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Fireball Roberts Was A Pathfinder Into NASCAR Superspeedway Era
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ( KMVT-TV / KTWT-TV ) – To his legion of fans, Edward Glenn Roberts Jr. was known as “Fireball.” His friends, however, simply called the pioneer NASCAR premier series racing star “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.