by Ken Willis
It is a mark of a man's greatness that, even three decades after his death, those he left behind can still see him, clear as day.
They can still see him lining up a shot on the snooker table at Frank's Newsstand. They can still see him cruising the beach on his brand-new motorcycle, wearing fashionable clothes, a big friendly grin and a flattop haircut. They see him sitting in his living room, feet propped up and petting Rusty, his faithful Chesapeake Bay retriever.
But most of all, they still see him climbing behind the wheel of that lavender No. 22, with a keen eye on the competition and a heavy foot on the gas pedal. That's when the big handsome man ceased being laid-back, fun-loving Glenn Roberts. Instead, he was suddenly "Fireball," one of NASCAR's greatest-ever and best-loved heroes, the man who did for his sport what Arnold Palmer and Babe Ruth did for theirs. Part of the magic that made Glenn Roberts a legend came from his nick-name, "Fireball". Not many plumbers or shoe salesmen are named Fireball.
But Glenn Roberts, Jr. didn't get his nickname sitting behind the wheel. He got it as a tall, teenage right-handed pitcher who could bring serious heat from sixty feet, six inches. He was born in Apopka, Florida, January 20, 1929. He was "Glenn Jr." to everyone until the mid-40's, when he was buzzing fastballs past would-be hitters for an American Legion baseball team called the Zellwood Mud Hens. It was a young Cuban, who had trouble focusing on Glenn Jr.'s heater, that ultimately attached the nick-name that would last forever.
Speed had taken hold of him when he was 18, and he begged and pleaded until his mother finally signed a consent form allowing him to race. During his college years he raced in Daytona Beach and Jacksonville.
After three years of college, he turned to racing full time. He and a friend co-owned a modified car that Fireball drove in races up and down the eastern states.
As he started winning more and more, and becoming the sport's most popular figure, he brought a different breed of fan to auto racing. In much the same manner that Arnold Palmer made golf appealing to the common man, Fireball's charisma did the same for stock car racing. He was the undisputed king of his sportthe People's Choice.
Fireball's NASCAR career netted him 32 wins, 85 top five finishes, and 36 pole positions from just 204 starts. He won many of NASCAR's greatest races: the Daytona 500 (1962), the Southern 500 (1958 & 1963),the Firecracker250 (1959,1962) Firecracker 400 (1963). He was perhaps the first superstar of NASCAR. Although especially noted for his skill on the super speedway, he was quite versatile in other venues; he even finished sixth in the 1962 24 Hours of LeMans, where the French fans yelled "Firebool. "
On the seventh lap of the 1964 World 600, racing lost Fireball Roberts in a fiery accident. Ned Jarrett, also in the wreck, pulled Fireball from the car smothered in flames. Fireball died July 2nd of complications from the burns. His death occurred during the July Speed Week in Daytona Beach, where he would have been pursuing his third straight Firecracker victory.
When searching for a bright spot in his shortened life, family and friends like to point to the safety features that came about because of Fireball's death. The fire-proof suit and the fuel cell for the previously exposed metal gas tank were direct results of his accident.
''Something good for the sport he loved came about because of his death," says his sister Jo Anne, who to this day deeply misses the big brother that she and her little brother Tommy called "Bubby."
Friend, fan, and racing journalist 'Tom Tucker speaks for many Fireball fans when he explains the magnetism. "lie was so smooth. He was never at a loss. He was very happy-go-lucky and easy to talk to always trading barbs with the other guys. He had that little bit of greatness; I guess what they call star quality. Fireball was the brightest star of all. He was our guy."
And to more than just a few, he still is.