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Fireball Roberts

Full Name:
Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts jr
Born:
20th January 1929
Tavares, Florida
Died:
2nd July 1964 (Aged 35)
Charlotte, North Carolina, following an accident during the World 600
Nationality:
American
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

“Fireball” Roberts is the Stirling Moss of NASCAR – the greatest driver never to win the championship. His nickname was nothing to do with racing but was a reference to his powerful pitching arm in baseball. However, it was a cruel irony that it so accurately described his eventual death.

Upbringing and successful NASCAR debut

The son of motel owners, Roberts grew up near Daytona Beach and only ever wanted to race. He did not complete his education at the University of Florida for he dropped out to pursue a racing career that had started at North Wilkesboro in 1947. He had a simple philosophy to the art of race driving. “Understeer is hitting the wall with the front of your car. Oversteer is hitting it with the rear.”

His NASCAR debut was in the 1950 Daytona Beach races and he almost won the championship as a rookie driving Sam Rice’s Oldsmobile. Victory at Hillsboro’s Occoneechee Speedway was followed by a run of top-three finishes and the points lead. However, he only finished as runner-up to Bill Rexford after a spate of late season engine failures as he chased the winner’s prize money rather than adopt a cautious approach.

Victories for Ford and Chevrolet

It was a surprise therefore that Roberts did not win in the series again until 1956 – by which time he was driving Pete de Paolo’s works Ford. Once he won however, he kept on winning. He scored five victories that year and another eight during 1957. He drove Frank Strickland’s Chevrolet in 1958 and often won when he started in both Grand National (now Cup) and Convertible categories. Prime among those successes was victory in the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington.

Switch to Smokey Yunick’s Pontiac

Roberts accepted a works Pontiac contract in 1959 at the start of a long-term relationship with a young Smokey Yunick. He started the inaugural Daytona 500 from pole position and won the Firecracker 250 at Florida’s new superspeedway. Always competitive, Roberts dominated the 1962 Daytona 500 and survived a protest to score his highest profile victory.

A second Southern 500 victory followed in 1963 but by then he was contemplating retiring from racing. He was engaged to the beautiful Judy Judge and they planned to marry in June 1964. Roberts just had to complete his racing commitments before that happy event and his retirement from the sport.

1964 World 600

Sadly, their plans would not come to fruition for Roberts crashed his Holman-Moody Ford on the seventh lap of the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte. The car was engulfed in flames and its driver severely burnt. Pulled clear by Ned Jarrett, Roberts was taken to the local hospital by helicopter where he remained in intensive care. He seemed to be on the mend before complications set in a month later and he died.

He was a loner – a shy man who was happier behind the wheel than in front of a microphone. But he was a true star.