In the memory of Nicholas Tims, d. 2/4/07.
Very late at night–when I am usually about my daily writing, digging down while the world is fast asleep — I’ll sometimes hear someone tearing up SR-441, known in these parts as the Orange Blossom Trail, in a car or motorcycle geared to shoot the moon. A sudden far whine of acceleration laddering up the gears, reaching for that crescendo of full horsepower, surely passing some godawful-hour-of night commuter or contending with another Mustang or drag Celica for the night’s, the hour’s, a single pass’s bragging rights.
Asshole, I grumble, peeved at the intrusion of an otherwise dead world. But then there’s always that secret, unholy part of me who whistles low and whispers Go baby go, imagining what it must be like to be out there at the wheel of that rod, shifting through the gears of a red-leather-ball-capped shift stick, engine at full song, pedal jammed almost past the metal. I’m participating, from even such a vicarious distance, in the every street boy’s fantasy of the speedway racer. And yes, there’s some nubile, barely-legal girl sitting across from that driver as I imagine him, entranced with the wildness of speed and darkness, lifting off her blouse to feel the night air on her naked firm young breasts pouring through the opened windows, catching the full scent of wilderness, herself an animal of this moment, this night, mating with speed on the Orange Blossom Trail soon enough coupled in some wanton way with its driver of the moment.
Then I remember my age, my renunciations, my purpose, my mortgage and marriage and house and all the down-shifting such quality of life demands. The car whines off into silence. Asshole, I mutter, acting once again my age, refocusing on the page in front of me where I’m reading about the Phantom Chariot of Cu Chulainn which appeared, centuries after the death of ancient Irish hero, to Loegaire, King of the Irish as the time of St Patrick, galloping over the Faery Mound of the Plain and across the sky, the old warrior just as powerful and fierce and arraigned in the sable of a champion, his sword made of gold, his shield embossed in pure silver. And there, over the head of the king, the hero
… performed twenty-seven feats of skill above them. The Noise-feat of Nine, that is the Feat of Cat, the Feat of Cuar, and the Feat of Daire, the Blind-feat of Birds, the Leap over Poison, the Bed-folding of a Brave Champion, the Bellows-dart, the Stroke with Quickness, the Ardor of Shout, the Hero’s Scream, the Wheelfeat, the Edge-feat, the Apple-feat, and the Noise-feat; the Ascent by rope, the Straightening of Body on Spear-point, the Binding of a Noble Champion, the Return-stroke, and the Stroke with Measure …
Crazy, mythic moves. And the part of me that’s crazy and mythic inwardly smiles and whispers go baby, go, to the phantom racer who’s disappeared over the sandy ridges of North Central Florida, with a nod to the black-arted mechanic in whose garage that racer’s car got all of its magical powers.
Cu Chulainn’s bodacious badass war chariot.
The main competition for the Sprint Cup is shaping up between two drivers: Jimmie Johnson, who won his third straight championship last season, and Kevin Harvick, who hasn’t won a race since the 2007 Daytona 500. (In the same period, Johnson has 26 wins.)
Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick: Superman vs. Happy.
Yet Harvick’s Chevy has been crazy fast this season. He won the Bud Shootout, lost to Johnson by a hair in the first Gatorade Duel, won the Nationwide race at Fontana, almost beat Johnson in the Auto Club 500 the next day and charged past Jeff Gordon to finish second behind Johnson in the Shelby American.
Johnson and Harvick side by side at Fontana; Johnson beating Harvick by a mouse’s shorthair at the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona.
Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 should be one of the season’s best tests between the fastest car in NASCAR – the No. 29 Chevy Pennzoil of Harvick – and the smartest car – the No. 48 Chevy Kobalt Tools car of Johnson.
It’s one of Harvick’s better tracks; he finished seventh in it in 2008 and fourth last year. He beat Jeff Gordon in the closest finish ever at the track, in 2001, by .006 of a second.
Yet Jimmie Johnson has the best average finish at Atlanta (10.7) among active drivers-and three wins–where Harvick has won only once. Johnson also leads all active drivers at Atlanta with a driver rating of 110.1. (For the 2010 season as a whole, Harvick edges out Johnson for the best driver rating by 3 percentage points.)
And in the pits, evil genius crew chief Chad Knaus–whom many offer more credit for the success of Team 48 than its driver-faces off with Harvick’s crew chief Gil Martin, who came to the #29 team last season when Richard Childress Racing switched the entire crews of Harvick and teammate Casey Mears.
Battle of the Crew Chiefs: Chad Knaus vs. Gil Martin.
After restrictor plates were added to cars at the longer Daytona and Talladega superspeedways, the 1.5-mile quad-oval Atlanta track is perhaps the fastest, along with the similarly-designed Texas Motor Speedway on the circuit. Look for speeds over 200mph on the straightaways, possbibly the best performance yet by the COT.
As everybody knows, big-top racin’ has evolved far from its roots. Johnson and Harvick are both California boys, raised far from NASCAR’s southeastern heartland. Of the top ten in points now, only Mark Martin (who hails from Batesville, Arkansas), Jeff Burton (South Boston, Virginia) and David Reuitmann (Zephyrhills, FL) were born in the south.
Atlanta is a different city now than it was in NASCAR’s earlier years (back in the day, the city’s newspaper editor, mayor, and religious leaders all fought a 1944 racin’ event, trying to distance itself from stock car racing’s hillbilly/moonshining/ criminal roots), and track attendance has been poor in recent years, almost as bad as Auto Club Speedway in California. (The announced attendance for the spring 2009 race-and that is just the official count-was 20,000 under capacity). Atlanta track management has gone crazy with promotions to bring in fans, 1,000 tickets going out for a price to match the number of the winning car at Daytona–$1, since Jamie McMurray’s #1 Chevy won the race.
Maybe if Atlanta offered bare-naked ladies to staff the merchandise booths. Or fitted the wheels of the cars with long serrated blades, like the gladiator who chariot-raced against Spartacus in the Roman Arena. Or gave away free jugs of Rebel Hell moonshine. But none of the old ruses used by promoters of old are appropriate any more: the pitch must be calibrated to more civilized sensibilities, at least on the surface.
AMS could take a cue from Bike Week on how to perk up sales.
There’s too much corporate image at stake, and NASCAR, ever the body responsible for somehow providing enough mayhem while being careful not to bite the hands of the fat-cat benefactors. It’s not easy to be both fan-friendly and corporate-compliant; it’s trying to call a dog named Stay, or finishing off a performance which was inspired by too much booze in the first place. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Ditto for the drivers, commissioned to race like hell under a championship system which all but forbids recklessness and a corporate sponsorship system which turns drivers into walking billboards so brand-conscious that rarely a ripe word passes their official lips. Jimmie Johnson is the archetype of the contemporary NASCAR champion, for whom winning is great but a top-5 or -10 finish works in his favor. It was the oddest moment to see Denny Hamlin win the Homestead race by 2.632 seconds over second-place Jeff Burton, with cameras undecided how much due to give the race victor versus focusing on fifth-place winner / Sprint Cup 2010 champion Jimmie Johnson.
Even though he comes from far away, Kevin Harvick may be the Great White Hope of NASCAR this season. Nicknamed “Happy” for his early-career smilin’ demeanor – a handle which has grown ironic as Harvick developed a more aggressive and tough attitude both on and off the track as leaner years ensued, Harvick drives in the shadow of his own legacy. Yet he also ferries a deeper shadow, that of the driver whose GM Goodwrench Service Plus Monte Carlo he stepped into, in 2001, after its former driver was killed on the track – Dale Earnhardt Sr. Earnhardt is the driver to beat for everyone at Atlanta, for he has the most wins there (9). If there is an Intimidator these days, it is Harvick, especially the 2010 Harvick, whose Richard Childress Chevy is crazy fast. (We thought that person would be Kyle Busch this season, but so far this year he’s been inexplicably mired in the pack, becoming “nicer” through Twitter, planning to wed his girlfriend and becoming a truck team owner to boot.) Will the Intimidator rise again in the cab of the No. 29 to meet the cool calculations of the Johnson/Knaus/Hendrick Motorsports hegemony? It’s a storyline to warm the blood of the race-jaded in these indifferent and failing times.
But as stories go, it’s nuthin’ compared to the legend of Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, the earliest master of Atlanta Motor Speedway and perhaps the crazy-fastest driver of all time. Roberts would have perhaps become NASCAR’s greatest champion had he not died-like Earnhardt–as a result of injuries sustained at a race, at the 1964 Charlotte World 600. Roberts was a Dominator, winning races when the difference between victory and a 2d-place finish meant twice as much purse (for the Atlanta victory, Roberts earned $10,130 and 2d-place finisher Cotton Owens got $5,215; compare that to the 2009 Kobalt Tools 500, where winner Kurt Busch earned $164,175 and second-place winner Jeff Gordon won $186,276 – that’s not a typo).
Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts hugs Miss Georgia, Sandra Talley, following his win on July 31, 1960 in the first NASCAR race at the brand new Atlanta International Raceway, the Dixie 300. The following year, the race date was moved to March. This weekend’s Kobalt Tools 500 is the 101st race in the series.
Roberts was a Florida boy who grew up not far from where I live; his story somehow molds my own, the both of us driving the same road, in far different ages and manners, a road with a reputation for beauty and outlandishness, fragrance and flame. So let us travel that road a while, a route which, soon enough, will become saturated with sexually-thick scent unfurling orange blossoms. The road I speak of cuts through the heart of Florida’s backwoods, a cracker trail become a tourist concourse become a venal highway for commute and intercourse and, of course, racin’ late at night. From that byway we get a hero of racing whose nickname frames both his beginnings and his end.
Hey talk about a-ramblin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
Talk about a-travellin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
It’s that Orange Blossom Special
Rollin’ down the seaboard line
— “Orange Blossom Special,” Ervin T. Rouse (1938)
State Road 441– The Orange Blossom Trail or OBT, if you’re into that whole brevity thing–weaves down the heartland of Florida from Gainesville to Ocala down through Leesburg and Apopka into the mass of Orlando, down into Osceola County & then sort of disappears in the green abyss of Polk’s vast ocean of orange groves.
The South has always risen from–or somehow eluded–distending Northern dreams. Florida’s platform was created, grain by sedimental grain, as the Appalachian Mountains eroded all those million years, ground down by wind and glacier. All of it flushed our way and settled her. Slowly, over hundreds of millions of years, the Florida peninusula emerged, eroded down, built back up again, was subsumed again and again as glacial periods came and went. At one time, what is now the Georgia border was the continent’s southeastern coast, with only one spot-Iron Mountain, where Bok Tower now stands, roughly 291 feet above sea level-cresting the blue.
Bok Tower, located near Lake Wales, FL, the crown jewel of Florida’s citrus heartland.
I suspect the Trail has been here from the state’s beginnings, a crossing-route for crackers before railroads and steamers, a trail-thumb south for Seminoles fleeing Army regulars. The Trail may have been carved out ten thousand years earlier by a steady spoor of hungry natives finding little as they padded down the relic reefs and ridges of the state’s long trunk.
In the century which saw human development find a foothold in Florida, I see thousands of DeSotos and Chryslers lumbering like steel cattle slowly down the Trail, their freight revealed only as faces in through windows which are all rolled down, Father grim and sleepy at the wheel and Mother sitting next to him, kids faces pressed from side windows in back, all pale and virginal and swoony from the smells assaulting in from opened windows as mile after mile of orange groves, as they will at this time of year, widen tiny white-paper blossoms which unfurl a scent so sweet, so erotic, that the Orange Blossom Trail becomes a march of the faithful, sun-sotted and blossom-entranced.
Such Venusian riot of perfume the brains of these visitors, monied enough to flee their frozen northern cities for a season, giving rise to Florida postcard scenes of beaches and cypresses, stirring the mind to bossa-nova reveries of abandonment, poolside drinks of rum and fruit, nubile young women down in a bower of bubbles at Weeki Wachee near Silver Springs, chairs set at Daytona Beach’s tide line of last light as eternity rumbles and washes and ebbs the day’s sand castles, pyramids of water skiiers at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, all that pussy glissading over silver water as more gossamer than dreams.
Cypress Gardens water skiiers. The park has opened and closed and re-opened in recent years, unable to compete with giants like Disney World and Universal Studios. I lived in Cypress Gardens for a spell–right when I got hammered with puberty. Our house was in a development just down the road from the attraction and had been carved out of an orange grove. We had seven orange trees in our yard, a pool, and all of the summer intoxication which comes to Yankess fresh-poured down south.
Big tourism, like all other corporate Bigs, has bought and built over most of those early tropic dreams, and SR-441 is now a relic tourist Trail, replaced by the interstates and turnkpikes and airports which ferry Mickey-hatted kids in by the million. The Trail has ebbed back into the congress of the everyday commute, one I have made for a dozen years now
For me, the Orange Blossom Trail is the arterial of my daily commute from this little town south into Orlando where I work; most of the work is in that direction, so daily I join a coagulate flow of southbound traffic, guys in pickup trucks headed down to Disney and the attractions where the only construction projects still active, moms driving kids to school in SUVs, suits in BMWs, semis and school busses, the occasional fat-ass in a Hummer or Ford 350 which guzzles gas like a truck-stop hooker gobbling her load. And at day’s end, my dues paid to my own personal salt mine, I join the same community in reverse, northwards flow, thickest as I work my way up past Lee Road and Clarcona-Ocoee Road thinning somewhat in the stretch of industrial parks heading out of Orlando, bottlenecked in two-lane traffic as the Trail squeezes through downtown Apopka, then pretty free and open for the remaining fifteen miles of farmland that thread through Zellwood and Tangerine and then turning of into Mount Dora.
* * *
Yet by night, concourse darkens to something closer to intercourse along the Trail’s danker southern stretch, especially what is known in Orlando as the South Trail, that 10-mile stretch of 441 that runs from Colonial to Sand Lake Drives. When the sun sets, the South Trail’s shadows come out to play, flinging open the doors of adult bookstores and topless bars, marketing wares of that thirst for bottomlessness which cannot ever fully be quenched.
The South Trail is the nastiest and dirtiest bowel of our appetite for wrong. Hookers work the Trail in both directions, offering momentary release often for less than what it costs woo a real woman into bed over the course of an actual date. There is the Parliament House, a rollicking gay club now decades old where female impersonators rock the house.
Of the dozen or so strip clubs you’ll find along the South Trail, the grandmammy is Thee (yes, in the Biblical sense) Doll House, a topless bar where hundreds of thousands of perfection-starved men have happily inserted 5-spots into the gyrating g-strings of silicone-enhanced faux-porn-goddesses named Chloe and Porche and Cherry.
If altitude is your concern, on the South Trail you can get anything, at the usual price– crack and meth, stolen painkillers, heroin and Ecstasy. And if you’re damaged te other way-or like to have it both ways–there’s a bar on almost every block, each a fang, a IV, a ladder down into the depths of one’s preferred delight or, as it goes the longer one gets lost out there, into the green then gray then wholly black leagues of oblivion.
And you drive to get there, with windows rolled down, snooting the dark honey proferred from the Orange Blossom Trail’s wilder orchards. The sexiness of the Trail is inescapable, netting thousands of the erectile men who drive into proferred cleavage. Cars and sex have always been a divine pair, and the highway to hell where they do their hottest mating is a dangerous, delicious, precipitous one. Years ago, a friend of mine received a major concussion and lost a few teeth when he drove into dividing wall while his girlfriend gave him head under the wheel. Other, luckier times–the times we only remember as we justify another night’s foray–we get away scot-free, like the time a friend of min snuck out of Cowboy’s with some guy’s girlfriend and banged her on the hood of the guy’s Mustang, leaving it dented and scratched and slimed and the girl to explain things. Laughing, pounding his fists on the wheel of his Camaro with glee as he drove away.
The allure of all this is so intense you can’t help but drive right into the wreckage, so enamored you are of the flame. Or you inhale it like so much sexual musk and hit the gas pedal down hard, neon signage becoming a whirligig of the night’s interior markers, like lights on a runway becoming liquid as you fly by.
Like Commander Cody sang in “Hot Rod Lincoln,”
… Wound it up to a hundred and ten
My speedometer said that I hit top end
My foot was glued like lead to the floor
That’s all there is and there ain’t no more
Now, the boys all thought I’d lost my sense
And telephone poles looked like a picket fence
They said, “Slow down! I see spots!”
The lines on the road just look like dots
Took a corner; sideswiped a truck
Crossed my fingers just for luck
My fenders was clickin’ the guardrail posts
The guy beside me was white as a ghost
Smoke was comin’ from out of the back
When I started to gain on that Cadillac.
Knew I could catch him, I thought I could pass
Don’t you know by then we’d be low on gas?
Of course, there’s a lot to lose when you ply the roads like the Trail at night. Prostitutes frequently get murdered. Johns get offed too-rememeber Eileen Wuronos, the haggish truck-stop hooker who gunned down eight or so insurance salesmen and parts-store clerks in flagrante delectio, just a ways off the side of the road, in woods humming with Florida’s jungle night? There are many home invasions by competing drug-dealers. (Since Katrina, Orlando has seen a spike its annual murder rate, as N’Awleans expatriates found greener hoods down south.) Children witness their parents getting raped or murdered or both. Pedestrian deaths along the South Trail are so high its been rated one of the most dangerous concourses in the state. There’s always a story in the paper about a drag racing tragedy somewhere down there, two assholes flying down the Trail at 3 a.m. and one getting wrapped around a telephone pole, or some unwitting car in the line of fire getting wrecked. And the number of accidents where the driver who caused it flees the scene is skyrocketing.
The nearness of death, perhaps, accounts for the intensity of the Trail’s thrill-factor; but it’s stuff for younger guys for sure. When you have a mortgage and a marriage, a garden and cats, stuff you really care for and worry about, you drive by those roadside hookers and don’t look in the rear view mirror, you let up on the gas pedal, you drive carefully home, breathing a prayer for safe passage. The payoff comes when you see the lights of your house just down the street when you make the last turn of your day’s commute and drive slowly, taking it all in, so happy to be coming home, and know there is someone in there waiting for you-wife, cats, the rest of your life.
So whoa, boy, especially when the Trail is singing, go baby go.
One of NASCAR’s greatest drivers grew up along this same Trail a generation ago. And in an age of racing when cars are almost identical, when drivers are corporate brands and when races are won not on speed but pit and fuel strategy; when the racin’ is dull and grandstands are ever-emptier; when future prospects for the sport couldn’t seem more bleak: It is then a true pleasure — from my perspecgtive, at least — to invoke the memory a driver and era of NASCAR when it looked like race cars and their hillbilly hellraisers might actually sprout wings.
Edward Glenn Roberts was born in 1929 in Tavares, Florida, just down the road from my house. He grew up in Apopka (the town whose needle I thread every day on my commute) where his father owned an orange grove. (The Lake County orange industry took a catastrophic shock with several hard freezes in the 1980s, and most of the major growers moved south of SR-50, down in the Polk and Osceola counties.)
Roberts earned the nickname “Fireball” allegedly pitching fastballs for the Zellwood Mud Hens American Legion team, a town which doesn’t look to have grown a inch since then. When Roberts was in high school, his family moved to Daytona Beach and bought the Cactus Court Motel. He attended Seabreeze High in Daytona but graduated from Apopka High. (Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl team, who later was the most gargantuan twinkle-toed contestant “Dancing With The Stars” and most recently arrested under charges of domestic violence, is a fellow alum of Apopka High.)
Roberts entered the army during World War II but was discharged for his asthma. He then attended the University of Florida, racing on dirt tracks on weekends.
Jack Hall, who attended high school with Roberts, tells this story from Roberts’ college days:
Glenn kept his beach-road race car in Gainesville and was said to set speed records to and from Daytona Beach on weekends as there were very few police at the time.
One day I was hitch-hiking through town on my way to junior college in Georgia. We met and Glenn offered Junior Rogers — another Apopka friend — and me a ride up to Dub’s Club in northwest Gainesville. He brought his ‘roaring’ racer’, a Ford coupe, around and Junior and I got in.
Glenn had on his helmet and was securely strapped in. I sat in the front on an orange crate and Junior squeezed in behind us among the roll bars. Glenn said he would take us on to Alachua. He dropped the Ford coupe into high gear, the wheels spun and we flew away.
We pulled past a ’46 Buick Roadmaster and that driver turned green when he looked down at his speedometer. We were probably doing 100 miles an hour. Junior got out when Glenn stopped at Alachua and he hitchhiked back to Gainesville. I never rode with him in that race car again.
A Florida boy with his beach racer.
* * *
If you’ve had the fortune–or bum luck–to ride along with one of these fire-balled drivers, you know what Jack Hall is getting at here. It happened to me just once, back in 1979, when Rockin’ Rudy Scofeld, the drummer of the rock-n-roll band I was playing in, coerced me to ride along with him one night in his ’52 Chevy with its small-block 288 and devil whoomph. We got in, he fired up the engine, and we tore off, going in excess of 100 mph, tearing through dead-of-night streets. I was white as a ghost when we got out and I never got back in the car with him again.
Only once I played the role myself, when a 19-year-old surfer chick named Judy whom I met at a rock club on the Trail whispered into my ear (well, shouted, ’cause the band was playing ZZ Top’s “Tush”) that I could do anything I wanted to her if I could catch her. She ran out of the bar and got in her car and roared off; I pursued and ended up chasing her in my Datsun 710, driving way down the Trail into its vast rural night, the highway darker than sin as I drove at speeds I was too scared to verify by peeking at the speedometer.
She didn’t get away, and I got to do everything I wanted with her that night.
* * *
Roberts dropped out of college to pursue his first love of racing. In 1947, at age 18 he raced the Daytona Beach Road Course for the first time, and the next year he won the 150-mile race.
He was the epitome of the brash, wild young driver, and the nickname “Fireball” was apt, though many of his fellow drivers would actually call him “Fireballs.”
He loved going fast, and saw NASCAR’s future better than most.
In the early 1950s, Roberts was more in love the dirt modifieds and raced mostly in Florida. Those races ran more often and paid more than Grand National races. Besides, he had a new family and preferred not to go on the NASCAR road.
Roberts met Doris McConnell at a race in Charlotte, NC, in 1950. Three weeks later, the couple married and relocated to Daytona Beach.
Important to this tale-as in the tale of every crazy-fast racer-of the deals with the devils Roberts made to get to the speeds he attained-that is, the relationship of every driver with automobile technology and the mechanics who master them.
One of these was John Robert Fish, an inventor who created the Fish Carburetor in the early 1930s. His device addressed the waste of fuel as it slopped about on cornering, braking and hard acceleration. The automobile establishment, threatened by this new device, tried to put Fish out of business by all manner of tricks and persecution, but Fish kept his head above water by moving to Florida, setting up the Fish Carburetor Corporation in Daytona Beach at the foot of the Seabreeze Bridge.
Roberts in front of the Fish Carburetor Corp. in Daytona Beach.
Roberts used the Fish Carburetor in his Buick M1 car in a 1955 Daytona 500 race, beating 3 Chrysler supercharged 300G’s by a mile and a half in what was then considered an out-of-date car. Roberts was disqualified for reasons never given, but Fireball’s victory and his need to make fewer pit stops because of the Fish carburetor was obviously a threat to the Big Three automakers embrace of their own carburetor technology.
Ray Fox was the mechanic of Robert’s crazy-fast M1 Fish Carb car.
1955 was Roberts’ breakout NASCAR year. Money was now coming into Grand National races. He joined Pete DePaolo’s Ford “factory team.” With 33 starts, he finished in the top 5 sixteen times and won five races.
Roberts after a victory in a DePaolo Ford. Always that marriage of crazy-fast driver, hot car and the spoils of victory – trophy and purse and the kiss of a beauty queen.
In 1957, Roberts was working for himself and he achieved 27 top tens, including 8 wins, and was voted Most Popular Driver. Ironically, what made him so popular with fans was that his crazy-fast engines were always more advanced than tire technology at the time, so Roberts frequently crashed due to tire blowouts. “Fireball ran a live tire test every race,” Yunick once said. “You just run behind him til he blew, and then went on at a slower pace. It happened so often, Fireball’s official hillbilly song was (Faron Young’s) ‘Hello, Walls.'”
The next year, Roberts drove for Frank Strickland and raced only 10 times, but had 6 wins, one 2nd and a 3rd, and finished 11th in the point standings despite missing almost 80% of the races.
The next year, Strickland switched from Ford to GM and Roberts won the Northern 500 in Trenton, NJ and the Southern 500 at Darlington, SC, becoming the first driver to ever win two 500 mile races in the same year.
That same year, when Bill France was completing his 2-1/2 mile superspeedway in Daytona Beach, he offered bounty of $10,000 for the first driver to go 150 miles per hour on that banked track. While asked by a sports editor what the speed limit would eventually be for race cars, Roberts replied, “When the car gets airborne, that’s the limit. As long as you can keep that from happening, there’s little limit.”
Smokey Yunick’s “Best Damn Garage in Town,” Daytona Beach.
In 1959, Roberts joined up with famed Daytona Beach mechanic Smokey Yunick and the “Best Damn Garage in Town” and began to race a super-fast Pontiac which proved to be the master of the superspeedway. Driving a black and gold Catalina, the No. 22 Best Damn Garage In Town Pointiac won the pole at the 1962 Daytona 500, the 100 mile qualifier (what later became the 150-mile Gatorade Duel) and dominated the 500. He then won back-to-back Firecracker 400’s at Daytona in 62 and 63. Fireball Roberts was best on those super-fast tracks, (especially Darlington, where he led a total of 1,644 laps. “I’m going to run the hell out of ’em every lap,” Roberts once said. “I’ve never won a race stroking.”
Legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick – ever in a hat – with Fireball Roberts and the smokin’ No. 22 Ponticac Catalina.
In its early years, Yunick’s garage was notorious for speeding up the cars of both moonshine-runners and the authorities (with moonshiners often getting preference because they paid in cash). It was also a favorite with racers, fror Yunick had a knack for working the “grey area” of the rules. His modifications (like increasing fuel tank capacity by adding 11-foot coils of 2″-diameter tubing for the fuel line which put another 5 gallons in the car) kept to the letter of the law while taking gross liberties with the spirit of it. “All those other guys were cheatin’ 10 times worse than us,” Yunick wrote in his autobiography, Sex, Lies,and Superspeedways, “so it was just self-defense.” Roots NASCAR drivers – those moonshine-runners who were both in love with speed and just trying to make the best living available for their families in the Depression – were ever turned to mechanics to give them the edge, and NASDCAR’s ruling body has had to ever straddle the fence of getting the best drivers to race in their events while policing their cars for too much edge. In a sense, the France dynasty has replaced the police who were assigned the task of slapping the wrists of their own brothers and cousins, for no one was truly outside the business of moonshine back in the day, and there’s no way to truly police an event where the business is going faster ‘n’ hell.
Smokey Yunick, perhaps the smartest – and most devious – mechanic of all time. He closed his Best Damn Garage in 1987, claiming there were no more good mechanics.
Back then, NASCAR was a more dangerous sport and the fast tracks were especially treacherous. His daughter Pamela – who maintains a rich and touching website on her father in his honor (http://www.fireball22.com) — tells this story from January 1964:
For the first time ever, Dad came home from Riverside and wanted to have a family talk. Joe Weatherly had just been killed in the race the day before. As a family, we never had a discussion like this. When Marshall Teague lost his life in 1959 or when Lee Petty and Marvin Panch had their wrecks, Dad never discussed it with me. Prior to this, he only joked about being ‘too mean’ to be hurt in a wreck. He explained to me that he knew what could happen when he got in the race car, but that could also happen in our personal car. He expressed his passion and desire to be in the profession he was in. Then a request, ‘If anything ever happens to me while racing, please, do not ever become bitter about the sport. These people are your family and they always will be.’ And they have been.
Roberts’ nickname was fateful, for his race career came to an untimely end at the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte Raceway. Roberts had qualified in the eleventh position and started in the middle of the pack. On lap 7, 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 car after the wreck. Jarrett rushed to save Roberts as his car was engulfed by the flames.
Roberts’ car up in smoke.
Roberts suffered second- and third-degree burns over 80 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, his asthma was made worse the chemicals. He survived a couple of weeks but in the end succumbed to pneumonia and sepsis, slipping into a coma and dying 39 days later.
“I almost lost my Christianity over it,” said Bob Laney, who hunted with Roberts on a regular basis. “He was burned pretty bad. Had he recovered, I don’t know how he would have lived with it.
“I guess God figured it was better that he died then to come back and face all the operations that he would have to have.”
Two days after his death, A.J. Foyt won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. It was the race Roberts had won in his Holman-Moody Ford the previous year.
Roberts’ funeral was the next day, on July 5, at Bellevue Memorial Park, which is just east of the Speedway off Clyde Morris Boulevard. (Not far from Turn Three.) More than 1,000 people attended the service to pay their final respects to one of NASCAR’s biggest stars.
Glenn Roberts Sr., who was always uneasy with Fireball’s racing ambitions, eulogized his son at the service.
“There is sorrow not only among the kin, but among the many,” he said.
Glenn Roberts’ headstone.
For years, Smokey Yunick lobbied NASCAR to institute better safety measures to protect drivers. He himself did research on fire-retardant uniforms and developed what became known as the Firestone RaceSafe fuel cell, which prevents the sort of fuel spillage that contributed to the fire which eventually killed Roberts. But for the other safety issues he lobbied NASCAR for, after being overruled repeatedly by Bill France Sr., Yunick left NASCAR in 1970. It would be years later, after the death of another NASCAR great – Dale Earnhardt Sr. – that NASCAR finally took the safety of its drivers to heart.
In 206 Grand National Races, Roberts had 32 poles, 33 wins (including the 1962 Daytona 500), and 22 runner-ups. He finished in the five almost half of the time. He set an astonishing 400 records at various tracks, leading a total of 5,970 laps. Fireball Roberts was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers and he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1995. In 2000 the city of Concord, North Carolina named a street near Lowe’s Motor Speedway in his honor. In 2006 The FIREBALL RUN: Transcontinental Rally American Rally event was named in his honor. A couple of country songs were written in his honor: “Fireball,” which appears on the Johnny Bond album “Sick Sober & Sorry.”; and the Dave Dudley tune “Fireball Rolled a Seven,” with these lines:
He had the pole at Darlington; he won it off the rail.
And he run away at Charlotte, 600 miles of Hell.
A slingshot sewed up Petty; he was out in front real fast.
A checkered flag was in the bag; nobody would get past. …
Those years when Fireball couldn’t be stopped sure seem far now. Perhaps he would now have a different perspective on racing so hellbent. He had planned to retire after the 1964 season. And Roberts was one of three drivers, along Curtis Turner and Tim Flock, who attempted to unionize drivers, fighting for higher purses, a pension plan, death benefits, health and welfare benefits, a scholarship fund for deceased members, better track conditions and other safety measures. (Their efforts were bulldozed and eventually defeated by Big Bill France.)
Most of us who survive our own protracted adolescence develop a cooler, slower attitude. We buy cars that get good gas mileage and have excellent crash-test results. We let the assholes by when they fill our rear-view mirrors.
But we don’t forget, and mixed in with my contempt of these foolhardy youngsters is the more subtle resentment of one who watches others drive and sex and burn through their lives with impunity. And every day there’s news of another fatal crash and burn somewhere out there on the highway, another tiny roadside cross with plastic flowers and a stuffed bear to remember, for a while, the spot where speed got tangled up with death.
I wonder if those are ghosts out there on the Trail at this hour, of old and future wrecks, unable or unwilling to let up on the gas, no matter what they know awaits them.
I wonder where if my nephew Nicholas is still out there, permanently driving the Turnpike that rainy, rainy night three years ago this day, driving along with his girlfriend and his best friend down to Cowboys on the South Trail where his half-sister was drunk and needed a ride. Somewhere along that route – going too fast, perhaps a little drunk himself — Nicholas overcorrected and spun out, smashing so hard into a utility pole that all three passengers died on impact, their remains too shattered to reassemble for open-coffin burial.
The memorial benches for my nephew Nicholas and his girlfriend Jamie, who died three years ago today, located in the memorial garden of a public cemetery in Orlando. Jamie wanted to be a missionary, and Nicholas was a redneck construction guy who wanted to say close to home. Some day, perhaps around this time, they were probably going to marry.
There are fates worse than that of Fireball Roberts. There are those who survive their wrecks and live on, maimed sometimes beyond recognition. Think of all the soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with head wounds they would not have survived in previous wars. Think too of NASCAR drivers who somehow survive the wildest of crashes in these Cars of Tomorrow – does Michael McDowell have nightmares of his his end-over-end-over-end-over-end-etc.-ad-infinitum crash at Texas qualifying two years ago, alive to suffer those nightmares when here before he would have simply slept the deep deep sleep of death? Does Carl Edwards suffer vertigo when he falls asleep, his body and consciousness sinking down while some part of his is lifting, going airborne on the last lap of the Talladega Aaron’s 499 of a year ago, flying so high that he almost cleared the catch-fence? Did Fireball Roberts’ prophecy then prove true: “When the car gets airborne, that’s the limit?”
An airborne Carl Edwards nearly cleared the catch-fence at Talladega last spring in his finish-line wreck. Miraculously, and in a way which was not possible in the days of Fireball Roberts, Edwards emerged from the total devastation of his car – and ran to the finish line.
Fireball Roberts didn’t stop. Kevin Harvick, I think, will not stop, not at Atlanta or Darlington or Talladega, not until he crosses the finish line at Homestead in November. NASCAR will not stop and boy-men will never stop dreaming of going balls-to-the-walls in a car with a girl on a night where the Trail seems to run on forever through the huge wilderness of the American soul. And I can’t stop writing my way with them; I keep at it here, long after I know the last patient eyeballs have long drifted off to more immediate hits.
Kevin Harvick beat Jeff Gordon in Atlanta by .006 of a second in 2001 — the track record. Will it come down to that again this Sunday?
Oh well. Go baby go.
well i seen a cloud of dust
come roarin’ down the track
movin’ like a freight trainrunnin’ from the pack
faster than a comet it flew past up all
the smell of burnin tiresmixed with motor oil
heard’em all cryin’
there goes a fireball!
Well he came from Daytona
to the Carolina hills, bound and determined
addicted to the thrills
where the speed is the king
when the track is clear
you put the pedal to the metal|
and you swallow your fear
better step back ya’ll
here comes the fireball!
he gave a rebel yell
he’s headed for the checker
he’s just propelled
born to raise hell
gonna win it all
if he don’t
— “Fireball” by Johnny ReB
Roberts beating all the competition in the Other No. 3 car at the Daytona Firecracker 250, July 4, 1959.
I am indebted to the following sources in obtaining material and photos about Fireball Roberts:
- fireballroberts.com, an essential resource
- Real NASCAR: White Lighting, Red Clay, and Bill France, by Daniel S. Pierce. Copyright 2010 The University of North Carolina Press
- fireball22.com, a memorial site for Fireball Roberts maintained by his daughter Pamela Roberts Trivette until her death in 2009
- wikipedia.org articles on Fireball Roberts and Smokey Yunick.