Fireball's racing smarts pushes him to top


SPORTS COLUMNIST
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Given the differences in equipment, tracks and competition from one era to the next, it's impossible for any racing expert to compile a definitive list of the top all-time drivers.

"In this business it's hard to rate people because they run under different circumstances with different equipment against different people. There ain't no best," says Richard Petty, who, regardless of variables, is in everybody's top 10 (usually near the very top).

Driver Jeff Gordon, left, greets Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, right, and John Andretti, center, in this frame from a campaign for NASCAR featuring new and old drivers.

Petty knows the discrepancies in comparing the generations. But in regards to Fireball Roberts, he also knows something else.

"If he was good then, he would be good today," says Petty. "He would be in my top 10.

"He understood the equipment enough that he knew he could only do so much with it. He pushed it from time to time, a little over the edge."

The old racing term "win or break" seemed a perfect motto for Fireball Roberts. Often, he won, capturing 33 races in just 207 starts between 1950-64. He also had 36 poles.

Especially during his glory days with owner/mechanic Smokey Yunick, Fireball often had the fastest car at the track, and he liked going to the front and staying there as long as he could. His desire to get to the front was similar to another giant of the era, Junior Johnson.

"As far as I'm concerned, between him and Junior Johnson, I'd rate them 1 and 1," says Marvin Panch, another star from the early 1960s. "I liked Junior, liked Fireball. They were both hard-chargers."

Fireball earned the bulk of his national racing fame on the biggest and fastest tracks of the day -- Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte and Atlanta. But it was during the early years of his career, on the smaller, rougher tracks of the Carolinas, that he earned the respect and admiration of his fellow racers.

"He went up to run some sportsman cars in the Carolinas, and was outrunning the local guys," remembers Panch.

"Those days, drivers won the race. Today, cars win the race," says longtime columnist and commentator Chris Economaki. "Fireball knew how to throw the thing around. He had the ability to do it -- very much so."

When looking for a modern racer that compares to Fireball, some point to the 1980s heyday of Bill Elliott, who had a reputation for cars that weren't just fast, but usually always in one piece at race's end.

"He (Fireball) wouldn't mess with you at all," says Panch. "You could trust him on the racetrack. We did a lot of drafting together. You always knew right where he'd go. It was a pleasure to race with him.

"But I do remember one time . . . I can't remember who it was, but one guy kept bumping him in the back. Kept on bumping him, then finally Fireball locked the brakes down and took out the guy's radiator -- drained his radiator."

But he was more than just a talented right foot. Those who knew Fireball always rate his intelligence as one of his greatest gifts. It was common for him, the night before a race, to break down the following day's event in 10-lap increments and explain where he thought he'd be at any given point.

"He was a good driver who had a good head on his shoulders," says Panch. "He was smart."

And in the ultimate testament to Fireball's talent, smarts and good fortune, Panch adds of Fireball, "He was always smart enough to get a first-class ride."

ken.willis@news-jrnl.com

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