Sunday 20th January 1929
Born on this day, Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Jr., one of the pioneering race car drivers of NASCAR.
He attended the University of Florida and raced on dirt tracks on weekends. In 1947, at the age of eighteen, he raced on the Daytona Beach Road Course at Daytona, for the first time. He won a 150-mile race at Daytona Beach the following year. Roberts also competed in local stock and modified races at Florida tracks such as Seminole Speedway.
“Fireball” Roberts continued to amass victories on the circuit, despite the changes in NASCAR, as it moved away from shorter dirt tracks to superspeedways in the 1950s and 1960s. In his 206 career NASCAR Grand National races, he won 33 times and had 32 poles. He finished in the top-five 45 percent of the time, and in the top-ten 59 percent of the time. He won both the Daytona 500 and Firecracker 250 events in 1962, driving a black and gold 1962 Pontiac built by car builder legend, Smokey Yunick.
In 1961, Roberts, temporary president of the Federation of Professional Athletes, was in dispute with NASCAR president, Bill France, over the Teamsters’ Union affiliate – the FPA – which he and Curtis Turner had helped organize and which France was trying to disband. Unlike the banned Curtis Turner and Tim Flock, Roberts soon returned to the NASCAR fold.
On May 24, 1964, at the World 600 in Charlotte, Roberts had qualified in the eleventh position and started in the middle of the pack. On lap seven, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson collided and spun out and Roberts crashed trying to avoid them. Roberts’ Ford slammed backward into the inside retaining wall, flipped over and burst into flames. Witnesses at the track claimed they heard Roberts screaming, “Ned, help me”, from inside his burning car after the wreck. Jarrett rushed to save Roberts as his car was engulfed by the flames. Roberts suffered second- and third-degree burns over eighty percent of his body and was airlifted to a hospital in critical condition. Although it was widely believed that Roberts had an allergic reaction to flame-retardant chemicals, he was secretly an asthmatic, and the chemicals made his breathing worse.
Roberts was able to survive for several weeks, and it appeared he might pull through, but he took a turn for the worse on June 30, 1964. He contracted pneumonia and sepsis and had slipped into a coma by the next day. Roberts died from his burns on July 2, 1964.
Roberts’ death, as well as the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald at the Indianapolis 500, six days after Roberts’ crash, led to an increase in research for fire-retardant uniforms. It also led to the development of the Firestone RaceSafe fuel cell, and all race cars today use a foam-backed fuel cell to prevent fuel spillage of the massive degree that Roberts had. Also, fully fire-retardant coveralls would be phased in leading to the now mandatory Nomex racing suits. Roberts had also lost his close friend, Joe Weatherly, in January 1964 at the Motor Trend 500, at Riverside, California.
There were many sources reporting that Roberts was retiring, since he had taken a prominent public relations position at the Falstaff Brewing Company, and that the race in which he was killed was to be one of the final races of his career.