," Funderburke said. "I drove that car a few times. It was a souped-up '39 Ford. You had to drive it fast or it would conk out on you. The sounds it made embarrassed me to death."

Roberts never got his bachelor's degree in engineering. The racing bug overwhelmed him in 1949.

"He was a pretty poor student; both of us were," Spiers said. "We couldn't concentrate too good on what we should have been doing."

Spiers was in class at UF the day Roberts had his racing revelation. It was on that day that Roberts realized he was meant to drive a race car.

"We started to walk out of the classroom, I think it was English literature, and this old girl was teaching the class. She said, 'Where do you think you boys are going?' Fireball said, 'Up your (bleep) grandmother, we're going racing,' " Spiers said.

"The teacher was about 30 years old and he was calling her grandmother. That was his last day in college."

From there, Roberts put his full attention on stock car racing, traveling about anywhere looking for a good payday. He got plenty of advice from Teague, who owned an eight-stall garage, and Smokey Yunick, who had a truck dealership.

When Roberts turned 21 in 1950, he had a NASCAR license and in October of that year won his first race in the Strictly Stock division, now known as the Nextel Cup Series.

His milestone victory came at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C., on Aug. 13, 1950. There were 27 cars entered in the 100-mile run. Roberts started 15th in a 1949 Oldsmobile and earned $3,975.

There was a six-year gap to his next victory, which came at Raleigh (N.C.) Speedway in 1956, the year he started running two-thirds of the Strictly Stock racing schedule.

Between those wins, Roberts barnstormed short tracks from South Florida to Chicago, with friends such as Bob Laney and Spiers helping him out on the road.

"We went to work at Fish Carburetor and I traveled with him with the Fish cars," Spiers said. "We raced their cars all over the place."

"We traveled together for about three years," he added. "We campaigned all over the place with our two little old race cars that we had on our own."

"I'd help him on the race cars and I'd tow the car for him, stuff like that," Laney said. "I had a '40 Ford coupe and we used that to tow his race cars with. That eventually turned into a race car.

"I wasn't the engineering-type person, say like Smokey Yunick was. I'd help him as a friend and we had fun."

Somewhere in the early 1950s, Roberts started to build a name for himself, which eventually led to him drawing appearance money from promoters and track owners.

Andy Granitelli, who would later become famous in Indy-car racing, promoted stock car races at Soldier Field in Chicago. He was so amazed at Roberts' driving ability, he paid him extra so the driver would return the following week.

"We thought it was the end of the world," Spiers said. "That was big money in the 1950s. We finished fifth and he kept counting out money and there was $1,500 in Fireball's hands.

"He said 'I want you to come back next week.' Fireball said, 'Hell, we ain't gonna go back to Florida for this kind of money. They pay you here.' "

Roberts' fiancé, Judy Judge, remembers one time when a promoter handed over a folded grocery bag after arriving at the track the day before the race in the early 1960s.

"He opened it up and there was $5,000 in cash," she said. "I was shocked."

By 1956, with dozens of short track victories under his belt, Roberts was ready for stock car's premier division. He quickly became a marquee name because of his driving style -- fast and furious.

"He was a fierce competitor," Spiers said. "He was one of them guys you had to slow down, not one you had to speed up. He was that good of a driver. You had to keep the brakes on him because he was tearing equipment up so bad.

"The equipment we had really wasn't that good, so he would save it in qualifying and use it up in the race. He'd come charging up through the pack and somebody would get in his way and he'd shorten their car up about three feet, and his, too. I told him, 'Hey man, you can't win the race on the first lap.' "

From 1956-63, Roberts piled up victory after victory in NASCAR's top division running in cars built by Yunick and then Holman-Moody Racing.

His 33rd and final win came at Augusta (Ga.) International Speedway on Nov. 17, 1963, just two months after winning the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington.

"Fireball was fast and driving the best looking car out there and he had a great name," friend Max Muhleman said. "It was a Hollywood-type name. And he backed it up with a quiet dignity."

"He was flying around the racetrack in this spectacular car that was so fast, nobody could ever seem to catch him," he added. "I remember it was a matter of whether Smokey could keep it nailed together for the distance."

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