No matter the age of the racing fan, hear the name “Fireball” when it’s connected to auto racing and imaginations are immediately fueled with visions of a handsome and talented race driver, both intense and cavalier, literally setting the racing world on fire with his speed and derring-do. And that’s not far from the truth. Yet, too many of today’s fans have no idea what kind of race driver or what kind of man it took to earn the name “Fireball” and live up to it.
Edward Glenn Roberts, Jr. was born on January 20, 1929, in Tavares, Florida. He was arguably stock-car racing's first superstar, an immensely popular prototype for some of today's competitors who are stars on and off the track.
Roberts’ fitting, and now legendary nickname wasn't earned in racing. In fact, organized stock car racing apparently wasn’t even a blip on his radar when the name first stuck. It was bestowed upon Roberts for his ability to throw a baseball during his years as a pitcher in youth baseball in Apopka, FL.
He preferred racing over baseball, which surprised some people, entering his first modified race in 1947 at the age of 18 on the Daytona Beach Road Course, he ended up crashing on the ninth lap.
He scored his first NASCAR Grand National (Sprint cup) victory on August 13, 1950, at Hillsboro's Occoneechee Speedway. At the tender age of 21, Roberts spanked the field in only his third career start. And he finished second in points that year.
He didn't win a major race until 1957 when he was first in the Rebel 300 at Darlington.
He scored his first NASCAR Grand National victory on August 13, 1950, at Hillsboro's Occoneechee Speedway. At the tender age of 21, Roberts spanked the field in only his third career start.
Fireball knew aerodynamics. Back in late 1958 NASCAR founder Bill France was just completing his new 2 1/2 mile Daytona International Speedway and had offered a bounty of something like $10,000 for the first driver to go 150 miles an hour on the new high-banked track. The sports editor, Norm Froscher ask. “One hundred and fifty miles an hour?” “Jeez, where's it gonna stop, at 160 or 170 even, what's the limit?“ Roberts didn't hesitate. “When the car gets airborne, that's the limit. As long as you can keep that from happening, there's little limit”
For '58, Roberts accepted a ride with Frank Strickland's Chevrolet team, and won six of his 10 starts. In 1959, Fireball teamed with Pontiac's Smokey Yunick and the pair became the most feared team in NASCAR. A shining example of excellence, Roberts and Yunick set dozens of speed records. Roberts was a master in qualifying, taking nine poles in 17 starts in '59 and '60. He won three races, and would have won several more if the tire companies had been able to produce a rubber compound that could've withstood his heavy right foot.
Despite being one of NASCAR's epic risk takers, Roberts possessed an intangible that many other racers lacked, intelligence. A thinking man's racer, Roberts was a master on the high-speed Daytona International Speedway, winning the summer Firecracker 250 and 400-milers three times in five years. He also captured the 1962 Daytona 500 in a Pontiac groomed by Yunick during the 1962 Daytona Speedweeks events, Roberts compiled a record that is unsurpassed.
But for all he had accomplished, sadly, it is Roberts’ death that makes his life and career seem even more legendary.
Roberts was mulling the prospect of retirement in 1964, having just taken a prominent public relations position with the Falstaff Brewing Co. In what was scheduled to be one of his final race appearances, Roberts entered the May 24 Charlotte World 600. He wanted one last crack at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the only superspeedway in the South where he had failed to score a win. Roberts had qualified in the eleventh position and started in the middle of the pack. When he, Ned Jarrett, and Junior Johnson crashed. Fireball's car landed on its roof, and flaming gasoline filled the cockpit. Ned pulled him out of the car, and he was rushed to the hospital with burns over 80% of his body.
He would eventually succumb to severe burns. From that fiery crash of May 24 he would hang on until slipping away from complications due to pneumonia on 39 days later on July 2, 1964.
The death of Fireball Roberts left its mark on Lorenzen, though. Lorenzen points to his friend's death as a major reason he retired early from stock car racing. Had Fireball lived, who knows how many more wins might have been made by the two men, and how many Championships might have been earned between them?
Of course, Roberts' fame was based on what he did when he got behind like some of his major victories like the Daytona 500, Firecracker 250, Dixie 400, and the Firecracker 400, and is perhaps the greatest driver never to win a NASCAR title.
Statistics Despite having his career cut short and having never won a Grand National title, Fireball Roberts was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. Other career awards include induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1995.