Chasing ghosts in Daytona Beach

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The cemetery is located between the beach and the speedway and I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven past and thought “stop and take a look around. You know there are stories there.’

Instead, I would keep driving, headed either to the track for some early morning press conference or back toward wherever it was I happened to be staying that particular year, long after sunset, to wash the sand and grit of the track away and perhaps grab a bite to eat.

Friday I stopped. At Daytona Memorial Park.

I wasn’t disappointed.

o o o

According to newspaper accounts of the day, nearly 1,000 mourners paid their respects to E. Glenn “Fireball” Roberts when the NASCAR superstar’s body was returned to Daytona Beach following his death in 1964.

Close to 300 vehicles brought friends and family, fellow competitors and fans to the graveside services at what is still called Bellevue Memorial Park by locals. It was Sunday, July 5 and a time of mourning for the sport.

Roberts’ vault sits on the left just past the entrance, easy to spot below the monument of a tremendously oversized open bible. A plaque in front reads in part: He brought to stock car racing a freshness, distinction, a championship quality that surpassed the rewards collected by the checkered flag.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Daytona International Speedway Vice President Bill France Jr. speaks during a memorial service at the speedway for NASCAR great Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts on July 5, 1964. Roberts died on July 2, 1964, after suffering serious burns in an incident during the World 600 race on May 24, 1964 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)
“I went to high school with his brother Tommy,” says David Collins, a 51-year-employee of the park. “I remember going to watch the beach races back then.”

Collins says the park gets a fair number of race fans stopping by on a regular basis, particularly during race weekends when NASCAR cranks up over at Daytona International Speedway. “Probably 10-15 a day,” he said, adding that besides NASCAR folks, there’s a baseball standout or two buried here as well – Hall of Famer Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie for instance.

Roberts was considered NASCAR’s most widely known stock car racer of the day, a winner of the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 and about as many smaller races as one could imagine. He had 33 career wins in 1964 when he was severely burned in a crash during that season’s World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Less than two months later, he was gone. Pneumonia and blood poisoning, resulting from the burns to 70 percent of his body listed as the cause of death.

o o o

The name on the mausoleum reads “France” and it’s where NASCAR’s Bill France Jr. was originally interred. It’s built of dark stone, with vases on each side of the doorway, and sits next to a small pond. A palm tree is on the right, the grounds are neat, the surrounding grass and hedges are green and trimmed just so.

The mausoleum sits empty now, according to the park’s employees.

France, the son of NASCAR founder William H.G. France, passed away in 2007. Taking over from his father in 1972, he ushered the sanctioning body and the sport into what is known as its’ “modern era.”

The peace and tranquility of the location changed in recent years according to some, with the building of a large apartment complex just off the back side of the cemetery.

For that, or whatever reason, a similar mausoleum was purchased/erected at Volusia Memorial Park, less than three miles away. It is there that Bill Jr. and wife Betty Jane France, who passed in 2016, are now interred.

o o o

A bit further into the park, up the slight hill but no different from so many others that are marked by a simple stone placed in the ground sits the final resting place of one Marshall Teague.

Teague, pilot of the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, was as big of a star as there was in auto racing during his time. A winner of seven races in only 23 NASCAR starts, Teague’s prowess on the old Daytona Beach and Road Course was legendary – twice he won the feature on the 4.1-mile course. More times than not he was in contention before his entries were sidelined.

Teague was only 37 when he was killed while attempting to set a closed-course speed record at Daytona International Speedway in 1959. The test wasn’t stock-car related, however. Teague was chasing speed records in his Sumar Special, an Indy entry. In addition to his stock car endeavors, Teague made three career starts in the Indianapolis 500, finishing a career best seventh in 1957.

o o o

Friday I finally stopped. And wondered what took me so long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *