Glenn “Fireball” Roberts’ final resting place is so close to Daytona Beach International Airport that planes almost seem like they can reach out and touch them as they head for a landing. At his grave in Daytona Memorial Park, you can also hear their engines – a reminder of the roaring race cars Roberts drove at the famous circuit. The airport and runway are about two miles away.
Roberts died in 1964 when he was just 35, but in 1959, when NASCAR founder William “Bill” France Sr. opened Daytona International Speedway, Roberts was a local hero on his way to becoming the first driver NASCAR superstar.
On July 4, 1959, Roberts won the inaugural 250-mile Independence Day race that would become the Daytona Firecracker 400. Sadly, only five years later, on July 5, 1964, he was laid to rest in the cemetery not far from the highway. . Roberts died on July 2 after suffering severe burns on May 24 in an accident while racing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Friends later said he was about to retire.
It’s heartbreaking to read about Roberts’ injuries. “Pilots didn’t have fireproof suits in those days,” Sentinel writer Roger Roy wrote in 2001. Some pilots dipped their racing suits in Boraxo powder to make them fireproof, but Roberts was allergic to this product. He had no other protection than his cotton racing suit.
Roberts had quite the career, winning 33 races from 1950 to 1964, notes Godwin Kelly in his 2005 book, “Fireball: Legends Don’t Fall from the Sky”, and is considered by many to be “the best driver ever winning a NASCAR Championship. In 1957, he was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Today, however, drivers like Roberts are not well remembered from NASCAR’s early years, Kelly wrote.
When the Sentinel profiled Roberts in February 1959, however, many people in central Florida knew his name. He was originally from Tavares, grew up in Apopka and then made his home in Daytona Beach, he told The Sentinel’s Henry Balch.
He took his nickname, “Fireball,” as a pitcher in high school baseball and American Legion baseball, Roberts told Balch, and the name naturally followed him down the track. Later, friends from high school remembered his ready smile and warm laugh, the kind that radiated from his stomach when he cracked a joke. They also recalled an affinity for speed far more than any baseball skill.
Roberts’ father, Glenn Sr., was a sawmill manager owned by the family of late Apopka Mayor John Land. The elder Roberts encouraged his son’s love of racing, and eventually US Highway 441 from Apopka to Mount Dora became the scene of duels between Roberts in a 1937 Chevy powered by a Cadillac engine and his pal Curt Haygood in a Ford.
After high school, Roberts headed to the University of Florida and an eventual career in automotive engine design. But his mind was never far from racing, and after a year of college he left to return to the sport full-time.
Fans familiar only with the modern era of NASCAR may not know a few important elements from Roberts’ heyday, Roy noted in 2001’s Street Models.
Second, these cars could reach amazing speeds on the new banked superspeedways such as Daytona. In 1961 at the Daytona 500, Roberts hit a speed of 155.7 mph in a Pontiac he could have driven home that day, as Roy noted, and his qualifying pace was 10 mph faster. faster than the qualifying speed of the winner at this year’s Indianapolis 500.
Many racers in the sport’s early days on dirt tracks did not adapt to the high speeds of high-inclined circuits, but Roberts excelled. But if the speeds were high, so were the risks.
“We had gotten speeds up to years ahead of the tires we had. Those tires would burst, and there was nothing a driver could do about it,” Roberts’ friend and mechanic Henry “Smokey” Yunick told Roy in 2001.
Roberts “was the first driver to think,” Yunick said. “Probably in 1960 he was the best racing driver we had. He developed the strategy of trying to plan the race. No one had ever tried that before.
As the bronze plaque on his grave in Daytona Memorial Park says, Roberts also brought a freshness and distinction to motor racing—a “championship quality that surpasses the accolades garnered by the checkered flag.” In 2014, 50 years after his death, he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at [email protected], FindJoyinFlorida.comor by old-fashioned letter to Florida Flashback, c/o Dickinson, PO Box 1942, Orlando, FL 32802.