Glenn “Fireball” Roberts’ first NASCAR victory came on dirt.
But with the opening of Daytona International Speedway in 1959, it was Roberts who quickly became a master of asphalt and helped usher in NASCAR’s “superspeedway era.”
Roberts seemed ready-made for the racing game.
He came equipped with what easily could be called the best nickname in racing, which actually originated from his younger days playing in sandlot baseball games. A dapper dresser always with a fresh crew cut, Roberts’ thirst for speed on racing’s biggest tracks drew legions of fans.
In many respects, Roberts was among the first to demonstrate the star power of drivers, which has become a staple of the sport today.
“Most of the guys running at that time were dirt racers and Fireball, while he was a good dirt racer and a good modified racer, he just seemed to be able to just ‘go’ when he got on the big tracks,” said Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
At the time Wheeler worked for Firestone Tire, and Roberts served as a driver for tire tests.
“Nobody knew what they were doing when they got to these big asphalt tracks. But you put Fireball in one of Smokey Yunick’s cars and it was like handing a man a loaded machine gun,” Wheeler said.
“It took a special driver to get through the corners. He made it look easy.”
Roberts, who died as the result of injuries from a racing wreck in 1964, will be inducted Wednesday night into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Former engine builder and crew chief Waddell Wilson will induct Roberts into the Hall. Roberts won the 1963 Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., with an engine built by Wilson.
While Roberts never won a NASCAR championship – he never ran a full season – he racked up 33 wins over 15 seasons in what is now the Sprint Cup series. His first victory came on Aug. 13, 1950, at Occoneechee Speedway, a dirt track near Hillsborough, N.C.
It was on NASCAR’s then-new superspeedways that he soared, earning a combined 10 wins at Daytona (seven), Atlanta (one) and Darlington (two) from 1958 to 1963.
“Fireball was just smooth, much like people talk about how Jimmie Johnson drives today. He just had a knack for running a whole race without having a right-front tire problem, which was so common at that time,” said Wheeler.
“He never seemed to take any unnecessary chances but at the same time he drove faster than everybody else in places that were really scary – Charlotte, Daytona, Darlington.”
Roberts’ last victory came Nov. 17, 1963, on a road course in Augusta, Ga. Driving a Holman-Moody Ford, Roberts finished a lap ahead of teammate and runner-up Dave MacDonald.
Ironically, the pair would perish after separate May 1964 wrecks – MacDonald in the Indianapolis 500 and Roberts succumbing to burns suffered from a wreck in the World 600 several weeks earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Roberts died July 2, 1964, at the age of 35.
Thousands of fans mourned Roberts’ death. He never won a championship nor was voted the sport’s most popular driver, but his style and success left a large void.
“It was like awaking to find a mountain suddenly gone,” wrote former Charlotte News columnist Max Muhlman in the days after Roberts’ death.
Much like the death of another racing legend, Dale Earnhardt, would do nearly four decades later, Roberts’ death proved a catalyst of sorts for a series of safety improvements in racing.
In the wake of Robert’s death, NASCAR mandated that all drivers must wear flame retardant coveralls while on track. They also instituted the five-point safety harness and a special, contoured driver’s seat.
A fitting epitaph adorns a memorial marker on the mausoleum in Daytona Beach, Fla., where Roberts is interred:
“He brought to stock car racing a freshness, distinction, a championship quality that surpassed the rewards collected by the checkered flag.”