Crash just start of Roberts' final struggle

Motorsports Editor
Last update: 01 July 2004   Back To Fireball 7/3/04 N-J Article      Back Home
DAYTONA BEACH --When Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts crashed on May 24, 1964, it wasn't a routine racing accident but a horrifying nightmare which lasted more than a month.

The night before the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Roberts explained his racing game plan to his fiancé Judy Judge.

"I'm gonna hang back," he told her. "It's a 600-mile race, I'll hang back, don't worry about it. The car will be good and the idiots will take each other out. I'll be lurking in back, and at 450 miles, I'll be on my way."

Roberts, who lived here, was one of the first drivers who would visualize a big race the night before he would run on the track.

This time, his plan of attack did not work.

On Lap 7 of the 400-lap run over the 1.5-mile course, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett made contact in Turn 1, sending both of their race cars into violent spins.

David Pearson, who would become a three-time NASCAR champion, cleared the melee but Roberts, a 35-year-old veteran, could not negotiate his Ford through the mechanical mayhem unfolding before him.

Roberts spun backwards and crashed into the edge of a concrete retaining wall. The impact split his gas tank. His car landed on its roof and came to rest just behind Jarrett's Ford on the track. Fuel streamed into the cockpit of Roberts' car.

Both cars were on fire, a race car driver's worst fear.

Marvin Panch, another driver who lived here in those days, was in the field that afternoon and saw the aftermath of the devastating crash.

"I didn't see the accident when it happened because he was racing behind us," Panch said. "We didn't see it until we come around the track.

"I knew he was in trouble, but you'd see a lot of guys in trouble. In his case he got burned really bad."

Jarrett emerged from his car and immediately went to assist Roberts, who had wiggled halfway out of his racer, at that point, fully involved with flames. Apparently, one of Roberts' feet was pinned under something in his wrecked car.

It was a horrific scene, a taste of hell, as described by Jarrett.

"Oh my God, Ned, help me, I'm on fire," Roberts said to Jarrett.

"I got him under the arms and jerked him out," Jarrett said. "We stood there on the track tearing his uniform off."

In those days, the gas tank was not protected by the rubber bladder liners used today and drivers did not wear fire protection suits. Roberts' crash led to fuel tank research and the development of those bladders, which have likely saved many more lives through the years.

Judge didn't see the wreck but knew Roberts had been involved.

"I was on top of the Firestone truck and there was a mound of dirt in the infield, and I couldn't see past it," she said. "I knew it was him, because I couldn't see him come around."

In an era before everybody at the racetrack had two-way radios or scanners, Judge knew she needed to beeline to the infield care center, where most drivers were taken after an accident.

"I started immediately for the infield hospital, and there I ran into Ned," Judge said. "His uniform was off, he was in his white undershirt and he said, 'He's alive. I got him out of the car. He's alive.' "

Judge arrived too late. By the time she reached the care center, Roberts had been airlifted out by helicopter to a nearby hospital.

"They brought me his shoes and watch," Judge said. "His shoes were burned. I still have his watch."

The news wasn't good by the time Judge reached the hospital. Roberts was burned over most of his body. Doctors listed his condition that night as "extremely critical."

It was an hour-to-hour situation complicated by the fact Roberts had fought asthma his entire life, a condition so bad that the Air Force gave him a medical discharge after only 90 days of service.

"They brought him from the emergency room, and his face looked sunburned," Judge said. "His shoulders looked untouched. They had the sheet up to his shoulders. I leaned over and kissed him and he said, 'I'm gonna be sore as hell tomorrow.'

"The doctor took me aside and told me, 'I don't think he's gonna live.' "

The night of the accident, Roberts feared if he went to sleep, he would never wake up again.

"Glenn told me, 'Don't let me go to sleep,' " Judge said. "They put him on his tummy on his bed. I sat on the floor under his face and talked to him all night."

The experience, Judge says today, was "awful."

Roberts defied the doctors and the odds and fought for his life, day by agonizing day.

The sad ordeal lasted until July 2 when Roberts, the star of NASCAR's golden era, died from his injuries. Judge was at the hospital each day as Roberts' small circle of close friends prayed for his recovery.

"I almost lost my Christianity over it," said Bob Laney, who hunted with Roberts on a regular basis. "He was burned pretty bad. Had he recovered, I don't know how he would have lived with it.

"I guess God figured it was better that he died then to come back and face all the operations that he would have to have."

Two days after his death, A.J. Foyt won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. It was the race Roberts had won in his Holman-Moody Ford the previous year.

Roberts' funeral was the next day, on July 5, at Bellevue Memorial Park, which is just east of the Speedway off Clyde Morris Boulevard. More than 1,000 people attended the service to pay their final respects to one of NASCAR's biggest stars.

Glenn Roberts Sr., who had first balked at Fireball's racing ambitions, eulogized his son at the service.

"There is sorrow not only among the kin, but among the many," he said.

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