What if Fireball Roberts hadn’t died so young and tragically?

It was 1964, a grim year in American racing history, when drivers were incinerated at both the Indianapolis 500 and a comparatively new marquee event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the World 600. That race had barely gotten underway when the early NASCAR hero, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, got ensnared in a tangle that also involved Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. Roberts’ Holman-Moody Ford got driven tail-first into the butt end of the inside backstretch wall. The car flipped inverted and the racing gasoline from its nearly full tank instantly erupted. Because he suffered from asthma, Roberts never dipped his driving uniform in fire-retardant chemicals, which was an accepted practice at the time. Horribly burned, Roberts lingered for a month before dying from complications that included pneumonia and blood poisoning. He was only 35 years old.

Though his nickname stemmed from hurling fastballs during sandlot baseball in Apopka, Florida, and not from driving race cars, Roberts had been around the wheeled sport for a long time, running his first race on the short oval at North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1947. He was a reliable winner in both Modifieds and then in the Grand National division, including on the sand at Daytona Beach, but his rise to true superstardom was abrupt and meteoric. It began in 1956, when he was invited to join the factory Ford team run out of Charlotte by Indianapolis 500 winner Pete DePaolo. In 75 starts – the NASCAR schedule was considerably busier in those days – Roberts scored 13 wins and 38 top-fives. The win streak continued and in 1959, Roberts teamed up with his fellow Daytona Beach resident, the self-taught mechanical genius Smokey Yunick, to run Yunick’s stable of black-and-gold Pontiacs. The 1960 model here in this photo by ISC Images and Graphics typifies these cars.

This particular shot shows Roberts wiring the field in one of the twin qualifying races for the 1960 Daytona 500. Roberts was an utter terror at Big Bill France’s banked superspeedway, scoring seven wins even though the track only dated to 1959. In 1962, he swept both major NASCAR races at Daytona, in addition to winning the pole for that year’s Daytona 500. Ford lured him away from the Yunick fold to race for Holman-Moody, which had taken over its Charlotte factory operation from DePaolo. Yet despite his relative youth, Roberts was already talking about hanging it up. He had an offer from Falstaff beer to become their spokesman, and he’d already proven that he was up to the task. In a decidedly rough-edged sport, Roberts was erudite, athletically handsome and possessed an easy charm. He’d already been named NASCAR’s most popular driver and was comfortable in front of cameras. In short, Roberts was NASCAR’s first media superstar despite the sad brevity of his lifetime. For every Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon who came later, Roberts was the prototype. It’s very easy to envision him growing beyond his beer PR gig and transitioning into broadcasting as the sport began to expand beyond its Southern base. Fireball Roberts was one of the great ones. It’s appropriate to remember him as NASCAR returns to Charlotte to run the 600-mile grind later this month. In 2014, he became part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s fifth class of inductees. The Charlotte-based hall’s website can tell you about Roberts and the other inductees to have been enshrined or nominated.

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