A tribute to the racers that have brought us countless memories over the past half century of Maryland stock car racing.
Reprinted from TRI-STATE SPEED PRESS dated July 8, 1968 by Violet Oertly and Merrilee Jones
IN HONOR OF THE "LATE AND GREAT" JOHNNY ROBERTS
A Champion and Gentleman of the track
The time has come again this season for the Johnny Roberts Champiuonship Memorial race to be held at Hagerstown Speedway this weekend. This is the time when racing fans remember Johnny and his tremendous racing record-and its the time when drivers pay tribute to him by running these races in his memory.
But to his family and many close friends, Johnny is not paid tribute to just at this certain time, but is remembered throughout the entire year as a wonderful husband, loved and respected father, and the best friend anyone could ask for.
Johnny, born in Phoenix, Maryland in 1924, has left his impressive mark in the racing records down through the years as one of the greatest ever known in the area.
His career in racing began in 1949, as if by quirk of fate. While he and his wife, Doris, were driving through Pennsylvania, Johnny saw a sign for Reading Speedway. He read it, announced that he was going in to drive that race, and did exactly that.There was a car there minus a driver until Johnny walked in, placed the helmet on his head for the first time in his life, and drove that car to fifth place in the feature. That was all Johnny needed-it was his blood to get behind the wheel of a racer, place a helmet on his head, push the accelerator to the floor, and win as many races as possible, driving fair and square. Johnny went home and began building his first race car.
This feature of Johnny's must be noted as one of his outstanding ones. This champion never deliberately bumped any other driver off the track - always avoiding accidents as if "threading a needle" no matter how impossible, in order not to make any wreck worse - and stayed behind the leader when impossible to pass without bumping or wrecking him. He truly was a "gentleman" of racing.
At the MARF (Metropolitan Auto Racing Fan Club) 1965 Banquet, Rene Charland, who raced Johnny for many years, was asked if there was a particular driver to be behind him, who would it be. Rene replied, Johnny Roberts would have to be the one, because if if he couldn't go around, he'd stay behind , never bumping, never pushing.
Westport Speedway in the Baltimore area, now abandoned, was a favorite stomping ground of Johnny's. He was point champion there in '51, '52 and '53. As quoted from an old and now yellowed news clipping, "So far as the drivers are concerned, they might as well call the place Roberts Speedway. Big Johnny has won the point championship every year in the three the track has operated. (Eds. note: Johnny also won in 1954)
1953 brought the first really great honor his way in the form of winner for the NASCAR National Sportsman award (championship). Johnny ran and worked hard for this - racing six times a week; alternating between Westport, Dorsey and Lanham in Maryland, Georgetown, Wilmington, DelMar and Harrington in Delaware, Richmond and Fredericksburg in Virginia and one in Concord, North Carolina. It took a big, strong, burly manlike Johnny to withstand a schedule such as this. (And Johnny, a funloving man, let the people know that he was there by throwing out one firecracker) It was remembered that Johnny won every race he ever ran at Harrington, Delware. The track even offered to scratch the feature and hand him the money when he appeared.
Strong as he was, even Johnny couldn't kept this schedule when he tried in 1954. A kidney infection hit him and force him out of competition for three weeks. Because of this, he missed the national championship by 8 points and had to settle for runner up. Many weeks he competed while under a doctor's care, but sick as he was, once behind the wheel, he was a well man
Johnny even raced the "beach course" from '53 until the super speedway came into existence. 1959 found him driving a '57 Ford, the #7 in this 250 mile modified championship race. However, Johnny didn't do much as he ended up in the middle of a 37 car pile up right at the start of the race.
Driving for Tiny Slayton, Johnny captured the NASCAR National Modified Championship in 1960 and '61. Out of 21 features he ran at Westport for his '60 title, he won 17, came in second twice and third once. Is it any wonder why he was a champ?
The last trophy Johnny won was for winning the opening race for the new Beltsville Speedway in 1965.
To try and tell every detail and trophy awarded to this ace driver would be an impossibility. We can only hope to touch on a few of the highlights of his 16 years of racing.
But, Johnny was a brave man as well as a top driver in his field. An account of one heroic deed told how his bravery earned him the Naughton Award for Sportsmanship in NASCAR auto racing in 1962. During the 100 lap modified-sportsman feature at the Richmond Virginia Fairgrounds Johnny was involved in the worst wreck of his career. Fire engulfed 4 cars, three including his own, were destroyed.Ralph Rose of South Norfolk, Va. was involved in the pile up and was unable to undo his safety belt. Ralph said "There I was, but I didn't know where I was or anything. All I knew was that I couldn't get off my safety belt. Johnny ran his arm in, bleeding, and released the belt. He helped me out and then went over to the infield and fell down." Johnny was then rushed to the hospital and had 72 stitches taken and a cast placed on his arm. Did we say brave? That cast lasted only 4 days - Johnny cut it off and drove his car the following weekend.
Even brave men have their superstitions ans small fears. Like many drivers, this champion hated green cars and never allowed his family to eat peanuts at the track. When he first began racing, his colors were black and yellow of the state of Maryland. Since Johnny ran into all kinds of bad luck, (running out of gas during a race, losing wheels, etc.) he figured the federal colors red, white and blue would bring better luck. Perhaps the most important superstition was that Johnny never allowed his picture taken before he raced-this he was sure, jinxed him.
Johnny drove many different cars throughout his career. Most prominent in the memory of his fans would be the Reds Kagle cars with the #8, and his own #7. He used this number because two of his children were born on the seventh of the month.The design of the number came off a whiskey bottle. But don't get the wrong impression. Like all men who play with danger, Johnny didn't mind a drink after the race. But he was known to say that the day he needed a drink before he drove, would be the day he'd quit driving.
This burly, brave and slightly superstitious man loved children. Even though he'd be strapped in his driver's seat and ready to head out onto the track, Johnny would gladly hop out to to sign an autograph for a young fan. To say he was well loved and a respected father would only be touching on the subject. He never spanked his own children, but needed only to to speak to them. Now his oldest daughter, Lynn, who has won several beauty contests, is married and expecting her first child. His son, John Jr. just made the honor role as he passed out of 9th grade. And Patricia, his yopungest daughter, 12, is a walking memorial in the image of her dad. This is a family he would be very proud of.
Not only did he love children, but he had a large soft spot for animals. He had a rabbit named Thumper, who would chew on his shoes. And then there was George, the guinea pig that would run to the refrigerator every time the door opened. One time a count showed five dogs and six cats around the yard. Johnny even took special pride in feeding the birds all year long. A big man, but he certainly was not a hard, tough man.
As far as ambitions and dreams, Johnny had those too. One of these was to beat out the "buges" (supermodifieds) with his heavy car at Lincoln. On July 4th of 1965, he achieved this.I was the first big win for a "big car" at Lincoln since the bugs were allowed . The dream took the form of a car-a very special car built for competition at Lincoln to keep beating the bugs. This was a #7, a '37 Chevy coups powered by a $7,000 hemi engine with 1,000 horsepower under the hood. But it was never finished in time for Johnnyto pilot itto any win. His close friends and mechanics Ace Oertly, Bob Saul, Willy Adlwer and Paul Carter worked three solid weeks late into the night and early morning hours in order to finish it for the trophy presentations at Lincoln for the first program held in his honor. Now the car completely built, stands in a garage untouched and never driven, as a type of memorial to a great man.
Johnny's driving career ended, like it began, by a twist of fate. Johnny's own car wasn't ready to run at Lincoln on July 24th, 1965. Looking for a ride, he climbed behind the wheel of Bob Ballentine's coupr-Bob was unable to show that night. Johnny, a usually careful man, took a chance, but this time everything did not work out. On the seventh lap of the first heat, Johnny smashed head-long into the wall. Strong as he was, loved as he was, admired by his fans as he was, Johnny didn't make it. Johnny lived and died doing what he loved most in life-racing.
Reading through old newspaper clippings and through statistics in record books, can only tell what accomplishments a man made. Talking to his wife, Doris surly his most loyal fan, and strongest supporter, and seeing his trophies and pictures and almost feeling his presence in his home, gave the insight to this writer of the man who made these accomplishments- a man some of us never had the pleasure to meet. And it is the man who is honored every yearby the races-the man Johnny Roberts, who now we hope will come alive in the thoughts of all who read this when the Star Spangled Banner plays and the memorial races beginning. To his family, fans and friends who knew and loved him, this story won't bring him any closer in their thoughts, but it is sincerely hoped to bring pleasure in the knowledge that possibly more people will think of and become somewhat acquainted with the good man, Johnny Roberts.
EditorsNote: Johnny won his two NASCAR National Modified Championships driving the #7 for car owner Tiny Slayton of Baltimore. The specially built #7 was eventually sold. It is unknown whatever became of it. Hagerstown Speedway still has a Johnny Roberts Memorial race every year.
The Career of Johnny Roberts
The Career Of Johnny Roberts Year By Year
Westport Stadium, Baltimore, MD - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Nationally- 24th place NASCAR National Sportsman Standings
Westport Stadium - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Maryland State - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Nationally - 22nd place NASCAR National Sportsman Standings
Lanham Speedway, Lanham, MD - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Mason-Dixon Speedway, Sylmar, Pa - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Richmond Speedway, Richmond, VA - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Westport Stadium - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Wilmington Speedway, Wilmington, DE - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Delaware State - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Maryland State - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Virginia State - 4th place NASCAR Sportsman Division
Nationally - NASCAR National Sportsman Champion
Georgetown Speedway - 10th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Delmar Speedway, Delmar, DE - 5th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Harrington Fairgrounds - 7th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Wilmington Speedway - 4th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Westport Stadium - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Dorsey Speedway, Dorsey, MD - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Lanham Speedway - 3rd place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Mooers Field, Richmond, VA - 3rd place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Richmond Speedway - 2nd place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Joe Weatherly Speedway, Princess Anne, VA - 12th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Delaware State - 3rd place NASCAR State Sportsman Standings
Maryland State - NASCAR State Sportsman Champion
Virginia State - 12th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Nationally - 2nd place NASCAR National Sportsman Standings
No info available at this time
Westport Stadium - 5th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Harrington Fairgrounds, Harrington, DE - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Mason-Dixon Speedway - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Lincoln Speedway, Abbottstown, Pa - 2nd place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds (Richmond) - NASCAR Sportsman Champion
Maryland State - 5th place NASCAR Sportsman Standings
Nationally - Did not place in Top 20
It appears that Roberts may have cut his schedule or maybe didn't race at all.
Westport Stadium - 3rd place NASCAR Modified Standings
Westport Stadium - 5th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds - 2nd place NASCAR Modified Standings
Southside Speedway, Richmond, VA - 4th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Wilson Speedway, Wilson, NC - 5th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Nationally - 2nd place NASCAR National Modified Standings
Alcyon Speedway, Pittman, NJ - NASCAR Modified Champion
Georgetown Speedway, Georgetown, DE - 2nd place modified points
Westport Stadium, Baltimore, MD - 6th place modified points
Flemington Speedway, Flemington, NJ - 15th place modified points
Vineland Speedway, Vineland, NJ - 10th place modified points
Harrington Speedway, Harrington, DE - 6th place modified points
Brunswick Speedway, Lawrenceville, VA - Modified Champion
Dog Track Speedway, Moyock, NC - 3rd place modified points
Fredericksburg Speedway, Fredericksburg, VA - 6th place modified points
Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, VA - 5th place modified points
South Boston Speedway, South Boston, VA - 5th place modified points
Southside Speedway, Richmond, VA - 12th place modified points
Nationally - NASCAR National Modified Champion
This all the info I have at this time.
Dog Track Speedway, Moyock, NC- 2n place NASCAR Modified Standings
Fredericksburg Speedway- 3rd place NASCAR Modified Standings
Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds- 4th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Southside Speedway- NASCAR Modified Champion
South Boston Speedway, South Boston, VA- 7th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Georgetown Speedway- 8th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Westport Stadium- 9th lace NASCAR Modified Standings
Marlboro Raceway, Upper Marlboro, MD- NASCAR Modified Champion
Nationally- NASCAR National Modified Champion
Georgetown Speedway - 9th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Westport Stadium - 12th place NASCAR modified Standings
Fredericksburg Speedway, Fredericksburg, VA - 3rd place NASCAR Modified Standings
Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds - 13th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Southside Speedway - 8th place NASCAR Modified Standings
South Boston Speedway - 15th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Nationally - 16th place NASCAR National Modified Standings
Georgetown Speedway - 5th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Westport Stadium - 7th place NASCAR Modified Standings
Dog Track Speedway - 18th place NASCAR Modified Standings
From 1951 to 1963
Johnny won 3 NASCAR National Championships - One in Sportsman and two in Modified competition
Finished 2nd twice in NASCAR National competition - One in Sportsman and one in Modified
Won 15 track Championships in seven states.
As some of my records are incomplete the odds are very good that Johnny probably won more track championships then I have listed. All of the above came from Official NASCAR Record Books. I need access to a 1956 and 1960 Official NASCAR Record Book. In addition, the 1952 and 1953 Official NASCAR Record Books do not have listings for individual states and tracks.