In the old days the stock car tracks, except at Darlington, S.C., were dirt. Stock car racers were presumed to be all hellers and certainly were all poor. They were said to run whisky and they drank a lot of it, and they would drive all night to pull up at a starting line and go.
"Oh, in those days," a journalist recalls, "the dirt from one racetrack would pile on top of dirt from another racetrack—those boys would run anywhere they could get a track and a little money, and they didn't much care about the money. What was Fireball Roberts like back then? As far as his personality goes, you could say he didn't have time to develop one, so busy dragging that car from one place to another. Didn't have time to change his shirt and tie, hardly, until he started making money."
Edward Glenn (Fireball) Roberts still hardly has time to change his shirt and tie, but he has the money and a new kind of hurry. "For instance," Fireball said not long ago in the living room of his house in Daytona Beach, Fla., "I've got to be in Worcester, Mass. on Thursday, and I just got home last night. Then Indy the next day—no, I beg your pardon, that's on Saturday—and Monday I have to be in Detroit, but of course that isn't far. One tape I did for a commercial was so hurried you couldn't believe it. I was running a tire test in Darlington, and I flew my plane from there to Atlanta, got on a jet and went to L.A., did the commercial, got on a jet back to Atlanta, into my plane and came home."
The difference between Glenn Roberts' old and new rush is the measure of the change in stock car racing (the racing of manufacturers' stock models). Only in the last five years has the sport evolved from a fairly private mania afflicting a few drivers to a considerable business. It is this leap in stock car interest that has made automobile racing third in popularity among American spectator sports. In 1959 the International Speedway went up in Daytona, at a cost of more than $3 million. It now seats 45,000. It was followed by the tracks at Charlotte, N.C. and Atlanta, and dozens more are on the drawing boards. Sound businessmen are regarding racing as a sound investment and pouring in a lot of sound money. And the erstwhile gritty chargers of Hillsboro, N.C. and the Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds in Richmond, N.C. are peering out from behind this new prosperity to find themselves respectable.
February 10, 1964
"The money has affected all of us," Fireball said. "It has generally upgraded everything—even the people you associate with are higher, socially. Of course, we all started from the bottom, so we didn't have any place else to go."
The current Captain Billy Whiz-Bang of stock car racing is 29-year-old Freddy Lorenzen of Elmhurst, Ill. The first man to make more than $100,000 in one year of racing, Lorenzen really began to race at the start of the boom. But Fireball's career spans it, from before the beginning to the present: he was 1963's second money winner, with some $65,000.
Fireball Roberts is 33 years old, stand 6 feet 2 and weighs 195 pounds. He has a face that is roundish and unprepossessing until you have known him for three seconds. His crew-cut hair does not stand straight up, it sticks straight out, and he smokes too much. Fireball got his name as a high school fast-ball pitcher, "though I guess the racing made it stick," he observed. Born in Tavares, Fla. and raised in Apopka ("just north of Orlando," he says before you ask), he arrived in Daytona Beach when he was 16. "There was an established driver here at that time named Marshall Teague—he's dead now. [Teague was killed on the Daytona track in 1959.] He helped me a lot, and so did other mechanics around town. I ran my first race when I was 18, in a modified stock car, about the only thing in stock cars running then. I had to get a release from my parents. I never did talk my dad into it, but my mother signed."
While NASCAR is getting the 1963 records sorted out it is difficult to say just which ones Roberts holds. The book for 1962 starts out almost helplessly, "A record for breaking records was set by Glenn "Fireball" Roberts during the 1962 racing season...." He set six major track records in 1962, "an achievement," the NASCAR book goes on, "that perhaps will go unmatched for years." Even at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the only track where he has never won, Fireball entered the 600 in 1963 holding more Charlotte track records than all the other drivers combined.
"I've been racing so long," Fireball said, "that for instance at Darlington alone I've set some 400 records. Of course, they've been broken and rebroken." And so they have, but often enough by Fireball. Racing records are intricate; there are records for fastest laps, fastest qualifying times, fastest average times; there are pole-position records and total-earnings records and also old-fashioned records for coming in first.
Fireball himself cannot say which of his are most important. "Maybe the most interesting is that I think I'm the only man who has twice held, simultaneously, all four qualifying records at the four major tracks. These are some of the trophies," he added, indicating a sort of solid-metal den. Auto racing trophies must be among the largest made. "That one," he said, pointing to a columned, templelike object, "was so big they sent it to me all in parts, in a box, and I had to put it together.
"There are a couple, two or three things that I'm very proud of," he went on, back in the living room and out of the glare of the silver. "One is that in 1958 I was voted the outstanding professional athlete by the Florida sports-writers, the first time any race driver ever was. And in 1962 I was the Hickok professional athlete of the month—for February—and I won over two real athletes, Arnold Palmer and Wilt Chamberlain."
When Fireball first started racing he was going to the University of Florida, intending to become a mechanical engineer. He stayed for 3½ years, "But then I wanted to race, and I just dropped out. I started racing for a living in 1950. Until 1956, for six years, my education in racing was in modified stock cars. In 1956 I started racing on the Grand National Circuit, and that was the first year Detroit really got interested. I drove Pontiacs for four years, from 1959 through 1962. In 1956 and '57 I had driven for Holman-Moody—probably the best stock car builders in the country. I knew their reputation, and the car—Ford had a real good product that year. You've got to go with the car you think is going to get the job done." Fireball is now back with Holman-Moody, driving their '64 Ford, a car which, indisputably, can get the job done.
A serious contender on the Grand National Circuit now cannot drive as an independent; the cars, the mechanics, the crews, the transportation all cost too much. Today Fireball and Fred Lorenzen both drive for Holman-Moody. "I make money on the commercials," Fireball says, "and we do some endorsing and speaking at Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce, things like that. I'm not very good at it, to tell you the truth, but I enjoy it.
"I keep in pretty good shape. I lift weights and work out when I can, about three times a week, though it's hard when I'm on the road. Race driving is a lot harder on you physically than people realize. For one thing, it's extremely hot inside the car. It's about 115, 120 degrees, and to just sit there for five hours is hard on you, to say nothing of the nervous tension. And the high banks—the down pressure and the centrifugal side pressure—those helmets weigh only about 18 ounces, but after five hours it feels like 40 pounds."
There are other things. Automobile racing being one of those activities that involve the coordination of many factors, there is no real way to practice for 500- and 600-mile races, which cost thousands of dollars to set up. Consequently, a man drives 500 or 600 miles perhaps four times a year, always in an important race. It can be argued that the 600 is more and not less of a strain on a driver than the 1,000 miles of the Mille Miglia, and that the five and a half hours it takes to run the 600 is as hard on him as the 24 hours of Le Mans. The Mille Miglia course allows some self-sparings and a Le Mans requires them, but 600 miles is short enough to demand total effort over the whole route and long enough to chew a driver up. A decisive factor is endurance, at a peak operating level, after practices of perhaps no more than 10 laps at any one time in the week before.
On the day, they strap the driver into the car and he is in there. He is in there for four or five hours, not coming out unless he is wrecked and it is too late for changes. Some small factor, not noticeable over 10 laps—a seat not set quite right, a roll bar set too close—will become unendurable over 600 miles. Fireball came out of one race with a bloody hip "from something or other in my pocket." Also, when a driver has not driven 600 miles in months his hands blister under calluses; if the blisters break and the calluses go with them, he runs the rest of the race bleeding all over the steering wheel. "And when your forearm muscles go," Fireball says, "you just have to hook your thumb around a wheel spoke.
"I've done some sports car racing," Fireball says. "I drove in Le Mans in 1962. I liked it. It was very different, particularly the nighttime part of it. We raced at 170 mph with just the headlights—you could only really see far enough ahead of you to react up to speeds of about 70. You had to just talk to yourself and say, 'Well, there isn't anything out there.' I finished sixth overall. You have a co-driver; mine was Bob Grossman. We were battling for second place right up until 22 hours, when we had some mechanical trouble and had to make a pit stop. I didn't really fit into a Ferrari," he added. "I never quite seemed to have enough leg room in there.
"I've never had any desire to be a sports car racer. Stock car racing has been my whole life, and it's grown in popularity and prestige. And the machines aren't that much different. A stock car is a racing machine, just with a stock car body on it. It goes as fast and it corners as well. The only difference is stock cars weigh more and so don't stop as well. I couldn't say whether stock car men are mechanically more familiar with their machines; I don't know enough about sports car men.
"One big difference with a stock car driver—a lot of the fans will root for a certain make of car, rather than be a fan of the driver. It's really putting down a man's individual effort. But I think this is the basis for the sport's popularity. People identify with what they drive to the supermarket in."
If Fireball is entirely right about this,—that spectators will appreciate a man's risking his life when he is risking it in a Ford and not particularly when he is risking it in a Pontiac—the U.S. is a nation of fetishists. Fetishists or not, a lot of Americans do drive and so do share in the exhilaration of seeing the family car take off at 140 mph. More than 32 million of them swarmed over stock car tracks last year.
It is a belief of those who have never seen an automobile race that the excitement of a Mille Miglia or Charlotte 600 or Le Mans is essentially morbid, that all those people out there are the same people who stand under office building windows and scream at a would-be suicide to jump and who turn out to get in the way of the ambulance at air disasters. They are wrong.
You can see a car come out of the pits for the first time and blankly think, "My God!" The feeling is one of shock, a lot of it probably due, as Fireball says, to seeing the old family car moving at that speed.
In spite of the speed, a stock car does not look deadly, as some of the sports cars do. It is too familiar, and the reinforced, padded steel nest which the mechanics have made of the inside is efficient and simple good sense. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing has made Grand National racing probably as safe as is possible—but, even so, Joe Weatherly, NASCAR point champion for the past two years, died on the Riverside, Calif. track last month when he apparently lost control on a curve.
Stock car racing is still one of the sports that go beyond the plain matching of skills to that far point where a man is laying his life on the line, and when the cars move out, you know it. They always tell you that a racing car "roars" or "growls." It doesn't. The sound of a single car is a stuttering blast, and the start of a field of 40 is not heard at all. You can only feel it, and it shakes your heart out. The excitement of the start is a sudden, sharp and fierce delight in courage. Stock car drivers do not have death wishes, they have an energetic desire to get out there and drive every other man off the track and make a lot of money and stay alive so they can raise hell. A very lively and pig-headed courage, in no way morbid, and what it does is bring you to your feet purely rejoicing.
A race is odd to watch. If you do not really "hear" the noise because it beats too loudly and is physically felt, similarly the danger is not "seen" but is also felt. A race looks very orderly. For the most part, the cars go round and round and, in traffic, relate to each other with a skillful prudence. But the sense of the force under control is almost a weight on your chest. As you know what would happen if The Scrambler at a carnival came apart, you know what would happen if that race down there on the track came apart. The carnival machinery snaps around with a considerable centrifugal and up and down force; the sensation is giddying and fun because it is predicated on not too much force and on the fact that all those nuts and bolts are guaranteed to hold. A stock car driver isn't guaranteed a thing. A blown tire, a patch of oil and that gaudy metallic constellation explodes and whales him into the retaining wall.
If it does, a driver's skill and the padded cage he is strapped into constitute the margin he's got, and the chances that they will be enough to keep him alive are pretty good.
On the other hand, the chances that skill and equipment will help a driver to get on and win the race are pretty poor. The element of chance and the possibility that anything can happen may add an edge to racing, but when something does happen it is galling that ability and courage can be betrayed by a bolt or by a knothead in the pits.
There is a popular theory that races are won or lost in the pits, a theory popular, that is to say, with drivers, tire salesmen and automobile manufacturers' representatives, but less so with pit crews. Pitcrews do not go around saying, "Races are won or lost in the pits." "My job is keeping him alive," answered Jack Sullivan, Fireball's mechanic, when asked what he did. Fireball is interested in this, but he is also interested in how long keeping him alive is going to take. He would prefer to be kept alive in 20 seconds rather than 45. "You knock yourself out out there to gain two seconds a lap," Fireball says. "It may not sound like much, but over a couple of hundred laps it adds up. And then you lose two minutes in the pits." There is no question that some pit crews are faster than others and that their speed can make the difference. Discussion of the matter between drivers and crews will go on forever, though once the race is over everybody will go back to conducting it with five-and six-letter words.
It has been said that good drivers admit they are afraid, and the best drivers admit they have been very afraid. "The best way that I can explain it," Fireball says, "is that—that when I'm driving in a race and the machine is working properly, it's like anybody driving a regular car down the highway—fast. This is while everything is going as expected. Then, no matter what the speed is, I'm not afraid. But when something goes wrong a race driver is just as scared as when a guy comes through a stop sign on him. I've had the hell scared out of me. But the difference is, a driver snaps back. When something unexpected happens it does scare you," he repeated. "And racing is a series of the unexpected. Dying—you think about it. If I were to generalize, I'd say we all know we could be killed tomorrow, and we live hard. I don't think as a breed we're any different from other athletes. I think most of us are very proud men, and proud of our kind of racing. In the past we've had to take a back seat to the Indy-type cars and the sports cars, and in the type of money you made. But this has changed radically in the last four or five years.
"Another thing about stock car racing—I've been in it for 15 years, and it's clean. I've driven in a lot of races with teams, as many as seven cars, and I've never been told, 'Today you win,' or, 'Today Smith wins.' And I guess racing is too risky even for gamblers—mechanically, too difficult to cinch it. I've been in about 800 races, and I've never been approached but once. A man offered me $500 if I came in second. The prize money was $200. I had him thrown out by the deputy sheriff. I am so proud of racing—it just hurt me so bad that he'd even ask me."
Fireball's black poodle crawled along the back of the davenport and seemed to be trying to lie down against his head. "Her name's Jolie—French for 'pretty,' " Fireball said. "You old hound!" He grabbed her. "Poodles are people dogs. They don't smell and they don't shed. Now, the Labrador stays outside. I do mostly duck hunting. We have a real great duck-hunting place right around Cape Kennedy. Of course, I imagine its days are numbered."
Fireball's wife Doris and his leggy 12-year-old, Pamela Jane, came into the living room. Doris drives a car well—Fireball pays her the great compliment of not wincing when she is at the wheel—and she is learning to fly, but does not hunt. "I went once," she said, "but never again. A duck fell on my head."
"Pammie, plug that in," Fireball said, pointing to a track with two model cars on the floor. "Now here's a tame way to race. This steering wheel controls it," he explained, and he and Pammie raced the models around the track. "I've lapped you four times, Dad," she observed. "I'm hung up, Pammie." He was, stalled sideways across the track.
"It's a toy that several race drivers endorsed," said Fireball. "I've only played with one of them. I raced Lorenzen on it, but he knew how, and I was just learning." Pressed, Fireball admitted with dignity that, no, he still was not the best man with the model cars. "His daddy can beat him," Pammie contributed helpfully.
One thing that irks me about racing," Fireball went on later, "is that some fan will come up after the race and say, 'Roberts, you bum, why did you burn up the car? You bum, I just blew $5 on you.' And there / am, and I've just lost $20,000.
"The length of time you can race varies quite a bit. On the average, a driver would be in his prime in his late 20s and early 30s. It takes about seven or eight years of competitive racing before you have the experience to be a good driver. You can't start racing in high school like you can play football. When I quit I'll want to stay with it in some connection—I like public relations work.
"There are a lot of superstitions in racing. The color green and peanuts are the two strongest ones in the United States. The way I was told, when I was a kid, was that two or three drivers got killed at Indy, and when they looked the cars over they found peanut hulls. Probably just somebody eating peanuts, but.... Now, I personally like green. I've got a lot of green clothes, and I'd race a green car, but everybody would kid me so bad I just don't. Mine's lavender. Somebody at Holman-Moody wanted something that would stand out." (Ralph Moody at Holman-Moody, apparently. "The Purple People-Eater! Gotta have something like that," Moody says briskly. Actually it is electric lavender.)
Fireball himself has had at least one attack of superstitiousness: it involved being kissed on race day.
"About that girl?" Fireball began the story a little reluctantly. "Well, it was a publicity stunt, a long time ago, on the dirt tracks. It was when I first started racing. I was a kid, a charger, and it was something new and different to put in the papers. So this girl—a pretty girl, she was a stunt pilot—came out and kissed me on the starting line, and I had a minor wreck. Well, the next time she kissed me again, to prove it wasn't a jinx, and I had a worse wreck. And then after that she kissed me twice and I flipped end over end about three times. So for about three years nobody kissed me, not even my wife on race morning." However, in 1959 a former Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley, sneaked up on the Fireball and kissed him on the cheek, whereupon he went out and won the Daytona 500.
"She's a real nice girl," Fireball says of Mary Ann. "You know, it's awful what they have to go through there in Atlantic City. It's a terrible strain on them. How they can be that poised at the end of it!" Champion Stock Car Racer Fireball Roberts paused, at a loss for words to describe the raw courage of a Miss America.
A direct question will receive a direct and honest answer from Glenn Roberts, but he is nevertheless a very reserved man. Fireball has been called a loner, and it is not easy to get yourself called a loner in the circles in which he moves. "I asked a kid who raced stock cars why he did it," a novelist once said, "and he told me he liked the life. Apparently there are a lot of girls around, and he liked the idea of always being on the move and going out and getting drunk."
When Fireball is called a loner, even in this context, it is perhaps for a self-containment, almost an air of preoccupation, an air of running well within himself. He is distinguished by a competence that seems nearly absolute, and functions with a dispatch that makes his handling of a car so clean it is legendary, a dispatch that extends to his fingernails, which are immaculate.
Fireball is even methodically abandoned. Two nights before a race in Charlotte last October he was quiet, drank his beer, smoked almost as many cigarettes as one humanly can, and confined his description of his feelings to "I feel pensive before a race." He proceeded to dinner and red wine, got into the whisky and graced a few of the racers' tribal rites with his presence. (It should be mentioned that stock car racing may have become big business, but certain of its folkways remain unchanged, and one of them consists of the direct, wholehearted, flat-out, simpleminded binge. "A perennial college weekend," one thinks as a glass wings past to shatter in the corner of the motel room, but college weekends have too much of pseudo-sophistication about them. Racers' parties have more the air of Roman orgies, if it is possible to imagine a Roman orgy punctuated with talk about fuel lines, engine blocks, exhaust pipes and gaskets. It should also be mentioned that Fireball—or "Fah-bawl, honey", as we say in these circumstances—is a man people listen to even at an orgy. And a man, moreover, who, good and drunk, can compose ribald limericks, which may scan imperfectly but are not without grace and devastating pertinence.)
On the night before the race Fireball went to bed and watched Gunsmoke.
Fireball Roberts is a good businessman. "Roberts handles his money very carefully," a NASCAR official says. "Careful about his taxes, reports every little race we wouldn't have any record of." Fireball is kind to children. Fireball sits quietly on the fence before a race, big shoulders, long legs folded, easy; and when the race starts he drives "just settin' up there like he was drivin' down the street," as Ralph Moody says. "I love the life," Fireball claims, and it almost looks like it.
Fireball's got an ulcer, though. If you badger him, you can make him admit he's aware that his pursuit of freedom and his pleasure in being footloose are singularly systematic. "I suppose I have to be aware that I'm driven," he says, reluctantly. "But really—what I really like are the spontaneous things, the things that happen by accident—those are the things that are fun."
Well, perhaps you cannot make a system of things that happen by accident. Or perhaps it is just that Fireball Roberts is not uncomplicated, and Fireball Roberts is no child.