To call Fireball Roberts NASCAR's
first "star" would be to ignore stars such as Herb Thomas, Lee Petty,
the Flocks, and other heroes of yesteryear.
Although it would be much later before Winston Cup racing produced a
star who transcended the sport, it's accurate to say that Roberts was
NASCAR's most famous driver when in died in 1964, thus from "Star" to
Roberts had just turned 19 when he competed in the
first sanctioned NASCAR race, a modified event on the Beach & Road
course in Daytona Beach, Florida on February 15, 1948. Roberts captured
his first NASCAR victory in 1950 at Hillsboro, N.C., but it was six
years before he won another. He preferred primarily racing modifieds on
dirt, which were faster cars than the stock cars of that time. True
racers wanted to race the faster cars. The pay-outs were better at that
time in the modifieds. They normally were the feature event, even above
the NASCAR stock cars, and a crowd favorite.
1957 found him an "overnight" sensation winning 8
races, but 1958 was truly his breakout year by capturing the Northern
500 at Trenton, N.J., and the Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. to become
the first driver to capture two 500 mile races in one year.
1960 found Roberts, at age 31, ready to burst upon the
fans attention as he crafted his skills on the superspeedways at
Charlotte, Atlanta, and Hanford, Conn., as well as Daytona International
Speedway, and Darlington.
Roberts pedal-to-the-metal style was not conducive to
winning championships, and in fact just picked the races he wanted to
run and never ran enough to contend for a points championship. But his
forte was in qualifying on the big tracks. Fireball--who by the way was
not fond of his moniker and told his friends to call him Glenn, captured
an unheard-of six Grand National poles, still an unmatched feat to this
Roberts extraordinary qualifying feats during that era include:
Winning at least five Grand Slam
poles three years in a row(1960-1962), a feat no other driver has
managed in consecutive seasons.
- Becoming the only driver in history to lead every lap of a superspeedway race, when he set the pace for all 178 laps of a 250 mile
race at California's Marchbanks Speedway on March 12, 1964.
- Earning the pole in five consecutive
Grand Slam races, culminating with the 1961 Daytona 500, a feat that has
been bettered only once.
- Completing a string of five consecutive classic poles starting
first with the 1963 Daytona 500.
- Becoming the first driver to win poles on
all four Grand Slam tracks in the same season ('62), a feat accomplished
only twice since.
- Capturing five straight superspeedway
poles in 1960 and '1961, a record that would be tied 13 years later and
would take 24 years to break.
- Becoming the first driver to win the pole for three
classics in one season (1962)
- Winning at least five superspeedway poles three consecutive seasons (1960-62), the second
longest such streak in history.
- Winning at least one classic pole five years in a row (1959-1963), a
streak bettered only by David Pearson and Jeff Gordon.
- Becoming the first driver to win at least one
superspeedway poles in five consecutive seasons (1959-1963) and the
first to win multiple superspeedway poles in four consecutive seasons
Roberts also was
the first driver to capture at least one Grand Slam pole in five
consecutive years (1959-1963) and had another string of three
consecutive classic poles, a streak exceeded only by Bill Elliott's four
and equaled by Pearson. Roberts also posted two other streaks of four
consecutive Grand Slam poles. Only four other drivers have managed to
complete that feat once. And streaks of four or more superspeedway poles
have been accomplished five times -- three of them by Roberts.
Now nearly 40 years after his untimely death, Roberts
still ranks second in classic poles (10), third in Grand slam poles
(21), ties for seventh in Grand Slam wins from the pole (3), tied for
eighth in superspeedway poles (21), tied for 11th in superspeedway
victories from the pole (3), and 18th in poles (35).
Considering his relative lack of opportunities on superspeedways, it would not be inappropriate to call Roberts the best
qualifier in the history of NASCAR's big tracks.
That doesn't mean he wasn't capable of finding victory
Roberts was the first driver to post four consecutive seasons
of multiple superspeedway victories (1960-'61), and the first to win on
Grand Slam track six consecutive seasons (1959-1961), and the
first to win Grand Slam races from the pole in consecutive season
(1959-'60). His five 500 mile victories were a record at the time of his
death, and he still ranks in the top 20 in victories (33), superspeedway
wins (14), Grand Slam triumphs (10), dirt victories (12), and road wins
Hall of Fame mechanic Smokey Yunick was quoted, "I'm telling you,
that Fireball was the best driver I ever had." Quite the quote
considering that Tom Flock, Buck Baker, Bobby Isaac, Bobby Allison,
Curtis turner, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Herb
Thomas drove for him.
WORLD STOPPED . . .
Lap 7 in
the World 600
at Charlotte Motor Speedway on
May 24th, 1964 found Junior Johnson's Ford spinning into Ned Jarrett's,
and the latter caught on fire, Roberts swerved abruptly to avoid their
cars, then bounced into the rear of Jarrett's machine. Robert's
Holman-Moody Ford tagged the wall hard and landed upside down in a sea
Jarrett, who had leapt from his burning car, ran to
Robert's car and heard his friend and rival scream "Oh, my God, Ned.
Help me. I'm on fire!" By the time Jarrett pulled Roberts out of the
charred machine, initial reports were that 80 percent of Robert's body
had received third degree burns. Roberts, whose condition worsened with
asthma, fought for his life at Charlotte Memorial Hospital. He underwent
surgery June 30 and came out of the operation in a coma. Two days later,
July 2nd, as the place where he was the defending champion, and where he
dominated the competition, Daytona International Speedway, was preparing
for the Firecracker 400, the most popular driver in the sport had known
to that point died at the age of 35 from pneumonia and blood poisoning.
The man is gone, but the records remain.
Much of this story is written in the book
The Complete Statistical History of Stock-Car History by Richard Sowers and
edited by fireballroberts.com pending permission.