'Fireball' Roberts was Daytona Beach's racing hero


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What made Fireball Roberts a star?

Other drivers of his era -- Lee Petty, Tim Flock, Ned Jarrett, Herb Thomas -- won more races.

Fireball Roberts poses by his car in 1960, a year in which he started from the pole in six of his nine Grand National races and finished first in two.

Many of his fellow racers were more outgoing, and a few -- though very few -- might have been more articulate.

Junior Johnson was more exciting to watch, while Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner were certainly more flamboyant.

What appears to have made a household name of Edward Glenn Roberts was a combination of things adding up to one big colorful package.

He was good at what he did: "I've had 60 guys drive my cars," says Speedy Spiers, one of Fireball's earliest car builders. "Fireball was as good or better than any of them."

He was bright: "He just seemed to have a whole lot more in his head than just racing . . ." says former journalist and public relations man Max Muhleman.

He had that great nickname: "I think his name, Fireball, drew a lot of attention," says Marvin Panch, another winning driver of Fireball's era.

He won some big races, including four of the first 10 big-league events at Daytona (along with five poles and three Daytona 500 qualifying races).

Combine that with his all-American looks of the era (flat-top haircut, tan face, big smile) and a knack for the manly things (hunting, fishing, flying, motorcycling, shooting pool), and you get a guy who, except for his dangerous line of work, was a rather effortless star.

"He could be with someone for 10 minutes," says Judy Judge, Fireball's fiancee at the time of his 1964 death, "and, you know, the men wanted to be like him, and the women wanted to be with him."

"EVER HEAR OF FIREBALL ROBERTS?"

It really wouldn't have made much sense for a name like "Fireball" to be hung on a racer like Ned Jarrett, who was among a group of successful drivers who preferred to keep the fenders intact and pick their spots for the occasional hell-bent-for-leather moments.

No, "Fireball" was a perfect tag for Glenn Roberts, because he loved running up front, and often had the horsepower to do that -- thanks in large part to fellow Daytonan Smokey Yunick, the builder and crew chief for many of Fireball's hot rods.

But, of course, this was a case of a driving style finding the nickname, and not vice versa, because Fireball earned his label on a youth-league baseball diamond -- it seems he had a decent fastball. There's no doubting what Panch said -- the nickname helped build his status.

Some often wondered if Fireball enjoyed his star status. To hear his contemporaries talk, it seems that Fireball had a side to him that modern fans would associate with Tony Stewart.

"He didn't get along very good with the press," says Muhleman. "They'd ask Fireball some dumb question and he'd tell them what he thought of it. One time he was driving one of Smokey's Pontiacs and he blew an engine in a qualifying race. Somebody stuck a microphone in his face and he batted it away. The reporter asked him, 'What happened, Fireball?' He said, 'You dumb (SOB), don't you have eyes? Did you think I started a campfire out there with all this smoke?' "

He was usually a little more patient with the fans, though not always in love with them.

"He loved talking with people who were knowledgeable, and he took time signing autographs," says Judge. "But he had no patience with questions that were dumb. I can remember fans coming up after a race that he lost and saying, 'Goddamn, Fireball, you cost me 50 bucks.' He'd say, 'Sorry about that,' and then he'd drag me off and say, 'That dumb SOB, it cost me $50,000. Think I wanted to lose that race?' "

But when he was away from the Southeastern hotbed of stock car racing -- either on vacation or going off to race in the North or West -- it wasn't long before he'd start missing everything about the home turf, perhaps even missing everyone knowing who "Fireball" was.

"Whenever we were off somewhere, he would always bring up stock car racing," says Judge. "Once, in Cape Cod (Mass.), we were talking to the owner of a restaurant, and Glenn asked him if he knew about stock car racing. 'Those guys are all moonshiners,' the guy said. Glenn said, 'Not all of 'em. Ever hear of Fireball Roberts?' The owner said, 'Hell no, who's that?'

"He was very big in the South, but in Riverside (Calif.) and Las Vegas, nobody knew him. And that was nice for a couple days, but then he'd get antsy. He would want to be back where he could talk about racing stuff."

Judge would've been happy to stay away from town a little longer.

"I didn't like what he did; I liked what he was," she says.

"THE HOMETOWN GUY"

The Cape Cod story would be hard to believe for many of Fireball's contemporaries, who actually remember him being a bit on the shy side. It's not uncommon to hear an old-timer remark that many from that era considered him aloof.

"He was shy, and a lot of people took that for aloofness," says Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler, who was running Firestone Tires racing program in the 1960s. "He wasn't aloof; he just didn't talk a lot. I can remember on tire tests, he'd come in, and you'd have to get a driver to tell you what was going on. The only one who was harder to get something out of was Ralph Earnhardt -- Ralph measured his words by the dozen.

"But basically, Fireball was a fun kind of a guy. He laughed and all that. A lot of the drivers in those days were shy. They'd been hanging around shops their whole lives, and they weren't social beings like the guys in the Cup garage are today. But he was very well-spoken, very smart."

In many ways, the same as all the others. But in other ways, so very different. Muhleman recalls an interview with Fireball while sitting in the infield at Darlington.

"I said something like 'Did you ever think about running around this track on foot?' " says Muhleman. "You ask that of most stock car drivers, particularly guys back then, and they would look at you sideways and call security. He chuckled. He said, 'It would probably take me 20 minutes to do that.' I said, 'I bet I could do it under 10.' He told me I couldn't do it under 10. This is the least likely conversation you could have with a stock car driver."

Fireball bet Muhleman a steak dinner on the 10-minute claim, and Muhleman left immediately to go find some sneakers.

"He started laughing and called me back and said, 'Anybody that would try that deserves a steak dinner.' So we went to dinner that night and we talked about racing about 25 percent of the time, and about things he liked to do, and current affairs. He was a renaissance man. He had a wide appetite and interest in life. I found that fascinating."

Fascinating, fast and fun-loving. But above all, not just a star on the budding NASCAR circuit, but the first beloved hometown hero for a small beach town in Florida known for little more than automobile racing.

"Fireball was the hometown guy," says veteran racing journalist Chris Economaki. "For many years, racing was big in the South, big at the fairs. Drivers came from far away, then they left. That was that.

"Fireball was really the first of the hometown guys to be ultra-successful. He was from downtown. You could bump into him on the street, perhaps."

An average guy in many ways.

"Polite, dependable," says Judge. "He was a man's man. Hunted, fished, liked the things most men liked, and was very good at the things he did."

Guys like that are missed, even four decades later, regardless of their name and accomplishments.

"Good man, good racer," says Fred Lorenzen, a fellow racing star of the 1960s. "It's been a long time. God, it's been how many years? Forty years? Can't believe it."

ken.willis@news-jrnl.com

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