Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In the Rearview Mirror: Fireball Roberts, the Greatest Driver to Never Win a Title


Credit: ISC Archives / Getty Images
Edward Glenn Roberts was perhaps one of the greatest drivers to never win a title in NASCAR. You may not recognize him by the name Edward or Glenn because in the NASCAR world, he was known as "Fireball" Roberts.

Glenn, as he liked to be called, was born on January 20, 1929 and raised in Apopka, Florida.  Roberts had an interest in both auto racing and baseball. Glenn played baseball as a pitcher for the Zellwood Mud Hens, who were an American Legion baseball team. This is where he earned the nickname "Fireball" - it was his fastball that earned him that nickname and not anything to do with racing.

In 1945, Glenn enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps but was discharged after basic training due to having asthma. Despite this minor setback, he decided to take on a new opportunity. Roberts went to college at the University of Florida where he studied mechanical engineering. On the weekends, he would return home to race at the local dirt tracks. That same year he won his first race at North Wilkesboro and never did return to college. Racing was now his full time passion.

NASCAR had just been formed in 1948 when Roberts entered the first modified beach race at Daytona Beach, winning that 150-mile race.

In 1950, Glenn made the jump to the Grand National Series (currently known as Sprint Cup) and competed in 9 out of the 19 races that season. Also, it was in July of that year when Roberts married Doris McConnell. Just three weeks later, Glenn Roberts won his first NASCAR race in only his third start. Roberts drove the #71 Sam Rice Oldsmobile to capture the victory over Curtis Turner. Interesting fact: Roberts earned just $1,125.00 for this victory. Today’s drivers earn in the $100,000.00 range. In his rookie year, Roberts finished second in the points standing behind Bill Rexford.

The Roberts family welcomed daughter Pamela on March 11, 1951. Glenn also made a change in his racing that year, opting to only run occasionally in the Grand National Series.

In 1956 "Fireball" returned to the series, racing 33 of the 56 races. Due to the fact that more money was coming into racing industry, Roberts was able to sign with a factory team - Pete DePaolo’s #22 Ford. Glenn and the DePaolo team were a winning combination amassing 5 wins, 17 top-5s and 22 top-10 finishes in their first season together. Roberts would conclude the season 7th in points while Buck Baker won the title that year.

Interestingly, Roberts never drove every race in a season; although in 1957 it was his closest effort to a full season - completing 42 of 53 races. Mid-season, DePaolo and Roberts parted ways but Glenn continued to drive the #22 Ford with a few exceptions when he drove for another team. Roberts and the #22 team captured eight wins, 21 top-5s and 27 top-10s. Buck Baker again won the title and Roberts finished the year in 6th place. "Fireball" also claimed the 2nd Annual Most Popular Driver Award.

More changes were ahead for Glenn, now driving with Frank Strickland, and completing only ten races in the 1958 season. In those 10 races, Glenn Roberts had 6 wins including becoming the first driver to win two of the 500 mile races in the same year (Northern 500 at Trenton Speedway and Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway). Named the 1958 Florida’s Professional Athlete of The Year - Roberts was very proud of this achievement because he became the first driver ever named to such an award.

Roberts made the switch to working with Pontiac only during the 1960 season, after signing with team owner John Hines. Their partnership only lasted that season and in 1961 Smokey Yunick partnered up with Roberts - driving eight races for other teams. 

The Daytona 500 is what every driver strives to win; it’s the pinnacle NASCAR event. "Fireball" Roberts won the qualifying race at Daytona putting him on the pole position for the biggest race of his career. Roberts dominated the 1962 Daytona 500, leading 144 of the 200 laps and winning the race over Richard Petty with a 27 second victory. Another milestone in the ’62 season was winning the Firecracker 250 at Daytona, making him the only person to win the qualifying race (the Daytona 500 and the Firecracker 250) in the same year. After racing in only 19 of the 53 events, Roberts managed to finish 8th in the points standings.

In 1964, at the age of 35, Glenn Roberts was talking of retiring from NASCAR.  He was thinking that he was no longer in his prime. He would stay around for the 1964 season and then retire in 1965; he wanted to be able to race in select events such as the Daytona 500, World 600 and Firecracker 400.

During the World 600 (May 24, 1964), Roberts had an uncharacteristic 11th place starting position. He had a plan to lay back and let the cars spread out before he would make his move to the front. On lap 7, it all changed in the blink of an eye. The cars of Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett made contact and began spinning; Roberts spun trying to avoid the wreck and his Ford slammed backwards into an opening of the retaining wall. The car exploded, flipped over and burst into flames. (During this time there was no firesuits or fuel cells, the only protection a driver had was a chemical solution to dip their driving uniform into. Many thought Roberts was allergic to that solution but the chemicals in that solution affected his asthma and altered his breathing). Jarrett’s car had come to a stop right by Robert’s and it was Ned Jarrett who pulled Glenn Roberts from the burning race car. Roberts suffered second and third degree burns covering over 80% of his body. He was immediately airlifted to Charlotte Memorial Hospital, where he died several weeks later, after developing pneumonia and other complications. Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts passed away on July 2, 1964.

NASCAR made many innovations following the passing of Roberts, including making flame retardant driving suits a mandatory accessory. Fuel cells were also developed along with the five point harness and contoured driver's seats – all steps in making NASCAR safer for the drivers.

The auto racing community has clearly recognized Glenn as one of the best drivers, naming him to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1990), Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (1995) and being named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers (1998).

Although his career was short, lasting only 15 years, "Fireball" Roberts will definitely be a future NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. He was nominated for this prestigious honor in 2010 and 2011.  

1 comments :

  1. I attended his graveside in Daytona in 1964 as an 8 year old NASCAR fan. My dad took me because of the tragic way that Fireball died.

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