Observers said smoke from Roberts' crash was visible 10 miles away.
A stock car racing historian might review the '64 season and write that it was the year racing ran under the yellow flag.
There is evidence enough. Joe Weatherly, Glen "Fireball" Roberts, and Jimmy Pardue--major names in the sport during that era--all perished in race-related accidents.
Today, 40 years later, there are engineers, technicians, competitors, and even executives closely associated with racing who would agree these men did not die in vain. The experts would say without hesitation that these lives were a contribution to the overall safety of the sport as we know it today.
"When there is an accident, you sometimes see NASCAR inspectors cover one of the cars and haul it away," Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president, said recently. "NASCAR takes the car to its own shop and goes over every piece of equipment to determine what, if anything, can be done to improve safety for the driver. Those inspecting the car look at every piece of metal and decide, first of all, if improvements are necessary.
"Sometimes inspectors find something that calls for a major change in building race cars. Other times it could be something hardly noticeable, but if we think it is important, it goes in the rule book. Little things mount up, too.
Many consider Fireball Roberts, in his Holman-Moody Ford, NASCAR's first superstar.
Remember Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s fire-filled crash at Infineon Raceway in July? His ability to survive that crash can be traced to the safety innovations-fire suits, gloves, full-face helmets, to name a few-since 1964.
There were plenty of unsafe things for inspectors to find on race cars during that era. To get to 1964, let's go back to 1961 and '62. Pontiac was supplying several NASCAR teams and was virtually unbeatable. This was happening during the supposed ban on automobile racing imposed by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in the summer of 1957
Ford said in the summer of 1962 that it was going racing, despite the AMA resolution. General Motors never admitted involvement in the first place, but all development at Pontiac stopped.
In 1963 General Motors took a parting shot with a few 427ci engines and delivered them to Ray Fox, who had Junior Johnson as his driver. In 1964 Fox could get no help from Chevy, so he switched to Dodge.
Meanwhile, in 1963, Ford had a 1-2-3-4-5 finish in the Daytona 500, and Chrysler was secretly building the hemi engine it had developed in the '50s.
The point is, cars were getting faster in a hurry, and drivers were beginning to complain. Goodyear was conducting secret tests at a test oval in San Angelo, Texas, during the winter, and word leaked out that speeds were up to 180 mph-a figure unheard of in that day.
Check valves like these were added to fuel cells after Roberts' firey crash.
This brings us to January 19, 1964, the day Little Joe Weatherly died at Riverside Raceway. The 41-year-old, two-time point champion from Norfolk, Virginia, qualified 16th on the twisting 2.7-mile road course.
Weatherly's car had a mechanical problem early in the race, and he made a long pit stop. He went back out to chase the points, and on the 86th lap, he met instant death in Turn 6. Those who saw it said Weatherly's car was a little out of shape and struck the wall a glancing blow at no more than 85 or 90 mph. He hit the wall with the left side of the car.
Weatherly was not wearing a shoulder harness, nor did he have a window net on the driver's door. NASCAR did not make it mandatory. Speculation has always been that Weatherly's head flopped out the window and hit the cement wall on impact. His helmet split down the left side.
Weatherly was terrified of fire and said if his car were to burst into flames he could get out quicker with just a seatbelt and no net over the window. He also drove No. 8. "That way fans can't tell if I'm on my wheels or on my top," he would say.
He won $247,418 during his 12-year NASCAR career, from 1952 to 1964. He won 25 of the 230 events he entered and was on the pole for 18 races.
Dan Gurney and Marvin Panch, driving a pair of Wood Brothers Fords, finished 1-2 that Sunday at Riverside.
Little Joe Weatherly looks on as Roberts (left) and fellow racer Cotton Owens shake hands.
Almost immediately, NASCAR made the shoulder harness and window net on the driver's door mandatory. In its book on how to build race cars, NASCAR also made mandatory stronger bars inside the doors, especially on the driver side. All this made it safer for the next driver slamming the driver's door against a concrete wall.
It did not make it easier for Weatherly fans, who mourned the loss of their hero, appropriately called the first Clown Prince of Racing for his jovial, light-hearted personality.
When the teams arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's Motor Speedway) in May 1964, qualifying speeds were up 4 mph over 1963 speeds. Jimmy Pardue, driving a red Plymouth, won the pole at Charlotte with a speed of 144.346 mph.
The cars were fast and tires were popping like fireworks during the first part of the season. Drivers were lucky to survive a seven-car wreck at Atlanta. Richard Petty said the cars were going too fast, and he pointed a finger at some Ford teams, claiming they were taking too much weight from their cars.
But the next day, Junior Johnson turned in the fastest time of the week. He ran 145.102 and earned the ninth starting spot. Fireball Roberts settled for the 11th starting spot-third fastest on the second day.
When the green flag waved that dreadful Sunday, Pardue came out of the box and led the early laps. Johnson was coming, and in a hurry. Pardue, like Johnson, was from Wilkes County, North Carolina. Johnson wasn't about to give up any of his fame for being a charger.
On the seventh trip around the track, Johnson hooked the rear of Ned Jarrett's Ford, spinning both sideways. Fireball, running directly behind the two, looped his lavender Holman-Moody Ford and slid down the backstretch.
Weatherly was driving his famed Mercury when he crashed at Riverside. Note the absence of
There was an opening in the inside concrete wall, designed to accommodate over-the-track infield traffic. Jarrett's car spun into the inside wall, the rear backing into this opening. The opening of the wall caught Jarrett's rear bumper. It split the gas tank and the car caught fire. Roberts' Ford, also loaded with gasoline, exploded and flipped as it hit the edge of the concrete wall. There was a holocaust of flames. Residents 10 miles away saw the smoke.
Jarrett's car stopped on its wheels, but was burning. Roberts' car was upside down, and gas from his punctured tank was dripping inside and setting the whole inside on fire.
Jarrett ran to Roberts' car as Roberts was trying to climb free. He told Jarrett he was on fire. Jarrett pulled him free of the flames and tore off the clothing he could. Roberts suffered burns, especially on his lower legs, his hands, and neck.
A helicopter air-lifted him to Charlotte Memorial Hospital where doctors listed him in extremely critical condition with burns over 80 percent of his body.
The doctor's report read that all of his legs except where his shoes were-both front and back-had serious burns. All of his face except that covered by his helmet suffered burns. Likewise, he suffered burns on his hands. Burns covered his back, as well as his arms up to his shoulders. His legs and hands had the deepest burns. The report added that about 30 percent of his body suffered third degree burns, the kind that burns through the skin into the tissue.
They towed the car to the garage area and placed it under a black tarpaulin.
Roberts battled for his life. The hospital issued daily statements on the condition of the 35-year-old Florida native. He rallied and then finally succumbed to the injuries on July 2. After surgery to remove tissue, he lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness. He died of the burns, pneumonia, and blood poisoning.
NASCAR made major changes after Fireball's wreck. Right away, the sanctioning body began requiring rubber bladders inside fuel tanks, and fuel check valves were added to the tops of gas tanks to stop the flow of fuel if a car is upside down. The rubber bladders were to lessen the chance of fire if a car backed into the wall, as was the case at Charlotte.
NASCAR also began inspecting racetracks closer, and required all tracks to close openings such as the one left open at Charlotte. Efforts followed to improve the safety of all tracks.
Another major change included fire-proof driving suits. No longer would drivers climb into their race cars wearing work pants and a sport shirt. Fire-proof gloves became a part of the uniform.
Gas cans in the pits would undergo changes with catch valves and someone guarding the overflow. It was the onset of the rules today that require all crewmen to wear uniforms, and for people who handle gas on pit stops to wear helmets with face guards.
Roberts was the first superstar of NASCAR. He won 33 races and 36 poles. His career winnings totaled $290,309. He raced in NASCAR from 1950 to 1964.
His nickname, Fireball, did not come from racing. He was born in Tavares, Florida, in 1929, and acquired the name while pitching baseball for the Zellwood Mud Hens, an American Legion baseball team in Apopka, Florida.
Due to safety advances since 1964's tragic season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to walk awa
Racers made the cars go faster and complained all the time. In the summer of 1964, Pat Purcell, NASCAR's executive director, promised that the sanctioning body would take steps to make Grand National stock car racing safer. "I don't know what we will do, but we will do something," he said. Purcell's statements came after drivers threatened to quit following the death of Fireball.
"It has reached the point where you are happy when a superspeedway race is over and you're OK, no matter where you finished," Buck Baker said.
"The cars are going too fast for the tracks where we are racing," Junior Johnson asserted. Johnson also charged that the tire companies were having trouble developing compounds that would give adequate wear.
Fred Lorenzen threatened to quit and go home unless NASCAR slowed the cars. "We are too fast," Lorenzen said. "I will never run another race unless they slow the speeds down." But Lorenzen thought about it for a few days and decided to race again.
In order to cope with the problem, the tire companies began an extensive series of tire tests. Jimmy Pardue, one of the friendliest competitors ever, signed with Goodyear to run a series of short test runs at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday, September 22.
Most considered Pardue a newcomer to Grand National racing. He was a cigar-smoking gentleman who never met a stranger at the tracks.
Pardue ran his first Grand National race in 1955. By 1960 he was a regular, and in 1962, he won his first race on the circuit, driving a Pontiac to victory at Southside Speedway in Richmond. It was May 4, and he beat Jack Smith, Richard Petty, Joe Weatherly, and Jim Paschal to the finish line. The race was 200 laps, or 66.7 miles over a 0.333-mile paved track.
The next year, Pardue finished Sixth in the point standings and won the second race of his Grand National career. He won at Moyock, North Carolina, on July 11, beating Ned Jarrett and Buck Baker. It was a 250-lap event or 62.5 miles over a quarter-mile dirt track.
"I love what I am doing, and my family loves what I'm doing, so I plan to be doing this a long time," Pardue said in an interview prior to the World 600 at Charlotte. "Racing is all I ever wanted to do, and I want to be a good representative of the sport. I want fans and NASCAR officials alike to look at me and say, 'He's a nice guy.'
Pardue showed up at Charlotte that morning for tire tests with the same red Plymouth with which he won the pole there in May.
The plan called for him to make a 10-lap run. On the seventh lap around, there was the sickening sound of a Goodyear tire exploding. Pardue turned the lap before the wreck at 149 mph, about 4 mph faster than the track record.
When the right-front tire blew, the car dropped to where the oil pan hit and skidded on the asphalt. The car shot up the banking in Turn 3 and broke through the guardrail. Wooden posts holding the railing splintered, and 48 feet of railing folded.
Pardue's Plymouth went down a 100-foot embankment nose-first into a steel fence. The car turned over and the engine sailed from the vehicle.
Drivers and track officials removed Pardue from the car and carried him in a semiconscious state to Cabarrus Memorial Hospital in Concord. He died a little more than two hours after he arrived.
In short order, NASCAR issued a new set of rules for the '65 season. The engine displacement remained at 427 ci, but the engines had to be of production design only. That meant no overhead cams, high-risers, and hemi heads. For superspeedways, the minimum wheelbase increased to 119 inches. The standard 116-inch wheelbase remained the same for short tracks.
After Pardue's wreck, NASCAR mandated rules for tire companies when testing, basically stopping crews from lowering the chassis of cars for the sake of running faster during tests. Soon afterward, NASCAR required tracks to have ambulances present for tire tests.
"These three drivers contributed a great deal for our safety," Richard Petty said. "It is sad that it cost them their lives."
"I think we all learn as we go through life," Petty added. "NASCAR, as well as the automotive industry, has gained a great deal from all the wrecks we've had through the years. As long as we are gaining, I guess we are advancing. At least, I hope so. There is an awful lot always at stake."
Full face helmets and head-and-neck restraints, both shown here, have become standard gear
Winter continues to stop by for a visit each year, and addicts of speed make their way to Daytona Beach for the 500 as they have every February since 1959.
It has been nearly four years since that dreadful day when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. Nothing has shocked the racing world more. Safety experts, as well as aficionados of the sport, continue to study and discuss the wreck. They shake their heads in disbelief, claiming that it looked like so many other racing accidents from which drivers walked away.
On this day, however, one of the most celebrated names in the history of motorsports didn't walk away. The fourth-turn crash took Earnhardt's life, and all of racing mourned the loss.
Almost immediately, NASCAR began looking at race cars in a different way. Nothing in the history of the sanctioning body has motivated racing safety more than Earnhardt's fatal crash.
The Hans and Hutchins head-and-neck restraints that drivers now wear became mandatory equipment within months. Drivers wear full-face helmets now. Additional padding in the cockpit of cars makes drivers safer. Stronger seats and safety belts also help.
NASCAR soon opened a research and development safety center in Concord, North Carolina. Gary Nelson, a former top crewchief and the veteran competition director for NASCAR, is in charge of this operation.
Since the dawn of NASCAR, its officials relied a great deal on crewchiefs and crewmen for advice and direction on safety advancement. However, after the Earnhardt fatality, NASCAR looked further for help. The sanctioning body recruited safety engineers from three automobile manufacturers to help, especially with improving the safety of the front ends of race cars.
NASCAR took another step forward. It recruited three doctors, each an expert in a certain field. Dr. James Melvin is proficient in head and neck injuries and restraints. He began his first research on the cockpit of race cars. Dr. Jim Raddin is a biomechanics expert, involved with the study of the mechanics of living organisms, primarily under conditions of sudden, violent, or prolonged strain. The third specialist is Dr. Dean Sicking of the University of Nebraska, a worldwide authority on highway barriers and rails.
Tony George, the IRL president, became involved as NASCAR moved toward safety walls at racetracks. A good many of today's racetracks have installed the SAFER barriers.
NASCAR and the IRL crashed a lot of race cars during tests, into concrete walls as well as the safety walls. Finally they cut the reduction of impact by 70 percent. One way to reduce impact is by designing walls to keep the car moving so the force dissipates over a longer period of time.
NASCAR hasn't slowed down in its efforts to make racing safer. Said one NASCAR official, "Gary Nelson is crushing material every day, searching for the best energy load that will spread out force before it gets to the cockpit of a race car."
NASCAR also has a state-of-the-art computer that will simulate and recreate any wreck where a car hits something.
Stock car racing will never be as safe as church softball or a community swimming meet, but NASCAR is taking steps to make its sport as safe as possible-and certainly safer than it has ever been.