by Steve Samples
"Fear-boll, Fear-boll, Fear-boll," the French chanted as Glenn
"Fireball" Roberts roared down the front stretch at Le Mans in 1962. It
marked the first time in auto racing history that a southern stock car
driver had truly gained international racing acclaim. Contrary to popular
belief Glenn did not gain his nickname from racing. In fact he acquired the
name "Fireball" while rocketing fastballs by high school batters. It was one
of many things Glenn did well.
Sadly only a short time after his trip to Le Mans, Glenn Roberts would die
in a tragic racing accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His death marked
the end of an era. And what an era it was. Beginning in the early 1950's
Herb Thomas, Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Junior Johnson, and
Fireball Roberts opened the doors for today's stars by creating the world's
most exciting sport, stock car auto racing.
It was this group of men who flung caution to the wind and stepped inside
slightly modified automobiles referred to as Grand National Stock Cars, and
raced at speeds over 150 miles per hour. Of course 150 seems tame in
comparison to today's 200 mile per hour plus straightaway speeds. Tame that
is until one examines the difference in cars. In the 1950's there were no
puncture proof fuel cells, no drivers side nets, no automatic fire
extinguishers, no padded driver seats, no removable steering wheels, and no
tires designed for a specific track. There were fireproof suits in those
days, having been introduced by the Ford factory teams in 1963. However some
drivers were allergic to the harsh chemicals used for flame resistance and
never "dipped" their suits. Glenn Roberts was one such man. Additionally
most speedways in the era were equipped with a single ambulance, and no
infield care center. If a driver was hurt, he would be lucky to receive
treatment in half an hour.
Another major difference was the money. In 1963 Fred Lorenzen won $113,000
competing in 29 races to set an all time single season record for earnings.
Yes, money went a bit farther then, but not that far. Had Fireball Roberts
raced in the year 2000
he would have earned ten times the spendable dollars he earned in the 1950's
So why did Fireball Roberts and company choose to risk their lives in a
daredevil sport that had only regional fan support, paid less than superb
wages, and posed physical risks to the drivers? The answer is simple. Racing
was in their blood. Of course few of yesterday or today's stars would race
if they truly could not make a living, but making a living was a secondary
factor. Racing, not unlike other highly competitive sports, lends itself
toward a breed of man who thrives on winning. And perhaps no one in racing
history was more representative of that attitude than Fireball Roberts.
When Fireball buckled his seatbelt he had one goal-- to win the race. There
was never a thought of a "top five" finish as being some consolation for
losing the race. The driver who finished second lost, just like the driver
who finished twentieth. He likewise was not focused on winning point
championships, although he would have won half a dozen had he raced the full
schedule. Fireball liked to race and he liked to win the "big ones."
Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte, and Atlanta were the playgrounds where he
was at his best. He once confessed to his wife, "I like to win pole
positions so I can see my name in the paper." He saw his name in the paper
Unfortunately for Fireball Roberts he began his racing career at the age of
nineteen, and by the time he had reached thirty he was beginning to suffer
from burnout. By thirty-four he confessed to friends Banjo Matthews and Fred
Lorenzen, that he had tired of racing. He even told Ned Jarrett that he was
thinking of going into broadcasting. To others he confessed that buying a
beer distributorship was entering his mind.
The stress of the sport was starting to wear stock car racing's second
greatest driver down (see "NASCAR's Real 50 Greatest Drivers"). When he
headed for Charlotte for the World 600 in May of 1964, whispers were being
heard. In recent events Fireball had spun out while practicing on tracks he
had mastered years earlier. The boo birds were privately saying, maybe Glenn
was over the hill. Some insiders even thought it might be time for Glenn to
hang up his driving suit.
Tragically Glenn could not retire. He had invested his money wisely, but was
bound to a contract with Ford, Holman-Moody, and a host of sponsors. In fact
on the day of his tragic crash Banjo Matthew's posed the question, "Glenn,
why don't you get your ass up and go
home." "I can't do that," Roberts responded. Matthews wanted to know why.
"Because all these people are here to see me race." It was a typical comment
from the often regal, perhaps even arrogant Roberts, but in fact many people
had come to see him race and he was not going to let them down.
As he strapped into his racecar that fateful day, a friend dropped by and
handed him two dollars that he had borrowed. Glenn stuck the crumpled bills
in his shirt pocket, and finished the strap in process. Less than four hours
later Junior Johnson would plow into the
rear of Ned Jarrett's Ford, which in turn would put Fireball into the wall.
As his car burst into flames and rolled to a stop he struggled to unstrap
his belts. While being assisted by the heroic Ned Jarrett who had observed
the flaming car after getting out of his own vehicle, Glenn called out. "My
God, Ned, I'm on fire, help me."
Glenn had suffered burns over 75% of his body, and was rushed to Charlotte
Memorial Hospital where he lied in agonizing pain for six weeks.Glenn
"Fireball" Roberts passed away on July 2, 1964 at the age of 34.
The obligations he had to other people cost him his life. What a novel
concept in the year of the renegotiated contract. Today's superstars could
learn a lot about character from Glenn "Fireball" Roberts. He was a star on
the racetrack and a man of his word.
Truly a rare combination.
Author Steve Samples has been a student of stockcar racing for more than
five decades. His writing blends recollections from NASCAR's past with the
promise of it's future. When not watching racing, he is a Senior Account
Representative for 3M/Unitek Corp. He is also an NRA Certified Firearms
Instructor, and an ex-Marine Vietnam veteran.
Copyright © 1999 FireballRoberts.com
by Roland Via. All rights reserved. Revised:
05/07/12 20:55:47 -0400.