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Former racing wife, Doris Roberts, 75
Obituaries for Friday, May 7, 2004

Doris McConnell Roberts, who dedicated her life to preserving the memory of her former husband, the late racing legend E. Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, died Wednesday at her home in Kannapolis, N.C. She was 75.

"Family and racing were her life," said her daughter, Pamela Roberts of Cocoa Beach. "My mother was very dedicated to her family, large network of friends and honoring my father's memory. We will truly miss her beautiful smile, bright blue eyes, Southern charm and her endless stories about racing in the earlier days."

A native of Mecklenburg County, N.C., Doris Roberts met the race car driver at a race in Charlotte, N.C. Just a couple of weeks later, the couple married and relocated to Daytona Beach in 1950.

After her husband was fatally injured during the Charlotte World 600 on May 24, 1964, she stayed in Daytona Beach until 1970. She moved back to North Carolina and later opened Cousin's CrossStitch, a needlework shop, retiring in 1996.

The former Daytona Beach resident continued to stay involved in the racing scene and attended many race events, functions, fund-raisers and children's charities.

"She was a nice lady. She always came down for the races and helped raise money for the Florida Lions Conklin Centers for the Blind," said longtime friend and Ormond Beach resident Hilly Rife.

Roberts was a member of Coddle Creek Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Mooresville, N.C., and the Motor Racing Heritage Association and Living Legends of Auto Racing, both of Daytona Beach, and the Old Timers Racing Club.


Doris, 3rd from left, with autograph

Additional survivors include two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Memorial donations may be made to Hospice of Cabarrus County, P.O. Box 1235, Concord, N.C. 28026-1235; or OldTimers Racing Club, 119 Northeast Drive, Archdale, N.C. 27263. Lady's Funeral Home, Kannapolis, is in charge.

Courtesy News-Journal, Daytona Beach

 
Doris McConnell Roberts     
Published in the Charlotte Observer on 5/9/2004.

KANNAPOLIS -- Mrs. Roberts, 75, passed away peacefully at her home in Kannapolis, with family and loved ones by her side, Wednesday morning, May 5, 2004.
Mrs. Roberts was born in Mecklenburg County to the late Felix and Ila McConnell, Sr. The family including her brother, the late Felix Reid McConnell, Jr. moved to Kannapolis in the mid 1930s. She graduated from J.W. Cannon High School in 1946 and went to work in the tabulating department for Cannon Mills. In 1950, Doris McConnell married the late Glenn 'Fireball' Roberts and moved to Daytona Beach, FL where she lived for over 20 years. She moved back to Kannapolis and opened Cousin's Cross Stitch on South Main Street and retired in 1996 after selling her shop. She spent more time doing the things she loved, which included attending NASCAR events and functions, fund raisers and children charities.
Survivors include her daughter, Pamela Roberts of Rockledge, FL; two grandchildren, Angela Gibson and her husband, Josh of Concord and Matthew McDaniel and his wife, Jenny of Cocoa Beach, FL; two great-granddaughters, Chloe Gibson of Concord and Shyli McDaniel of Cocoa Beach, FL and great-grandson, DJ Bennish of Cocoa Beach; two nieces, Becki Barnhardt and her husband, Tony and Kathi Strader and her husband, Rick; one nephew, Felix Reid McConnell, III; one great-nephew, Anthony Barnhardt, all of Kannapolis; great nieces, Suzan Senerchia and her husband, Jay of Rougemont, Donna Tucker and her husband, Rodney of Mooresville and Tammy Greene and her husband, Michael of Concord.
There will be a memorial service celebrating her life, Tuesday, May 11, 2004 at 11:00 a.m. at Charity Baptist Church with Rev. James Hunt and Rev. Jim Gaines officiating. The family will receive friends for one hour prior to the service at the church. Burial will be in Sharon Memorial Park, Charlotte, with a graveside service at 2:00 p.m. Tuesday.
The family requests that memorials be made to Hospice of Cabarrus County, PO Box 1235, Concord, NC 28026-1235 or Old Timers Racing Club, 119 Northeast Drive, Archdale, NC 27263.
Lady's Funeral Home of Kannapolis is serving the Roberts Family.
          ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A poignant story about Fireball from Doris Roberts . . .

THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT - BOB ZELLER, STAFF WRITER   Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

FIREBALL WOULD'VE BEEN PROUD NEARLY 32 YEARS AFTER HER HUSBAND'S DEATH, DORIS ROBERTS LOOKS BACK.

1996-- Two Sundays ago, on race day at North Carolina Motor Speedway, an elegantly dressed older woman came into the infield media center and took a seat among the reporters preparing to cover the NASCAR race.

This is where she watches every Winston Cup race at The Rock. A few old-timers, such as veteran motorsports journalists Bob Myers and Benny Phillips, greeted her warmly. Some of the newer folks didn't know who she was.

A name tag on her blouse identified her as Doris Roberts. Her husband's name was Glenn. He was better known as ``Fireball.'' But she always called him Glenn.

``He told me his name was Glenn Roberts and he wanted to be called that,'' she said.

He has been gone now for almost as many years as he was alive. Fireball Roberts died at age 35 from burns suffered in a fiery crash on the backstretch at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day in 1964.

His death was tragic, and ironic - his nickname came not from driving stock cars fast, but from his skill as a baseball pitcher.

At Indianapolis that Memorial Day, another fiery crash claimed the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. It was one of the most tragic days in the history of American automobile racing.

Fireball Roberts clung to life for six weeks after the crash. He was burned over 80 percent of his body, with second- and third-degree burns. But pneumonia and blood poisoning set in, and he died on July 2, as the NASCAR tour returned to his hometown, Daytona Beach, Fla., for the Firecracker 400, which he had won the previous two years.

Today, almost 32 years later, the sadness of his loss is still right below the surface for Doris Roberts, who is 67. The mere mention of his name can make her emotional. But she harbors no bitterness. She is proud to be in the NASCAR family and thankful she hasn't been cast aside in the sport's headlong rush toward the 21st century.

Fireball Roberts is now a part of NASCAR history, but he is still relevant today, she said, because the sport has reached the stature he always felt it deserved. As a stock-car racer, he wanted to be taken seriously when the sport was widely considered buffoonery.

``Glenn wanted so badly for stock-car racing to come into its own, rather than having a carnival atmosphere,'' she said. ``He was very adamant about it.''

Fireball Roberts started his racing career in 1947, at age 18. He made his reputation on the way he drove.

``It was the way he came through the turns at on the Daytona beach course,'' Doris said.

She was 19 when she persuaded her parents to make the trip from their home in Kannapolis, N.C., to the beach in 1948.

``We were sitting in the North Turn grandstand, and the way he came through the turn, my mother thought he was the most exciting thing she had ever seen,'' Doris recalled. ``It's a pity she didn't feel like that after I brought him home.''

Doris met Fireball on Memorial Day 1950 at a track in Charlotte. She was there with some of her girlfriends, sitting on the hood of her car. She had blond hair and blue eyes. She had already decided she wanted to marry a race-car driver.

She and Fireball went to dinner, and he swept her off her feet.

``I was so impressed by him in person,'' he said. ``He was a classical music fan, and so am I. I could not get over that - and his intelligence. He was really a fascinating person. He could talk about anything.''

Their first formal date was at Buddy Shuman's garage in Charlotte.

``I sat there while he changed the engine on a race car,'' she said. ``He didn't apologize for his racing in any way, shape or form. There was work to be done, and I ran second to the race car.''

He courted her for three weeks, then asked her to marry him. She said yes. And in 1951 they had their only child, Pamela.

``Of course, I had to do little-boy things to spend time with my Daddy,'' said Pamela, now 44, who was with her mother at Rockingham. ``He'd pick me up from school and we went out to the speedway and took the dogs. And he'd shoot the guns sometimes, to keep the dogs from being gunshy.''

``He was a great daddy. We went to the beach all the time. We'd go flying, too. We'd take the plane up and he would play out over the ocean until the tower told him to quit.

``When he was at home, he would lift weights in the back yard in the afternoon, and all the neighborhood kids would gather there.''

Fireball Roberts won 32 races in what is now the Winston Cup series. But he made his greatest mark at Daytona International Speedway, even though he raced there fewer than six years.

It is difficult to describe how terrifying Daytona was when it opened in 1959.

Lee Petty may have said it best: ``There wasn't a man there who wasn't scared to death of the place. We had never raced on a track like that before. What it amounted to was that we were all rookies going 30 to 40 mph faster than we had ever gone before.''

``It was very scary,'' Doris Roberts said. ``The tires were my greatest fear. I worried more about the tires than anything else.''

The tires were passenger-car tires back then and were not designed for the stress of high speeds on a high-banked track.

Fireball won the first Firecracker race - then a 250-miler - in 1959. But his greatest Daytona performance was in 1962, when he swept all the races he was in, including the Daytona 500.

``I was so proud of him,'' Doris said. ``And 1958 was a banner year, too. He won every race he entered that was 500 miles or more.''

But Fireball was not a good loser.

``I always wanted to know how well he did,'' said Pam. If he did bad, I'd just stay in my room.''

Family members dealt with the risk of racing the way racers always do - they dismissed the possibility of death.

``I told myself, and Glenn also told me, that nothing would ever happen to him,'' Doris said. ``And I decided it would never happen to him. And that's how you lived with it. But deep down, you knew there was a possibility.''

``I was 13 when he died,'' said Pam. ``That Sunday, I was learning how to surf on the beach for the first time. My boyfriend came out to the water and told me he had crashed.''

She thought it was just another routine accident. She kept surfing.

Doris was at home, listening to the race on the radio.

``I couldn't do anything until Pamela got home,'' she said. They flew to Charlotte that evening.

``I'll never forget that night,'' Pam said. ``We got there and that waiting room was full.''

In the final six weeks, Fireball ``went in and out,'' Doris said. ``We could talk to him sometimes. We didn't talk about the crash. But the first couple of days, he thought he had won the race.

``He asked about Indy. We did not tell him about MacDonald and Sachs. It was a day-by-day thing, even up until he died.''

Fireball Roberts had invested wisely, so he left his his wife and daughter in good financial shape. But it was an emotional struggle, and Doris had to fill the role as mother and father.

``I gave her a present once on Father's Day,'' Pam said. ``I had a lady design a race car and stitch it. And when I gave it to her, I told her, ``You were just as good a daddy as you were a mommy.''

In February 1965, Bill France Jr., who is now NASCAR president, called Doris.

``He asked me if I wanted to come out (to the Daytona track) and I said no,'' Doris recalled. ``But I told Pam and she said, `Mother, I want to go.' So we did. Everybody was just so wonderful. Actually, they were just very protective.

``NASCAR is really very good to us. The people involved are just so terrific. They make me feel a part of it.''

But Doris, who moved back to Kannapolis in 1970, has never returned to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

``It always makes me feel so good for someone to say to me, `Fireball was my favorite,' Doris said. ``I've had people say that after he was killed, they never went back to another race. I wish they would.

``I cannot believe the things that are happening in NASCAR racing today. I'm so pleased that racing has come as far as it has. Glenn worked so hard for it to reach this,'' Doris Roberts said. ``Glenn wanted so badly for stock-car racing to come into its own.''

``You know, Don Garlits (the drag racer) told me once, `Doris, we can look in a mirror and see how old we are. But Fireball's image is frozen in time.'' 

TOM COPELAND/Landmark News Service



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