With NASCAR's Hall of Fame ceremony for the 5 new inductees in two weeks, here is a look back at the career of one of the men to be inducted on January 29th.
On January 29, 2014, just a few days away, Edward Glenn Roberts Jr., better known to his fans as ‘Fireball’ will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Legend has it that Fireball Roberts gained his nickname, not from his driving skills, but as a fastball throwing baseball pitcher for the American Legion baseball team – the Zellwood Mud Hens, but the Roberts’ family has disputed that story.
Roberts, who would’ve been 85 on Monday, was born January 20, 1929, in Tavares, Florida, and raised near Orlando in Apopka. His family moved to Daytona Beach, where he graduated from Seabreeze High School, a few miles from where the Daytona International Speedway sits today.
Roberts studied mechanical engineering at the University of Florida, but left the program after 3 years after he decided that modified stock car racing would become his profession.
Roberts won the 1962 Daytona 500, didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, including the brand new Daytona International Speedway with its oversized banking, Roberts won seven points paying races at Daytona from it’s opening in 1959 until 1963. He also won twice at Darlington Raceway for the Southern 500 in 1958, where he led 196 out of the 364 laps winning by as the records say 5+ laps, and in 1963 leading 58 out of the 364 laps with a margin of victory of just 17 seconds.
During an interview with Sports Illustrated with Barbara Heilman in an article from February 1964, Roberts said, “I’m going to run the hell out of ‘em every lap.”
In 1962, Roberts set six major track records, as Roberts entered the 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1963, the only track where he had never gained a victory; he held more Charlotte track records than all the other drivers combined.
Straight from Roberts’ interview in Sports Illustrated with Barbara Heilman in Feb.1964, he said, “I’ve been racing so long, that for instance at Darlington alone I’ve set some 400 records. Of course, they’ve been broken and rebroken.”
“Maybe the most interesting is that I think I’m the only man who has twice held, simultaneously, all four qualifying records at the four major tracks,” Fireball said during the interview.
Over 15 seasons Roberts won 33 of 207 races in NASCAR’s premier series, beginning with his first victory on August 13, 1950, in only his third start, at the Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C. that was a 0.90 mile dirt track. Driving a 1949 Oldsmobile Roberts in the #71 defeated Curtis Turner.
Roberts went on to post at least one victory a season for nine consecutive years (1956-1964), with 1957 standing out as his top season, with 8 victories, 4 poles, 21 top-5’s and 27 top-10’s, leading 1106 laps out of 6,891 laps, while driving the #22 Ford owned by Peter DePaolo until the first race in June when the team was disbanded and Fireball Roberts became the owner of his car.
Even though Roberts never ran a full season’s schedule he finished among the top five in the points standings on three occasions; with his highest being the runner-up in 1950. His 32 poles tie him with Fred Lorenzen and Jimmie Johnson for 21st on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career poles list.
Fireball Roberts’ last victory came on November 17, 1963, in Augusta, Georgia, while driving a Holman-Moody Ford, on a three mile road course. Roberts finished a lap ahead of his teammate Dave MacDonald.
Both Roberts and his teammate MacDonald passed away due to racing accidents in May 1964, MacDonald in the Indianapolis 500, held May 30 in a fiery crash, after many other drivers had turned down driving the car for poor handling ability. That crash also killed Eddie Sachs and making the first time the Indy 500 was stopped due to a crash.
Roberts crashed during what would be his final race during the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, May 24, 6 days before the Indy 500, while trying to avoid Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett’s lap 7 crash. Roberts was trapped in his car as the #22 flipped on its roof and caught fire, but Jarrett pulled Roberts out of the burning car in time.
Roberts, who had an asthma condition, declined to soak his driver uniform in flame retardant chemicals because the fumes would create problems with his asthma, he suffered second and third degree burns to over 80 percent of his body, he was airlifted to a local hospital and looked as if he would make it, but he made a turn for the worst when he contracted pneumonia and went into a coma. Roberts died July 2, 1964, at the age of 35.
After Roberts’ death, NASCAR went on to mandate that all drivers must wear flame retardant coveralls while on the track. They also instituted the five point safety harness and the special contoured seat for drivers, as well as the specialized fuel cell for racing.
The accidents also led to the development of the Firestone RaceSafe fuel cell, no longer would NASCAR cars have the same fuel system one would find in a street model car, the fuel cell or gas tank was prone to leaks if a car were to flip upside down, and could rupture in hard crashes. These developments made racing safer for the drivers at that time and still today, with new developments for safer racing.