Those Who Have Lived, Raced and Died

(Now We Really Know There’s The “Big Track In The Sky”)

By Michael Smith, 2000

 Part 1-Roberts          Part 2-Weatherly          Part 3-Tragic Stats

Part One: “Fireball”

Nineteen-ninety three was a terrible and tragic year for the sport of NASCAR. In the span of one short season, the reigning Winston Cup Champion, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, a contender for the championship, were killed in separate but equally heartbreaking air crashes. But as difficult as that year was for the sport of stock car racing, you might be surprised to learn that 1993 has a chilling parallel. The year was 1964 and the drivers were “Little” Joe Weatherly and Glenn “Fireball” Roberts. In 1964 Joe Weatherly was NASCAR’s reigning champion, Glenn Roberts was a consistent championship contender and neither would survive the season.

Daytona Beach in the mid ‘40s and into the 1950s was the heart of everything automotive and Fireball evidently jumped right in with both feet. Fireball ran in the first Daytona Beach race in 1948 but was knocked out after fewer than 10 laps. The experience seemed only to increase the young man’s desire to race – would you expect anything less from someone called “Fireball”? Glenn Roberts earned the nickname “Fireball” because of his ability as a baseball pitcher, playing first on his high school team and then on various American Legion league teams in his home state of Florida. Fireball might have gone on to fame as a professional baseball player were it not for the fact that his family moved from Tavares to Daytona Beach in 1945. Roberts made his NASCAR debut in 1950, and 10 races into the season he notched his first victory at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, North Carolina. Despite his promising start, Roberts ran in fewer than 10 races each season between 1950 and 1955, claiming just two victories in that period. It was not until 1956 that Fireball Roberts burst onto the scene, scoring 5 victories. The following year, he posted 8 first place finishes, a personal best.
Fireball Roberts grew into stock car racing’s first superstar, despite never having won a NASCAR championship. His superstar status was reinforced when, in 1962 he won the Daytona 500 from the pole position while driving for the legendary Smokey Yunick. The following day, photographs of Roberts sharing a kiss with a former Miss America in victory lane were plastered on sports pages across the nation.
Glenn Roberts is also remembered as one of NASCAR’s first “smart” drivers who relied on his head as much as his foot for racing. Fireball was reportedly one of the first drivers to maintain a physical fitness regimen. Smokey Yunick recalled that Roberts carefully planned each race, studying the other drivers and rating them under various track conditions. During the Daytona 500 during NASCAR’s early years, certain laps would be sponsored by outside contributions from businesses and fans in the grandstands, with a $25 bonus going to whoever led the sponsored lap. Fireball relied on a list of sponsored laps taped to the dash of his racecar to remind him which laps paid the bonus. According to one observer, it was always easy to tell when a lap was sponsored because Fireball Roberts would stomp on the accelerator and blow by the leader to claim the bonus money, then back off again to preserve his equipment for the finish. Ned Jarrett, who would play a role in the tragic events of 1964, referred to Roberts as “the most respected driver there ever was.”

Part Two: “Little Joe”  

Joe Weatherly’s career path into NASCAR racing was vastly different than that taken by Glenn Roberts. About the time Fireball Roberts and his parents were moving to Daytona Beach, Florida, Joe Weatherly was serving in the U.S. armed forces in North Africa and Europe. While in North Africa, a German sniper’s bullet struck Weatherly in the face, knocking out two of his teeth and leaving behind a mean looking scar that would forever belie Little Joe’s sense of mischievous good humor. Come wars end, Weatherly resumed a pre-war love affair with motorcycles, racing in the AMA where he attained a degree of fame and no small amount of success, earning three AMA championships between 1946 and 1950. “Little” Joe, as he came to be called, might easily have made a career as a motorcycle racer were it not for his entry into NASCAR racing in 1950. Such was his skill on four wheels that Little Joe won the very first modified race he entered.
A volume could be written about Joe Weatherly and his pranks on and off the track. He was known as the “Clown Prince of Automobile Racing” and he enjoyed behaving outrageously, wearing wild clothes and once he took practice laps wearing a Peter Pan suit. Moreover, he frequently stayed out partying until the early hours, usually with fellow driver and good time buddy Curtis Turner.
But behind the happy, fun-loving exterior, Little Joe held the heart of a champion. In a NASCAR Grand National career that spanned between 1952 and 1964, Weatherly notched 25 victories. The win column statistic is more astounding when we consider that Little Joe never ran anything approaching a full race season until 1962. Not surprisingly, in 1962 (his first full season) Little Joe won the NASCAR championship, claiming 7 victories over a grueling span of 52 races. The following year he backed up his dominating performance with 6 victories and another NASCAR championship. The 1963 championship is all the more amazing when we consider that Little Joe’s team owner, Bud Moore didn’t have the resources to campaign a car throughout the entire season. Rather than sit out those races that the Bud Moore team couldn’t afford to run, Little Joe “bummed” rides in other team’s cars, thus salvaging the championship in grand fashion.
The 1961 Firecracker 250 offers a wonderful example of Little Joe’s tenacity on the racetrack. During the race Little Joe’s Pontiac started popping out of gear unexpectedly. Refusing to pull into the garage, Little Joe twisted around in his seat in order to hold the shifter in gear with his right leg while using his left foot to operate the accelerator and brake pedals. Testament to his perseverance, Little Joe managed to finish sixth.
So it seems that Glenn “Fireball” Roberts and “Little” Joe Weatherly were nearly opposites in their approach to their craft. Glenn Roberts is remembered as calculating, deliberate and goal oriented; NASCAR’s first superstar. Joe Weatherly is remembered as a prankster, a fun-loving clown who just happened to be tough to beat on the track come race day. This easily could be the end of the story. Things would be best if we could remember the long, successful careers of “Fireball” and “Little” Joe, but sadly, they would enjoy little or no success in the 1964 season. For one, life would end at Riverside International Raceway during the fifth race of the season. For the other, a painful death would come after a fiery crash during the World 600 at Charlotte.     By Michael Smith, 2000

Part Three: Tragic Stats 

Drivers who have died...

Found this at The Philadelphia Daily News site in Feb 2001:
NASCAR drivers who have been killed on tracks since 1952, including the setting, location and the date:

Larry Mann, race, Langhorne, Pa., Sept. 14, 1952
Frank Arford, qualifying, Langhorne, Pa., race, June 20, 1953
Lou Figaro, race, North Wilkesboro, N.C., Oct. 25, 1954
John McVitty, qualifying, Langhorne, Pa., April 21, 1956
Clint McHugh, qualifying, LeHi, Ark., June 9, 1956
Thomas "Cotton" Priddy, race, LeHi, Ark., June 10, 1956
Bobby Myers, race, Darlington, S.C., Sept. 2, 1957
Gwynn Staley, race, Richmond, Va., March 23, 1958
Joe Weatherly, race, Riverside, Jan. 19, 1964
Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, race, Charlotte, N.C., July 2, 1964
Jimmy Pardue, tire test, Daytona Beach, Fla., Sept. 22, 1964
Billy Wade, tire test, Daytona Beach, Fla., Jan. 5, 1965
Buren Skeen, race, Darlington, S.C., Sept. 13, 1965
Harold Kite, race, Charlotte, N.C., Oct. 17, 1965
Billy Foster, practice, Riverside, Calif., Jan. 20, 1967
Talmadge Prince, qualifying, Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 19, 1970
Friday Hassler, qualifying, Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 17, 1972
Larry Smith, race, Talladega, Ala., Aug. 12, 1973
Tiny Lund, race, Talladega, Ala., Aug. 17, 1975
Ricky Knotts, qualifying, Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 14, 1980
Terry Schoonover, race, Atlanta, Nov. 11, 1985
Rick Baldwin, qualifying (died in 1997), Michigan, June 16, 1986
Bruce Jacobi, qualifying (died four years after crash), Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 4, 1987
Grant Adcox, race, Atlanta, Nov. 19, 1989
J.D. McDuffie, race, Watkins Glen, N.Y., Aug. 11, 1991
Clifford Allison, BGN practice, Brooklyn, Mich., Aug. 13, 1992
Neil Bonnett, practice, Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 11, 1994
Rodney Orr, qualifying, Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 14, 1994
John Nemechek, truck race injuries, Homestead, Fla., March 21, 1997
Adam Petty, BGN practice, Loudon, N.H., May 12, 2000
Kenny Irwin, practice, Loudon, N.H., July 7, 2000
Tony Roper, truck race, Fort Worth, Texas, Oct. 14, 2000
Dale Earnhardt, Daytona 500, Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 18, 2001

 Part 1-Roberts          Part 2-Weatherly          Part 3-Tragic Stats


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