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. . . said Glenn Fireball Roberts after emerging uninjured from a grinding crash at Charlotte, the same track that would take his life just months later.
No matter what the time is, where the place was that it happened, or who the person was involved, it is always a disheartening tragedy when we hear of a fellow race driver who, unfortunately, was dealt the hand of fate in an automobile race and is no longer around. When they are taken from us at an early age, before they had a chance to make one more victory lap before hanging up their helmet even makes it that much harder to deal with. Such was the case of one of NASCAR’s early pioneers of racing, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts.
Born in Tavares, Florida on January 20, 1929, Roberts didn’t get his nickname Fireball for being a fast driver as some people think he did. He got it as a pitcher for the Zellwood Mud Hens, an American Legion baseball team in Apopka, Florida. When Fireball won his first NASCAR race, he was the second youngest driver to win a late model event when he took the checkered flag at Hillsboro, NC on August 13, 1950 at 21 years old. Running periodically for the next five years, he would go winless until 1956 when he won five races. After a season high of 27 top tens, including eight wins in 1957, he was voted most popular driver that year. Being voted Florida’s Professional Athlete of the Year in 1958 was an accomplishment but his greatest feat in 1958 came when he won the Southern 500 at Darlington.
In 1962, Roberts started the season off on the right foot when he won the Daytona 500. He finished 2nd at LeMans, won five out of 20 convertible races, five poles and $23,640. Glenn would rack up four more wins in 1963, including his second Southern 500 but one race he wanted to win was the World 600 at Charlotte. He came close with a 2nd place in 1961 but he knew that 1964 would be his year. Who was to know that the soft-spoken Daytona Beach resident was about to climb into his race car for the very last time?
During the May 24th World 600, Roberts was up beat as he did his usual joking and kidding with all the drivers and mesmerized the ladies like he always did. In one fleeting instant, faster than you could follow with your eyes, something went terribly wrong. After being bumped by Junior Johnson, Fireball’s Lavender colored Pontiac slammed into the wall, bursting into flames upon impact. Former driver Ned Jarrett pulled Roberts form his car. With just a tee shirt for protection, Roberts received second and third degree burns over 80 percent of his body. This was mostly due in part that back in 1964, most drivers didn’t have firesuits. They had a fire resistant solution they could dip their driving uniforms into, but Fireball was allergic to the chemicals in the solution and couldn’t use it. He was rushed to Charlotte Memorial Hospital in extremely critical condition. He made it through the first few days. Then he made it a week, then a couple more. It looked like the crew cut, always smiling driver was going to beat all odds and pull through this horrifying ordeal. But six weeks later on Tuesday, June 30th, things went down hill faster than Roberts used to drive. He contracted pneumonia, a fever shot his body temperature up to 104 degrees and he slipped into a coma Wednesday night. Then, just 12 hours after things started turning bad, at 7:13am in room 3305 at Charlotte Memorial Hospital on Thursday, July 2, 1964, Glenn Fireball Roberts’ 39-day struggle for life came to an end. The checkered flag dropped over this fun loving, practical joker at the young age of 35 years old. He was truly a gentleman, always willing to lend a hand to someone and if there was any music and dancing going on, you were sure to find Fireball dancing with a good looking lady.
In Fireball’s NASCAR career, he started in 204 races where he won 32 times, had 22 seconds, 9 thirds, 15 fourths and 12 fifths. Fireball also amassed 26 finished in the 6-10 category, 9 finishes in the 11-22 area, had 79 DNF’s and own 35 poles. His career winnings totaled $287,625, he was elected to the Stock Car Racing Hall Of Fame in 1965 and was voted Florida’s professional athlete of the year in 1959. (Twenty of the races were in the convertible division where he won five times and had five poles.)
FACT: Fireball’s hero was always Red Byron, winner of NASCAR’s first race on the Daytona Beach and the first NASCAR points champion in 1949. When Roberts started racing, he requested Red’s number 22. NASCAR complied, and that is where Glenn “Fireball” Roberts got his car number.
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