NASCAR HALL OF FAME | Induction Ceremony, 7 p.m., Wednesday (FOX Sports 1)

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NASCAR HOF inductee ‘Fireball’ Roberts had thirst for speed

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/25/20/51/15BL6V.Em.138.jpg|219
    FILE - THE (COLUMBIA) STATE
    Fireball Roberts after winning the inaugural Darlington Rebel 300 on May 11, 1957. Roberts was known as a master at NASCAR’s fastest asphalt tracks.
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    HO - CATAWBA COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
    Miss Hickory Motor Speedway Millie Coley, right, and Fireball Roberts, left, winner of the first race at Hickory Motor Speedway 50 years ago.
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    DON STURKEY - OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
    NASCAR drivers Fireball Roberts, left, and Little Joe Weatherly talk at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C., about 1960.
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    1964 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO -
    Fireball Roberts flaming car after fatal accident during the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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    1964 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO -
    Ned Jarrett's car (11) is near the fence where Fireball Roberts’ car is engulfed by flames, at right.

More Information

  • NASCAR HOF inductee Jack Ingram stood out on short tracks, but ...
  • 2014 inductee profile: Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts

    Born: Jan. 20, 1929, Tavares, Fla. Died: July 2, 1964, Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Carolinas Medical Center), from burns suffered in a World 600 crash on May 24 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Family: Divorced; daughter Pam (deceased in 2009); he was engaged to Judy Judge at time of his death.

    The nickname: According to members of his family, “Fireball” came from Roberts’ youthful days as a sandlot baseball pitcher. It was given him by his catcher, Dimitri Baltas. It is among the most enduring nicknames in stock car racing and readily could apply to the way he drove.

    Career highlights: Began racing as a teenager in the late 1940s on Florida dirt tracks, winning at places such as Seminole Speedway. ... Made his first start in NASCAR’s Grand National Division (now the Sprint Cup Series) at the Daytona Beach and Road Course on Feb. 5, 1950, completing only 8 of 48 laps. ... Roberts scored his first victory later that year on Aug. 13, winning a 100-mile race on the 1-mile Occoneechee Speedway dirt track at Hillsborough, N.C. He finished second in the points standings that season to champion Bill Rexford. ... Fireball started only 24 times over the next five years, never winning. Roberts triumphed five times in 1956, starting a streak of nine years with at least one victory. ... He started only 10 races in 1958, winning six. ... His long string of success included major wins in the 1958 and 1963 Southern 500s at Darlington Raceway and the 1962 Daytona 500. ... Overall, Roberts amassed 33 victories and 35 pole positions in 206 starts. He was at his best on the superspeedways, posting seven triumphs at Daytona, two at Darlington and one at Atlanta. ... Roberts drove for various owners from 1950-62 and famously paired with colorful engineer-crew chief Smokey Yunick for several seasons. He joined the powerful Holman & Moody team of Charlotte in 1963. ... The articulate Roberts joined Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson as the sport’s most famous chargers in the late 1950s-early ’60s. In 1964, Fireball was the first driver from NASCAR featured in a Sports Illustrated story. ... Fellow competitors and media from his era remember him as being very intelligent and a perfectionist who devotedly plotted strategy.

    Death: Roberts had won at three of NASCAR’s four big tracks of his day – Atlanta, Darlington and Daytona. But Charlotte Motor Speedway, which opened in 1960, eluded him. He’d experienced such terrible luck at Charlotte that his crew chief, Jack Sullivan, planned to put a wishbone for luck over the sign indicating the team’s pit space during the 1964 World 600. ... On the eve of the 400-lap race at the 1.5-mile track, Roberts expressed confidence of victory to friends. He had qualified his Ford 11th in a 44-car field. ... During the seventh lap, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett tangled in Turns 1-2 just ahead of Roberts. The superstar spun as he took evasive action, and his car slammed backward into the edge of a concrete wall just off the apron. The impact ripped apart the gas tank, causing the car to explode as it flipped. Flames enveloped the machine as it landed upside down with Roberts hanging in his safety belts. Jarrett, who had come to a stop further down the track, rushed to to the rescue and helped get Roberts from the car. ... Roberts suffered second and third degree burns over 80 percent of his body. ... Through the next weeks he fought for life in a Charlotte hospital. At times doctors were cautiously hopeful that he would survive. But on June 30 he developed pneumonia and three days later the life of the great star flickered out. He had survived for 39 days. ... Roberts is entombed in Daytona Memorial Park, approximately a mile from Daytona International Speedway. The site often is visited by NASCAR fans.

    Tom Higgins

    Tom Higgins’ reflections

    Hall of Fame voter and former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins remembers Glenn “Fireball” Roberts:

    I first saw him: On Sept. 8, 1957 at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway for a 100-mile race on the half-mile track. He started 15th and finished 10th in a Ford, completing 194 of 200 laps in a race won by Lee Petty. Roberts’ charisma and popularity among the other drivers was apparent.

    My favorite memory of him: In the Southern 500 of 1958 at Darlington, a torrid Labor Day temperature caused tires to blow out with regularity, leading to wild wrecks. Three cars tore through the steel railing in Turn 1, ripping away about 200 feet of the barrier.

    NASCAR officials nevertheless kept the race going, advising drivers to “go low and slow” through that turn. Practically all did except Roberts. He maintained a fast, smooth pace in a white No. 22 Chevrolet fielded by Smokey Yunick, led the final 196 laps and triumphed by 5 laps over runnerup Buck Baker.

    It was my first superspeedway race and I was beyond thrilled. I had picked Roberts to win in an Asheville Times column two days earlier, mainly because he was driving my all-time favorite car, a ’57 Chevy.

    What people might not know about him: Roberts had indicated strongly to friends that he would retire from racing at the end of the 1964 season to become a spokesman for Falstaff Beer.

    Most Memorable Quote: For me, it didn’t come from Fireball, but was about him. Speaking to Daytona Beach writer Godwin Kelly, Yunick said, “Fireball had the skill and the (courage), and he was the smartest of the drivers. His plan was simple: sit on the pole and lead every lap.”


  • Want to watch or go?

    The Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday and will be televised on Fox Sports 1. Tickets start at $45 and are available at nascarhall.com/inductees/induction-ceremony and at the Hall of Fame box office.

    NASCAR Hall of Fame

    Class of 2014 profiles

    Saturday: Jack Ingram

    Sunday: Glenn "Fireball" Roberts

    Monday: Dale Jarrett

    Tuesday: Maurice Petty

    Wednesday: Tim Flock



Glenn “Fireball” Roberts’ first NASCAR victory came on dirt.

But with the opening of Daytona International Speedway in 1959, it was Roberts who quickly became a master of asphalt and helped usher in NASCAR’s “superspeedway era.”

Roberts seemed ready-made for the racing game.

He came equipped with what easily could be called the best nickname in racing, which actually originated from his younger days playing in sandlot baseball games. A dapper dresser always with a fresh crew cut, Roberts’ thirst for speed on racing’s biggest tracks drew legions of fans.

In many respects, Roberts was among the first to demonstrate the star power of drivers, which has become a staple of the sport today.

“Most of the guys running at that time were dirt racers and Fireball, while he was a good dirt racer and a good modified racer, he just seemed to be able to just ‘go’ when he got on the big tracks,” said Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At the time Wheeler worked for Firestone Tire, and Roberts served as a driver for tire tests.

“Nobody knew what they were doing when they got to these big asphalt tracks. But you put Fireball in one of Smokey Yunick’s cars and it was like handing a man a loaded machine gun,” Wheeler said.

“It took a special driver to get through the corners. He made it look easy.”

Roberts, who died as the result of injuries from a racing wreck in 1964, will be inducted Wednesday night into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Former engine builder and crew chief Waddell Wilson will induct Roberts into the Hall. Roberts won the 1963 Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., with an engine built by Wilson.

While Roberts never won a NASCAR championship – he never ran a full season – he racked up 33 wins over 15 seasons in what is now the Sprint Cup series. His first victory came on Aug. 13, 1950, at Occoneechee Speedway, a dirt track near Hillsborough, N.C.

It was on NASCAR’s then-new superspeedways that he soared, earning a combined 10 wins at Daytona (seven), Atlanta (one) and Darlington (two) from 1958 to 1963.

“Fireball was just smooth, much like people talk about how Jimmie Johnson drives today. He just had a knack for running a whole race without having a right-front tire problem, which was so common at that time,” said Wheeler.

“He never seemed to take any unnecessary chances but at the same time he drove faster than everybody else in places that were really scary – Charlotte, Daytona, Darlington.”

Roberts’ last victory came Nov. 17, 1963, on a road course in Augusta, Ga. Driving a Holman-Moody Ford, Roberts finished a lap ahead of teammate and runner-up Dave MacDonald.

Ironically, the pair would perish after separate May 1964 wrecks – MacDonald in the Indianapolis 500 and Roberts succumbing to burns suffered from a wreck in the World 600 several weeks earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Roberts died July 2, 1964, at the age of 35.

Thousands of fans mourned Roberts’ death. He never won a championship nor was voted the sport’s most popular driver, but his style and success left a large void.

“It was like awaking to find a mountain suddenly gone,” wrote former Charlotte News columnist Max Muhlman in the days after Roberts’ death.

Much like the death of another racing legend, Dale Earnhardt, would do nearly four decades later, Roberts’ death proved a catalyst of sorts for a series of safety improvements in racing.

In the wake of Robert’s death, NASCAR mandated that all drivers must wear flame retardant coveralls while on track. They also instituted the five-point safety harness and a special, contoured driver’s seat.

A fitting epitaph adorns a memorial marker on the mausoleum in Daytona Beach, Fla., where Roberts is interred:

“He brought to stock car racing a freshness, distinction, a championship quality that surpassed the rewards collected by the checkered flag.”

Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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