To his legion of fans, Edward Glenn Roberts Jr. was known as “Fireball.” His friends, however, simply called the NASCAR pioneer “Glenn.”
Legend has it that Roberts, the 1962 Daytona 500 winner, acquired his nickname as a fastball-throwing baseball pitcher. Others, including Roberts’ family, disputed the story, noting that the teen’s alleged American Legion baseball team – the Zellwood Mud Hens – never existed. Fellow competitors said the moniker mirrored the Daytona Beach, Fla., driver’s devil-may-care approach to stock car racing.
Roberts wasn’t afraid of anything – especially the towering banks of the brand-new Daytona International Speedway, where he won seven points-paying races from the superspeedway’s opening in 1959 through 1963. He also captured Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500 in 1958 and 1963.
“I’m going to run the hell out of ’em every lap,” said Roberts in a February 1964 Sports Illustrated interview with Barbara Heilman. “I’ve never won a race stroking.”
And win Roberts did. Over 15 seasons he won 33 of 207 premier series starts beginning with an Aug. 13, 1950, victory at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C., a 0.90-mile dirt track. Roberts, driving an Oldsmobile, defeated Curtis Turner. He posted at least one victory in nine consecutive seasons (1956-64) topped by eight wins in 1957 behind the wheel of Peter DePaolo’s factory-backed No. 22 Ford.
Roberts never came close to running a full season’s schedule but finished among the top five in points three times; his highest was a runner-up finish in 1950. He also won 32 poles tying him with Fred Lorenzen and Jimmie Johnson for 21st on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career poles list.
Roberts’ last victory came Nov. 17, 1963, on a three-mile road course in Augusta, Ga. Driving a Holman-Moody Ford, Roberts finished a lap ahead of teammate Dave MacDonald. Ironically, the pair would perish in separate, May 1964 accidents – MacDonald in the Indianapolis 500 and Roberts succumbing to burns suffered during the then-named World 600 a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Roberts died July 2, 1964, at the age of 35.
Roberts was born Jan. 20, 1929, in Tavares, Fla., and raised in Apopka near Orlando. His family moved to Daytona Beach, where he graduated from Seabreeze High School, a few miles from Daytona International Speedway. Roberts attended the University of Florida where he studied mechanical engineering leaving early after deciding that modified stock car racing would become his profession.
His 1939 Ford coupe, carrying the No. 11 and dubbed “White Lightning,” was a frequent winner on central Florida tracks. Roberts competed on the Daytona Beach & Road Course in 1947 and won a 150-mile modified race there the following year. The 4.17-mile circuit became Roberts’ introduction to NASCAR’s Strictly Stock – now NASCAR Sprint Cup – division. On Feb. 5, 1950, Roberts completed eight of 48 laps in a Hudson finishing 33rd and won $25.
Roberts’ Hillsboro victory was his last until 1956 when he was signed by Ford’s DePaolo. He won 13 races in the No. 22 Ford before Ford Motor Co. and the other Detroit automakers exited racing at the conclusion of the 1957 season. The car itself became as famous as its driver with roots musician and songwriter John Hiatt later penning “Fireball Roberts” for his The Open Road album.
“Got a 57 Ford, babe
Painted Fireball Roberts, white and red
Got a 57 Ford, baby
I haven’t run my last race, darlin’
But sometimes wish I did”
Roberts switched to Chevrolet in 1958, won six times and was voted Florida’s Professional Athlete of the Year – a first for a race car driver.
The inaugural 1959 Daytona 500 truly ushered in NASCAR’s superspeedway era and with it came Roberts’ teaming with crew chief Henry “Smokey” Yunick and Daytona auto dealer Jim Stephens. The trio won the track’s first Firecracker 250 (now the Coke Zero 400) and defended the victory in 1960. Roberts set consecutive Daytona 500 qualifying records from 1960 through 1962.
Roberts was 13 laps away from winning in 1961 when the engine in his car expired, handing the win to teammate Marvin Panch in the 1960 Pontiac Roberts had driven in the previous year’s Daytona 500. The following year, he won the Daytona 500 by outdueling NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty. The race was Roberts’ last with Yunick. He returned to Daytona in July with Banjo Matthews calling the shots and became the first driver to score a season sweep at the high-speed track.
Driving for the Holman-Moody Ford team, Roberts won four races during the 1963 season – including his second Southern 500 five weeks after suffering spinal injuries in a spectacular, roll-over crash at Bristol Motor Speedway.
In NASCAR’s early eras, drivers didn’t contemplate racing into their 40s like today. By 1964, with a lucrative personal services contract in hand to represent a major brewing company, Roberts announced he would compete in just a few more races before retirement – including Charlotte’s 600, the major event he’d been unable to win.
Seven laps into the race, Roberts hit the wall attempting to avoid an accident involving NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett. The No. 22 Ford overturned and caught fire. Roberts, who declined to soak his driver uniform in flame retardant chemicals because the fumes worsened an asthma condition, suffered critical burns that ultimately were fatal.
Tens of thousands of fans mourned Roberts’ passing. He was called a pathfinder of the superspeedway era and arguably stock car racing’s first superstar.
“It was like awaking to find a mountain suddenly gone,” wrote Charlotte newspaper columnist Max Muhlman.
This year’s NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies will take place at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday, Jan. 29 in the Crown Ball Room at the Charlotte Convention Center, which is directly connected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Tickets for the ceremonies start at $45 (available at www.nascarhall.com/inductees/induction-ceremony) and the NASCAR Hall of Fame box office.