DAYTONA BEACH --When
Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts crashed on May 24,
1964, it wasn't a routine racing accident but a
horrifying nightmare which lasted more than a month.
The night before the World 600 at Charlotte Motor
Speedway, Roberts explained his racing game plan to
his fiancé Judy Judge.
gonna hang back," he told her. "It's a 600-mile
race, I'll hang back, don't worry about it. The car
will be good and the idiots will take each other
out. I'll be lurking in back, and at 450 miles, I'll
be on my way."
Roberts, who lived here, was one of the first
drivers who would visualize a big race the night
before he would run on the track.
This time, his plan of attack did not work.
On Lap 7 of the 400-lap run over the 1.5-mile
course, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett
made contact in Turn 1, sending both of their race
cars into violent spins.
David Pearson, who would become a
three-time NASCAR champion, cleared the melee but
Roberts, a 35-year-old veteran, could not negotiate
his Ford through the mechanical mayhem unfolding
Roberts spun backwards and crashed into the edge
of a concrete retaining wall. The impact split his
gas tank. His car landed on its roof and came to
rest just behind Jarrett's Ford on the track. Fuel
streamed into the cockpit of Roberts' car.
Both cars were on fire, a race car driver's worst
Marvin Panch, another driver who lived
here in those days, was in the field that afternoon
and saw the aftermath of the devastating crash.
"I didn't see the accident when it happened
because he was racing behind us," Panch said. "We
didn't see it until we come around the track.
"I knew he was in trouble, but you'd see a lot of
guys in trouble. In his case he got burned really
Jarrett emerged from his car and immediately went
to assist Roberts, who had wiggled halfway out of
his racer, at that point, fully involved with
flames. Apparently, one of Roberts' feet was pinned
under something in his wrecked car.
It was a horrific scene, a taste of hell, as
described by Jarrett.
"Oh my God, Ned, help me, I'm on fire," Roberts
said to Jarrett.
"I got him under the arms and jerked him out,"
Jarrett said. "We stood there on the track tearing
his uniform off."
In those days, the gas tank was not protected by
the rubber bladder liners used today and drivers did
not wear fire protection suits. Roberts' crash led
to fuel tank research and the development of those
bladders, which have likely saved many more lives
through the years.
Judge didn't see the wreck but knew Roberts had
"I was on top of the Firestone truck and there
was a mound of dirt in the infield, and I couldn't
see past it," she said. "I knew it was him, because
I couldn't see him come around."
In an era before everybody at the racetrack had
two-way radios or scanners, Judge knew she needed to
beeline to the infield care center, where most
drivers were taken after an accident.
"I started immediately for the infield hospital,
and there I ran into Ned," Judge said. "His uniform
was off, he was in his white undershirt and he said,
'He's alive. I got him out of the car. He's alive.'
Judge arrived too late. By the time she reached
the care center, Roberts had been airlifted out by
helicopter to a nearby hospital.
"They brought me his shoes and watch," Judge
said. "His shoes were burned. I still have his
The news wasn't good by the time Judge reached
the hospital. Roberts was burned over most of his
body. Doctors listed his condition that night as
It was an hour-to-hour situation complicated by
the fact Roberts had fought asthma his entire life,
a condition so bad that the Air Force gave him a
medical discharge after only 90 days of service.
"They brought him from the emergency room, and
his face looked sunburned," Judge said. "His
shoulders looked untouched. They had the sheet up to
his shoulders. I leaned over and kissed him and he
said, 'I'm gonna be sore as hell tomorrow.'
"The doctor took me aside and told me, 'I don't
think he's gonna live.' "
The night of the accident, Roberts feared if he
went to sleep, he would never wake up again.
"Glenn told me, 'Don't let me go to sleep,' "
Judge said. "They put him on his tummy on his bed. I
sat on the floor under his face and talked to him
The experience, Judge says today, was "awful."
Roberts defied the doctors and the odds and
fought for his life, day by agonizing day.
The sad ordeal lasted until July 2 when Roberts,
the star of NASCAR's golden era, died from his
injuries. Judge was at the hospital each day as
Roberts' small circle of close friends prayed for
"I almost lost my Christianity over it," said
Bob Laney, who hunted with Roberts on a regular
basis. "He was burned pretty bad. Had he recovered,
I don't know how he would have lived with it.
"I guess God figured it was better that he died
then to come back and face all the operations that
he would have to have."
Two days after his death, A.J. Foyt won
the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International
Speedway. It was the race Roberts had won in his
Holman-Moody Ford the previous year.
Roberts' funeral was the next day, on July 5, at
Bellevue Memorial Park, which is just east of the
Speedway off Clyde Morris Boulevard. More than 1,000
people attended the service to pay their final
respects to one of NASCAR's biggest stars.
Glenn Roberts Sr., who had first balked at
Fireball's racing ambitions, eulogized his son at
"There is sorrow not only among the kin, but
among the many," he said.