BEACH -- Edward Glenn Roberts did not grow up in
a racing family.
He discovered the magic of speed on his own.
Smokey Yunick, left, and Fireball Roberts peer
under the hood during the 1961 season. In 1961,
the only year when Fireball drove a Yunick-owned
Grand National car, the two combined for three
polls and a victory in three Daytona Beach
Roberts was born in Tavares then moved with his
family to Apopka at a young age. When he was 16 years
old in 1945, his mother and father bought a small
beachside motel near the Main Street area.
"We hated it," his younger sister JoAnne
Funderburke said. "Bubby and I would drive back over
there almost every weekend to see our friends."
Roberts, who had picked up the nickname "Fireball,"
spent most of his junior year at the original Seabreeze
High School, which was located on Grandview Avenue.
"We grew up in a good time," Funderburke said. "It
was an easy time to grow up. We had a happy, loving
childhood in a small town."
In May, 1945, Roberts quit school and joined the Air
Force but spent most of his time in a base infirmary
because of asthma attacks. He received a medical
discharged after 90 days of service.
Roberts battled a chronic asthma condition his entire
life. As a child he spent many hours indoors while other
kids his age were outside playing.
Fireball Roberts is pictured in a
mid-1950s trophy ceremony with Font Flock, a
legendary driver who survived a horrific 1941
crash in Daytona Beach and went on to win the
1947 National Championship.
"In his youth, he was a little ol' skinny nothing,"
Funderburke said with a slight giggle.
He did have an adventurous side to him. When Roberts
was 11, he knew how to drive the family car. At the age
of 12, he flew an airplane. Family members say he never
raced go-karts as a child.
After leaving the service, he returned here and
earned his GED and attended graduation ceremonies at
Apopka High School.
It was sometime at this point in his life, in 1946 or
'47, when he met Marshal Teague, who was a
successful local racer. It was Teague who mentored
Roberts in the fine art of stock car racing, according
to friends and family.
Irwin "Speedy" Spiers said he and Roberts
attended the meeting of racing promoters and track
owners at the Streamline Hotel in December 1947 that led
to the formation of NASCAR.
"We were out in the hallway trying to listen to what
was going on," Spiers said. "We weren't big fish back
then. We didn't get to sit at the big table with the
Roberts' first race was on a dirt short track in
Jacksonville, most likely when he was 18. Before he
turned 21, Roberts' mother had to give him written
permission for him to race in various events.
"My mother signed for him to race the first time on
the beach, the summer of '48; I remember that because I
just graduated from high school," Funderburke said. "I
was 17 and he was 19. Daddy wouldn't sign it."
Edward Glenn Sr. didn't like the idea of his son
racing. He had little to do with his son's career until
Glenn Jr. was well into his racing days.
After obtaining his GED, Roberts attended the
University of Florida for five consecutive semesters,
and his interest in racing was evident from the number
of speeding tickets he collected commuting back and
forth from Gainesville.
"About every time he came through Bunnell, the police
would stop him," Funderburke said. "I drove that car a
few times. It was a souped-up '39 Ford. You had to drive
it fast or it would conk out on you. The sounds it made
embarrassed me to death."
Roberts never got his bachelor's degree in
engineering. The racing bug overwhelmed him in 1949.
"He was a pretty poor student; both of us were,"
Spiers said. "We couldn't concentrate too good on what
we should have been doing."
Spiers was in class at UF the day Roberts had his
racing revelation. It was on that day that Roberts
realized he was meant to drive a race car.
"We started to walk out of the classroom, I think it
was English literature, and this old girl was teaching
the class. She said, 'Where do you think you boys are
going?' Fireball said, 'Up your (bleep) grandmother,
we're going racing,' " Spiers said.
"The teacher was about 30 years old and he was
calling her grandmother. That was his last day in
From there, Roberts put his full attention on stock
car racing, traveling about anywhere looking for a good
payday. He got plenty of advice from Teague, who owned
an eight-stall garage, and Smokey Yunick, who had a
When Roberts turned 21 in 1950, he had a NASCAR
license and in October of that year won his first race
in the Strictly Stock division, now known as the Nextel
His milestone victory came at Occoneechee Speedway in
Hillsboro, N.C., on Aug. 13, 1950. There were 27 cars
entered in the 100-mile run. Roberts started 15th in a
1949 Oldsmobile and earned $3,975.
There was a six-year gap to his next victory, which
came at Raleigh (N.C.) Speedway in 1956, the year he
started running two-thirds of the Strictly Stock racing
Between those wins, Roberts barnstormed short tracks
from South Florida to Chicago, with friends such as Bob
Laney and Spiers helping him out on the road.
"We went to work at Fish Carburetor and I traveled
with him with the Fish cars," Spiers said. "We raced
their cars all over the place."
"We traveled together for about three years," he
added. "We campaigned all over the place with our two
little old race cars that we had on our own."
"I'd help him on the race cars and I'd tow the car
for him, stuff like that," Laney said. "I had a '40 Ford
coupe and we used that to tow his race cars with. That
eventually turned into a race car.
"I wasn't the engineering-type person, say like
Smokey Yunick was. I'd help him as a friend and we
Somewhere in the early 1950s, Roberts started to
build a name for himself, which eventually led to him
drawing appearance money from promoters and track
Andy Granitelli, who would later become famous
in Indy-car racing, promoted stock car races at Soldier
Field in Chicago. He was so amazed at Roberts' driving
ability, he paid him extra so the driver would return
the following week.
"We thought it was the end of the world," Spiers
said. "That was big money in the 1950s. We finished
fifth and he kept counting out money and there was
$1,500 in Fireball's hands.
"He said 'I want you to come back next week.'
Fireball said, 'Hell, we ain't gonna go back to Florida
for this kind of money. They pay you here.' "
Roberts' fiancé, Judy Judge, remembers one
time when a promoter handed over a folded grocery bag
after arriving at the track the day before the race in
the early 1960s.
"He opened it up and there was $5,000 in cash," she
said. "I was shocked."
By 1956, with dozens of short track victories under
his belt, Roberts was ready for stock car's premier
division. He quickly became a marquee name because of
his driving style -- fast and furious.
"He was a fierce competitor," Spiers said. "He was
one of them guys you had to slow down, not one you had
to speed up. He was that good of a driver. You had to
keep the brakes on him because he was tearing equipment
up so bad.
"The equipment we had really wasn't that good, so he
would save it in qualifying and use it up in the race.
He'd come charging up through the pack and somebody
would get in his way and he'd shorten their car up about
three feet, and his, too. I told him, 'Hey man, you
can't win the race on the first lap.' "
From 1956-63, Roberts piled up victory after victory
in NASCAR's top division running in cars built by Yunick
and then Holman-Moody Racing.
His 33rd and final win came at Augusta (Ga.)
International Speedway on Nov. 17, 1963, just two months
after winning the prestigious Southern 500 at
"Fireball was fast and driving the best looking car
out there and he had a great name," friend Max
Muhleman said. "It was a Hollywood-type name. And he
backed it up with a quiet dignity."
"He was flying around the racetrack in this
spectacular car that was so fast, nobody could ever seem
to catch him," he added. "I remember it was a matter of
whether Smokey could keep it nailed together for the
2004 News-Journal Corporation |
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Copyright © 1999 FireballRoberts.com
by Roland Via. All rights reserved. Revised:
05/07/12 20:55:48 -0400.
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