Roland Via sitting in his dream car, the 1962 Pontiac Catalina
built by Smokey Yunick and the winner of the 1962 Daytona 500
(displayed at the Intl. Motorsports Hall of Fame Museum - Talladega)
I'm Roland Via
and what you would call a dedicated Fireball fan. Even I think that is an understatement.
all began in 1962 when, as a
12 year old kid, I selling Daytona Beach News Journal newspapers in the
Daytona infield for 10 cents each. After Fireball’s famous 1962 Daytona 500 win
in Smokey Yunick's 1962 black and gold number 22, I waited
outside a chain link fence area trying to get a glimpse of him as he left
the infield press room which was about 15 yards
way. A few other people were standing there, but
they left slowly, one by one. Finally the door opened and the superspeedway king stepped out. A couple of adults called out his name as he walked away and he turned to wave
and then kept going towards the garage. He took a couple of steps and the
adults kept calling him. He stopped in his tracks and turned back coming
towards the fence. He walked over with a big smile on his face and signed a
few things through the fence.
The World's Dumbest Question . . .
Here I am, face to face with the first star
athlete I ever had been close to, and all I could ask him was, “Mr.
Fireball, sir, do you ever think you’ll race again?” He just got the
biggest grin on his face, chuckled and said,
“God, I sure hope so kid, I sure hope so”, then he turned and walked
through the infield garage area waving to all as he left, a smile never
leaving his face. I was to learn later what a love he had for kids.
The Story Doesn't End There . . .
I think I was the first kid in the world to sign up for the '62 July 4th
race to sell newspapers. It was a way to get in free and make a couple of
dollars, which was a lot in those days.
It was sweltering, way hot and I got an incredible sun burn. I had blisters
on my feet for walking miles in that infield, but it was worth it to watch
my hero Fireball win once again in the Firecracker 250. When I first got
there, I was really disappointed because I didn't see Fireball racing. There
was a red and white number 22 racing, but it wasn't the familiar Smokey
black and gold. Come to find out it was the black and gold Pontiac that was
given to Banjo Matthews and he repainted it red and white.
There were only 33 cars in the field and the heat took it's toll on the
other cars, but Fireball was the class of the field and blistered the
competition and it had nothing to do with the sun. He led only 11 laps, but
they were the important ones. His boss, Banjo Matthews, also drove a #02 '62
Pontiac and led the most laps with 61, but left the track after 73 laps with
engine trouble. Fireball and Banjo always talked about what would have
happened if both were running at the end. Glenn always said that Banjo took
the fastest motor for himself, but Glenn got the winning motor.
Once again I waited by the fence but missed seeing him that summer. The man
from the newspaper made us all leave the speedway in a truck and I never saw
him that summer.
The winter of 1963 went by quick and it was time for the 500. Fireball in
his true fashion qualified first in the same Banjo Matthews machine. He led
early for 11 laps until the unthinkable happened -- he had engine trouble
and finished a disappointing 21st. I ran back to the garage area to catch a
glimpse of him but never did see him. I heard people talk that he was way
disappointed. He hated not to win, but he hated not to finish even more. Now
it had been a year since I had seen him.
I remember leaving my paper route early on some days and riding up to
Volusia Avenue (now International Speedway Boulevard) and going to the
Stephens-Ferguson Pontiac dealership. I would just ride around in circles
(kind of like a race track) and wait for Fireball to come. You see, that was
the sponsor on the car so I thought that's where he was. After about two
months of that, I finally found out that he was not there after all. It
didn't bother me though, because it made me feel closer to him.
Later, one of the paperboys (well actually a man...) told me one day where
he lived on the beachside and I used to go by his house to see if I could
see him. Back then, the Daytona Beach News-Journal had a morning AND an
evening edition. Mr. Roberts didn't take the evening edition so I would
deliver an extra copy to him, so that if ever asked why was I stalking his
house I would have an excuse that I wanted him to try the evening news.
Smokey Yunick's "Best Damn Garage In Town" was at the northern edge of
Daytona by the Halifax River and the race car garages were well fenced in.
There was a large smoke stack which was really a huge exhaust system for the
motor dynamometer that tested engines. The famous Chevrolet 327 was
developed there where it eventually turned into one of the most versatile GM
motor, the 350 cubic inch. Anyway, when a motor was running it would put out
a very loud noise which could be heard for miles around. The rumor among the
kids were these were all race motors and of course to me they were all
Fireball Roberts motors. I would rush down there on my bicycle, night and
day, just to listen to the motors. Turns out very few were actually
Fireball's, but I am glad I didn't know that. I always revered Smokey just
because he was so closely associated with Fireball.
Spring of 1963 came and I looked forward to the July 1963 race which was going to be
expanded to 400 miles. I found out that Fireball was now going to be driving
a Ford for Holman-Moody and be a teammate to a top driver, Fred Lorenzen.
Not only was it a Ford, a purple
Ford. Say it wasn't so!
Fireball came to Daytona for the Firecracker 400, he was really beaming
about his fast ride and his chances. But Ray Fox (who built cars for Glenn
in the modified says) had his two Chevrolets smoking and upset the Fords by
taking the front row in qualifying with Junior Johnson and Jim Paschal. The
team cars of Holman-Moody had Fireball taking the third qualifying position
and Fred Lorenzen the fourth spot. Glenn really liked besting Fred Lorenzen
that day. The Chevy-Ford duel was set.
For better than half the race Junior Johnson led the most laps with 66, but
Fireball led 63 laps and most importantly, the last one as he finished with a solid victory.
Now 2 out of 3 I had seen. My world was
returning to normal!
This time I wasn't going to let him get away. I was determined to see him. I
actually missed getting paid for the newspapers I sold so that I could line
up at the infield fence near the victory lane. Fireball's stardom was going
and there were a lot more people clamoring for him that a year and a half
before. After the photographs he came over to a chest high chain link fan
fence to talk with some some local folks he noticed. He signed a couple of autographs and
shook some hands and stood still for some pictures.
I remember distinctly just staring at him. He pulled out a cigarette and
asked for a light and a man opened up his big silver zippo lighter and I
remember feeling proud that that was the same type of lighter that my Dad
used. Fireball just beaming about his win and seemed truly relieved that he
won in his hometown again. After all, that what we all expected from him.
More about the lighter . . .
I have had the picture of him getting the light of his cigarette burned into
my consciousness ever since that time because it was the last time I ever
saw him. My Mom was real sick and I was taking care of her during the 500
the next year, so I didn't get to go. You know the story of the tragic,
fatal accident at Charlotte in May 1964. I have collected lots and lots of
memorabilia and searched the NASCAR archives trying to find pictures of the
'63 Firecracker victory lane. It was only a short time ago that I FINALLY
found a picture. And to my surprise, I AM IN IT!
I cannot tell you how much this picture means to me. It's priceless. It
brings back many memories. I have told this story to so many people about
seeing Fireball, and I am thrilled I can verify it through a picture.
I have relived this scene hundreds of times in
my mind trying to figure out why I didn’t have him autograph one of my
newspapers. It only took me over 35 years and
countless hours to finally find an autograph of Fireball. Phone calls,
visits to collectible and memorabilia shops, race shows and trips, and
letters all proved fruitless. Through the power of the internet, I am now
the proud owner of nearly two dozen autographs on everything from winning
paychecks, postcards, programs, pictures and other items. I have every known diecast
ever produced in every scale of Fireball, plus many custom made
In my vast
collection I have Fish carburetor collectables, Smokey Yunick collectibles, pictures,
postcards, magazines, newspapers, racing periodicals, just ANYTHING with
Fireball. A portion of my priceless collection that I have been collecting
over the last 40 years can be seen in the Living Legends of Auto Racing
Museum in Daytona Beach. I hope that I can share them with you
that you enjoy this website. I will constantly be adding stories and I hope
you will too. More pictures of items I have collected will be added in time.
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