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The Fireball Roberts Legend and Legacy

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    The Fireball Roberts Legend and Legacy
    An Interview With Pam Roberts"'I liked this race best of all,' said a 10-year-old girl with windblown hair. Why? 'Because my daddy won,' said Pam Roberts, grinning from ear to ear."-Pam Roberts, commenting on Fireball Roberts winning the '62 Daytona 500, quoted in the Daytona Beach News Journal, February 19, 1962.
    Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts began racing professionally on May 18, 1947 at North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and blew an engine. His first victory came August 13, 1950, in Hillsboro, North Carolina, driving an Oldsmobile 88 in a 100-mile NASCAR-sanctioned Grand National Race. It took just seven years from that first win for Fireball to be voted NASCAR's most popular driver in 1957.
    Maintaining a base in his hometown of Daytona Beach, by 1959 Fireball Roberts was racing under the sponsorship of Stephens Pontiac and the guidance of the legendary Smokey Yunick. Fireball's biggest win for Pontiac came on February 18, 1962, when he won the Daytona 500. It is where the subject of our interview with Fireball Roberts' daughter, Pam Roberts, begins.
    High Performance Pontiac: Please tell us about the Daytona 500, which your dad, Fireball Roberts, won in 1962.
    Pam Roberts: The day of the 1962 Daytona 500 is very memorable to us in the Roberts family. Dad and Mom took me and my friend, Nancy, to my father's parent's house before we all went out to the track because I wanted to show Nancy the "tame" squirrel that lived in the yard. On this particular day, he wasn't so tame. As soon as we stopped to look for him, he came running down a tree, raced across the patio, ran up my leg, down my arm, and bit me on my hand. We washed the wound and bandaged it. Instead of riding to the track with my grand-parents, Daddy rushed us out to the Daytona International Speedway's infield hospital (our family doctor was the track doctor for years), where I received a tetanus shot. Needless to say, my day did not start out so well.
    HPP: How did Mrs. Doris "Fireball" Roberts participate in this winning race?
    PR: Mother always scored Daddy when she was at a race, so she was sitting in the scoring stand during the 1962 Daytona 500. Nancy and I sat with my grandparents in the infield near the fourth turn. When there were only 50 laps to go and Dad was still out in front, I was getting really excited. I kept telling my grandparents we needed to go towards the Winner's Circle. When there were 10 laps to go, I couldn't stand it anymore, so against my grandmother's wishes, Nancy and I took off running towards the Scorer's Stand and my mom. We got there just as Daddy came across the finish line. I could see my mother's face and her excitement. She was seated with my sitter, Joan Epton; she is the daughter of then-Chief Scorer, Joe Epton. We went into the Winner's Circle and from there into the Press Box, where I met Alan Shepard and John Glenn, who had both just been in space. The next day at school I was asked questions about the race, and all I wanted to talk about was meeting and talking to the astronauts.
    HPP: How did your dad feel about his win?
    PR: I have an article from the book I am writing about Dad's career that can answer that question better than I can. This article was written by the late Benny Kahn, who was sports editor of the Daytona Beach News Journal while Dad was racing. He was a dear friend of ours. I want to quote him:
    "It was a long awaited victory for Roberts. He ran out of luck last year just 32 miles from the finish when, with a full lap lead, the crankshaft on his '61 Pontiac broke. Yesterday, he was almost thwarted again as he ran out of gas twice-on his first and second pit stops-and had to coast in to refuel. The one thing he has never run out of is moxie-and it finally paid off, BIG! Fireball led 144 of the 200 laps, and he led the laps that counted the most-the last 69 in a row to the finish line. It was a charging victory for Roberts, the guy who was betrayed by engine trouble in 1959, 1960, and again last year...'Fireball followed instructions to a T,' said Smokey Yunick. 'He just drove her flat out, belly to the ground, as we planned.' 'You better believe I wanted this win,' said a jubilant Roberts. 'I sweated out those last 13 laps' (Daytona Beach News Journal February 19, 1962)."
    HPP: What records did Fireball Roberts set or break at the 1962 Daytona 500?
    PR: He set four world records: A world record for 500 miles at 152.529 mph, a two-lap time trials record at 158.744 mph, a 25-mile pole position race record at 156.44 mph, and a 100-mile race record at 156.999 mph. All of these records are stated in Benny Kahn's original article in the Daytona Beach News Journal on February 19, 1962.
    HPP: And today, how do you feel about your dad's win?
    PR: That was truly a wonderful time for our family. Dad wanted to win the Daytona 500 so badly, and we all wanted it for him. It means a lot to a driver to win in his hometown, and I am so grateful that he got that wish.
    HPP: How did your family celebrate that achievement?
    PR: After the Daytona 500 win in 1962, Mom and Dad went to New York City together in our plane. I got a second poodle and, in 1964, a bigger house was purchased.
    HPP: Let's go back to Fireball Roberts' first win in a Pontiac. When was it?
    PR: Dad's first Pontiac win was in the #3 Black/Gold Pontiac at the Daytona Firecracker 250 on July 4, 1959.
    HPP: What were his thoughts before that race?
    PR: Max Muhleman of The Charlotte Observer quoted Dad before his win: "I've got a faster car than the '57 Chevy, which won the Southern 500 for me, but the reliability of this Pontiac is an unknown factor. It isn't like having three or four long races in the car under your belt. I don't think anyone could have done a better job preparing it than Smokey did, however. Over 2,000 man-hours and $8,500 went into getting this car ready. That's why I don't think even the Holman and Moody Thunderbirds can compare with it. They were assembled on a production line basis and didn't have the time spent on them that Smokey spent on this one. I can't buy those T-Birds as world-beaters. The silhouette looks too boxy to me. All things considered, I don't think they're as streamlined as a new Chevy or Pontiac. The only tricky thing about driving this track is the wind. We qualified in a 15-mile-an-hour headwind and could have turned up to 143 , I believe. At high speed it moves you around a lot, especially when you go up high on those banked turns. It's an easy track to drive-it just takes a lot of 'brave.' Being there at the end is going to mean a lot. It's sure going to be easy to blow an engine. I've seen two '57 Chevy's blow in just a few laps, and they're about the most dependable things around."
    HPP: Fireball Roberts depended upon Smokey Yunick to get him to the finish line first. Did your dad ever share with you the inside story on any of Smokey Yunick's "beat the rule book" inventions used on the #22 '62 Pontiac Catalina race car?
    PR: It's funny you should ask about that. I guess you can tell these things publicly after everyone that was involved is deceased. At one of the Daytona races, Smokey had devised a way to get more gas in the car by putting a basketball in the gas tank. He blew it up when it went through inspection , then deflated it in the garage and added more gas . Dad always told Mother things like that so that she would know and not get anxious about him not pitting. Well at this particular race, it so happened that Dad stayed out longer than the rest of the field. Joe Epton, the chief scorer, kept asking Mother, "Why hasn't Fireball pitted?" She just shrugged her shoulders and took another drink of coffee. Thank goodness there was a caution flag and Dad finally pitted. As far as I know, that was never discovered by NASCAR.
    HPP: Fireball Roberts passed away on July 2, 1964, from injuries sustained in a racing crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24, 1964. Was your dad concerned about the life and death risks of professional stock car racing?
    PR: It was always known what could happen on the track. Dad told me he had a higher chance of getting hurt driving his personal car than his race car. That satisfied me as a child. These things weren't spoken about very often. We dealt with Marshall Teague's death as a family. My father was very upset about his accident, being at the track when it happened. They were very close. He explained to me that Marshall was in an Indy-type car and not a stock car, and that was a contributing factor to the wreck. That again satisfied the child.
    When Marvin Panch had his accident in Daytona , that really hit home hard. I played with his children. Marvin got better and Lee Petty got better. Dad told me at times that he was too mean to get hurt.
    Then Joe Weatherly was killed in Riverside, California, , and Dad had a talk with me about it. He was more open and to the point that time. He told me that he knew that he could get hurt in a race car, but he told me he loved racing "this much more than he loved me and my mother," holding his thumb and index finger about a half an inch apart. That never bothered me; my father was way too generous with his time and his love. In this conversation, Dad also told Mother and me that if anything ever did happen to him in a race car, he did not want us to stop going to races because those people were our "racing family" and they would always be there for us. Little did either of us know that, in a few months, I would need that conversation to help me through a very difficult time. And he was right; we do have a "racing family."
    HPP: Was Fireball Roberts passionate about Pontiacs off the track?
    PR: Absolutely yes! In 1960, Mom and Dad both got new Pontiacs. They got a new one each year through the '62 model. Dad always got a Bonneville convertible, and Mother, a Catalina convertible. I especially remember the '62s. Dad's was red with a white top, and Mother's was baby blue with a white top.
    HPP: Did you inherit a love for Pontiacs?
    PR: My first car was a Ford because Mother was still driving Fords at the time. But my second car, which was my VERY favorite, was a '70 Grand Prix, silver and black. That car and I drove up and down the Florida Turnpike most every weekend when I attended school in Miami.
    HPP: tell us about the re-creation of the #22 '62 Pontiac Fireball Roberts race car.
    PR: Mother and I didn't have anything to do with the re-creation of the '62 Pontiac. Mr. Jimmy Kellett of Laurens, South Carolina, did this all on his own. Mother and I met him in Charlotte at a car show and saw the #22 Pontiac re-creation race car for the first time. You know, the original was destroyed. We both cried when we saw it. It brought back so many wonderful memories to us both.
    HPP: Have you driven it?
    PR: I haven't driven it, and I really don't want to. I'm sorry; it's just not something I want to do. But I had an absolute blast when Jimmy and I drove it around the Charlotte Speedway during the Good Guys get-together in Charlotte. You could really "get it" down the back stretch and the front one. I loved that and I love to ride in it with Jimmy. It was truly my favorite of Dad's race cars.
    HPP: Fireball Roberts is a hero to many readers of this magazine. Pam, did your dad have any heroes?
    PR: As far as heroes, I can't say. I just know my father respected Red Byron, that's why he chose the #22 for his car's number when he had a choice. He admired and respected Marshall Teague, who gave him his first race car that he drove at the first race at North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1947. That was Dad's first race, and he didn't finish it. Here's something you wouldn't have known: Fireball Roberts' favorite movie star was Clark Gable.
    HPP: Did your dad teach you about racing?
    PR: Dad really didn't teach me anything about racing. He had no intentions for me to be a part of racing. He expected me to go to college, and then decide what I wanted to do. But Daddy taught me how to drive. I will always remember sitting in his lap, steering the car on the beach and up and down the driveway. Once the speedway was built in Daytona, we would go out there and have driving lessons in the infield. He taught me to brake with my left foot, which is highly frowned upon today. I'll never forget in Driver's Ed, my teacher, Coach Hossfield, fussed at me for using my left foot braking. I stopped the car, tears running down my face. I said, "But Coach, my daddy is Fireball Roberts, and he taught me to brake with my left foot, and I just don't think I can ever drive any other way." He couldn't argue with that.
    HPP: Since that time, had you thought about following in your dad's career path-you, Pam Roberts, a professional stock car racer?
    PR: Me race? No, I have never considered racing. I wasn't even interested in it until the speedway was built in Daytona and Dad was driving for Jim Stephens. I enjoyed going to Smokey's shop with Dad, if we didn't stay too long.
    HPP: What were the most famous words Fireball Roberts ever spoke to you?
    PR: I guess the most famous words Dad spoke to me were what I told you about loving racing this much more than Mom and me. Dad had such a great sense of humor, so he was always laughing and saying funny things to make you laugh or feel better. When I would pout as a child, he would try very hard to make me laugh, and most of the time he succeeded. Through the years, Mother and I have always laughed about him doing that.
    HPP: We know so much about Fireball Roberts' racing career. What don't we know about the man?
    PR: Fireball Roberts loved classical music; his favorite composer was Tchaikovsky. He loved to dance, and he loved pop music. After dinner, while Mother was doing dishes, we would turn on the record player and dance to 45s. Together, we were an awesome "twist" team. We won a locally sponsored dance contest once doing the twist.
    HPP: Pam, what are your plans for Fireball Roberts' legacy?
    PR: I have been working on a book about Dad's career, and have researched the scrapbooks my mother kept for each year since 1950. But I still have personal things to complete, and I need to get the photos together. I have a Web site,, and on behalf of Fireball Roberts, I also attend events that honor the legends of stock car racing and their families.
    Fireball Roberts' #22 '62 Catalina Is Reborn
    Jimmy and Ann Kellett of Laurens, South Carolina, re-created and own the #22 Fireball Roberts Daytona 500 winner. Says Kellett, "I had to work primarily from the photographs that I found in vintage magazines. Both Fireball Roberts and Smokey Yunick had passed away, and the old black and white car magazines gave me a good reference to look back to.
    "Kellett spent three years and over 1,000 man-hours on the re-creation of the #22 race car. He depended heavily upon the help of Dwight Roach of Grey Court, South Carolina, for the bodywork and paint; James Pulley from Grey Court, South Carolina, and Damond Antonio of Cross Hill, South Carolina, for the final assembly of the race car; Billy Prince of Laurens, South Carolina, for the engine building; Mike Osborne of Laurens, South Carolina, for electrical; Tim Timmerman of Clinton, South Carolina, for fabrication, rollbar, and suspension work; Bobby Summeral of Laurens, South Carolina, for upholstery; Chris Saulters of Greenwood, South Carolina, for the lettering; and offers enormous thanks to Doris Roberts and Pam Roberts-Fireball's wife and daughter-for all the support that they have given him since the #22 race car was completed. According to Kellett, the project would be nothing without the support of Fireball Roberts' family.
    #22 '62 Catalina Replica SpecsStyleTwo-door hardtopEngine'62 SD 421Block CastingNo. 538181Block Code13UIntake'62 SD alum 4-bbl, No.544128Heads'62 SD No. 544127Compression Ratio11:1Rockers1.65:1Valves2.02/1.71Cam#8 McKellar solid lifter 308/312 duration, 0.445/0.447 liftCarburetorEdelbrock 750 cfmDistributorStock points-typeAir CleanerNASCAR-style custom fabricatedTransmissionBorg Warner T-85 three-speed manualShifterHurstWheels15x8 steelTiresBFG Drag Radials P275/60R15ExhaustCustom headers and dumpsDriveshaftStockRear EndPontiac Safe-T-Track with floating hubsGear Ratio3.42:1BrakesAluminum finned drums, front Steel finned drums, rearSteeringManualSpringsStock cut, with weight jacking boltsShocksCarreraHorsepower405

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  2. #2
    car enthusiast djvaly's Avatar
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    Nov 2005
    Philly area
    very good read!

    I like the part "Smokey had devised a way to get more gas in the car by putting a basketball in the gas tank. He blew it up when it went through inspection, then deflated it in the garage and added more gas."

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