Monday, January 27, 2014

Fireball’s Death Helped Lead to Safety Advancements

Roberts' death helped lead to safety improvements
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts will be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday.  Roberts was one of the first stars of NASCAR.  Running a partial schedule, he won 33 “premier series” races, including seven at Daytona and two in the Darlington Southern 500. 

But his death following a fiery 1964 crash – along with several other tragic racing accidents that year – had an even bigger impact on auto racing.  Those accidents claimed some of the top drivers of the day and led to a public outcry against the brutality of the racing, with some media outlets calling for an end to motorsports.  As a result, racing was finally forced to focus on improving the safety of the sport and introduced new regulations and safety advancements that may have saved the future of auto racing and certainly saved the lives of many other drivers.

The year started tragically with the death of Roberts’ close friend, Joe Weatherly, at Riverside in January.  Weatherly had always said his biggest fear was being trapped in a burning car and as a result, didn’t wear a shoulder belt or have his car equipped with a window net.  It’s thought his head banged against the steel plate in Riverside’s Turn Six when his car pounded the wall.  NASCAR moved quickly to mandate both shoulder belts and window net.  It was too late for Roberts, who hinted he might retire at the end of the season.

Roberts’ accident took place early in the running of the Charlotte 600, when he got caught up in a crash involving the cars of Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett,.  Roberts’ car flipped and caught fire.  He was trapped inside until Jarrett was finally able to pull him from the car, badly burned, but alive.

In ‘64 the World 600 was held the weekend prior to the Indy 500 and Bump Day activities were underway at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when word began to spread about Roberts’ crash.  Roberts was well-liked and respected by the Indy drivers, many of whom he had competed against him just a few weeks earlier in a USAC stock car race on the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park.  One of the first to hear the news was Howard “Humpy” Wheeler, who was working at the Speedway as a Firestone’s PR rep.  He’d been called by a Ford executive and given the unenviable task of breaking the news to Smokey Yunick.  The owner of Daytona Beach’s’ “Best Damn Garage in Town,” Yunick had built the cars driven by Roberts to many of his NASCAR victories and earlier in the day had watched Bobby Johns hit the wall while trying to qualify his unique sidecar Indy design. 

Another affected by the news was Dave MacDonald, a young sports car driver making his first Indianapolis start.  Carroll Shelby, who had a knack for putting together unusual driver combinations, had paired MacDonald and Roberts in a Cobra for the 1963 12 Hours Sebring.  The car dropped out early with mechanical problems, but Roberts became something of a mentor for MacDonald when it came to stock cars.  Just a couple of months earlier, MacDonald had finished 10th in the Daytona 500, leading the non-NASCAR contingent that included A. J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Johnny Rutherford and Parnelli Jones.

That evening on the phone, Sherry MacDonald told her husband that their children had written letters to Roberts.  MacDonald asked her not to the mail the letters, that he would try and deliver them in person after the Indy 500. 

Tragically, the letters were never delivered.  MacDonald was killed in another fiery accident along with Eddie Sachs the following weekend in the Indy 500.  Roberts would linger for more than a month, before catching phenomia and passing away on July 2.

In the aftermath of the accidents and deaths, Firestone and Goodyear put an emphasis on the application of rubberized fuel cells for race cars, a technology already being developed for helicopters seeing action in Viet Nam.  NASCAR began requiring flame proof uniforms and USAC set minimum weight standards for cars and maximum fuel loads.  Two more drivers would be killed testing before the terrible year was out, Jim Pardue in NASCAR and Bobby Marshman in an Indy car, but important steps were underway to improve driver safety.


  1. It kills me to see the unprotected inside walls at Daytona when I see the sportscar the other day and a few trucks last year cream those walls . Shame on Daytona speedway for not doing anything about them!!! Instead they are doing what I term " stupid sh-t" around the track instead of really caring about the drivers safety and putting safer barriers on those walls. I've been going to races for over 60 years and never went to a track for amenities. It was always because of the quality of the racing and what they are doing with the plate tracks is a joke. The bankings need to come down as the track is obsolete and it would allow them to race again instead of this "SHOW" they are doing now. Hope no driver gets killed or injured because of NASCAR's lack of concern. Wayne V.

  2. Good story, but there needs to be a correction. It's often said that Little Joe's accident brought about the use of window nets, but that's incorrect. It was Richard Petty's crash at Darlington in 1970 that did.
    Don Good