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That’s History Profile: Fireball Roberts

Name: Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts Jr.
Birthdate: Jan. 20, 1929
Hometown: Daytona Beach, Fla.
NASCAR Grand National (Nextel Cup) Debut: Feb. 5, 1950 Daytona Beach Course
Races: 206
Wins: 33
Poles: 32
Top Fives: 93
Top 10s: 122
Earnings: $326,218

Career Highlights

Fireball Roberts was one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history to never win a championship. And while the biggest prize managed to elude him; Roberts, the 1957 Most Popular Driver, still managed to etch his name in the NASCAR record books. In 1958, he became the first driver to win two 500-mile races in the same season, winning at Trenton, N.J. and the Southern 500 at Darlington. Three times he earned victories in two of NASCAR’S most prestigious races; the 1958 and 1963 Southern 500s and the 1962 Daytona 500.

Perhaps his lasting legacy came in one of the sport’s darkest moments, his death in the World 600 in 1964; which was the catalyst for the development and implementation of fuel cells, driver safety products and fire-retardant uniforms.

Introducing the “Fireball”

Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts Jr. earned his nickname not on the racetrack, but on the baseball diamond. Playing pick-up games with friends, he developed a wicked heater. Some would claim that it was while he played for an American Legion baseball team that he was dubbed Fireball there; not so, say his family and close friends. He actually didn’t like the nickname and began to use his middle name, Glenn. During his driving career, his fearless driving style would earn him a shortened version of that name to just “Balls.”

Humble Beginnings on the Beach

Glenn made his first start at the Grand National level in 1950 at the 150-mile event that was run partially on the beach and partially on A1A Avenue in Daytona Beach, Fla. He would finish 33rd in the field of 41, lasting all of eight laps, winning a paltry $25 for his efforts. After a 15th-place finish at the next race at Langhorne Speedway, Roberts would win his first race in only his third start at Occoneecchee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C.

He followed that up with a second-place finish at the inaugural race at Darlington, a disputed finish that saw him and his No. 82 Oldsmobile losing narrowly to winner Johnny Mantz… by nine laps.

Making His Mark on the Superspeedways

While Roberts won on every type of track that was out there, from dirt to short tracks to road courses, it was the superspeedway where he excelled. In 64 races at tracks larger than one mile, he accumulated 14 wins, 27 top fives and an astonishing 37 top 10s. And he just didn’t win at these tracks; he dominated, leading nearly 50% of the laps run.

In 1962, Roberts switched to Pontiacs and began driving for legendary car owner Smokey Yunick’s “Best Damn Garage In Town” out of Daytona Beach. Success for the new pair came early and often, with Roberts winning the pole for both his Daytona 500 qualifying race and the Daytona 500 (both were points-paying events back then), going on to finish first or second six times that season, posting 12 top 10s and nine poles in only 19 starts.

An Ironic End to a Life Taken Much Too Soon

1964 was rumored to be Roberts’s last season. At the “old” age of 35 and at the top of his game, he was making quite a handsome salary as a spokesman for the Falstaff Beer Company. After escaping unscathed in a fiery crash just a few months earlier at Darlington he was quoted as saying, “In a race I’m always scared, but what I fear the most is fire.” His final start would be at the World 600 in 1964, driving the No. 22 Holman-Moody Ford. Only seven laps into the event, Roberts would be involved in an accident which would eventually claim his life.

Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson got together exiting turn 2, and Roberts was swept up in the crash. His car backed into the inside retaining wall, rolled over and exploded in a ball of fire, engulfing it in flames. Gasoline from his ruptured tank was pouring into the car, fueling the fire. Trapped in his burning car, He was heard to be screaming to Jarrett to help him escape.

In those days, there wasn’t fire-retardant Nomex – there was a shirt you’d soak in a bucket of solution that would supposedly make it resistant to fire. Roberts didn’t even have that luxury, as the chemicals used in this process irritated his asthmatic condition. Jarrett was able to help extract him from the inferno, but the damage was done. Roberts suffered first- and second-degree burns on over 80% of his body.

He would spend his remaining days in a Charlotte, N.C. hospital. He clung to life the first few days, and began to slightly improve over the course of the next few weeks. On June 30th, he contracted pneumonia and blood poisoning, slipping into a coma. On July 2, 1964, Glenn Roberts would pass away.

Three great drivers, Jarrett, Johnson and Fred Lorenzen, cited the passing of Fireball Roberts as part of the reason why they chose to retire not long after his death. Lorenzen is quoted as saying, “When NASCAR lost Fireball Roberts, it was like Santa Claus doesn’t exist at Christmas; it just took everything out of the race.”

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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