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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.
"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.