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Back in '64, crash claimed another racing superstar

(CNN) -- The year was 1964, the day May 24 -- Memorial Day. It was early in the World 600 at Charlotte International Speedway, the seventh lap. Coming out of the backstretch into turn three, Glenn Roberts' "Passino Purple" No. 22 Ford Galaxie tangled first with Junior Johnson's car and then Ned Jarrett's before slamming into the wall in flames.

Jarrett scrambled out of his own burning car and pulled out the man known long before the horrific, blazing crash as "Fireball." Forty days later, on July 2, Roberts -- NASCAR's first true superstar -- was dead of his injuries.

Roberts' ironic nickname came from his baseball prowess, not his racing. Glenn Roberts Jr., born in 1929 in Apopka, Florida, had a wicked fastball on his American Legion baseball team, the Zellwood Mud Hens.

Roberts' first race was the first ever in Daytona, a 1948 event run not on the familiar oval that hosted Dale Earnhardt's last race but on the original beach-and-road course that characterized early stock car racing in Florida.

Roberts ran a little and won a little over the next few years, but he really started making a name for himself in 1956 when he picked up five wins -- and then beat that the following year by winning eight.

And when Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959 -- the first of the big raceways that ushered in the modern NASCAR era -- "Fireball" Roberts was there. He was the fastest qualifier in five of the first seven races held there -- and won four of the first 10.

By the time he died, Roberts had won 35 pole positions and 32 races -- making him an easy shoe-in as one of NASCAR's top 50 drivers of all time, which was announced during the stock car racing association's 50th anniversary in 1998.

Roberts may have been NASCAR's first superstar, but he never won a points championship. Ironically, the driver who won both the 1962 and 1963 points titles and was leading through five races in 1964 died on the track in the same year the sport lost Roberts.

"Little" Joe Weatherly's No. 8 red and black Mercury apparently lost its brakes halfway through the January 19 race at Riverside Speedway in California. The car skidded out of control, slamming side-first into the retaining wall. Weatherly, who reportedly rarely wore his shoulder harness and didn't always strap his helmet on tight, was killed instantly when his head hit the retaining wall.

Roberts took third in that race. His death led to the use of rubberized fuel cells to help prevent exploding gas tanks.

And the 1964 points championship went to "King" Richard Petty, launching another stock car driver into superstardom.



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