Tom Kitchen, a NASCAR history...
Tom Kitchen, a NASCAR history buff, produced a super-accurate replica of Fireball Roberts' '57 Ford Grand National race car. Kitchen actually saw the real version run at Daytona.
Fifty years ago, he was one of the kings of NASCAR. Even today, his name is still spoken with the same reverence as Richard Petty's and Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s Glenn Roberts certainly fulfilled his "Fireball" nickname from his daring performances on the NASCAR racetracks.
Tom Kitchen of Tampa remembers the aggressive driving style of Roberts. "He was my NASCAR hero back when I was a kid, and I certainly don't feel any different about him today," Tom says.
To that end, Kitchen decided to re-create his favorite Fireball car to the most minute detail. To accomplish this daunting task, he undertook serious research in the Daytona Archives, numerous books, the personal photos provided by Pamela Roberts (Fireball's daughter), and consultations with Fireball's best friend and teammate, Marvin Panch.
So, which of Fireball's many cars would he re-create? It was a tough choice, but Kitchen decided it would be the '57 Ford that Roberts ran during the first part of that season. "It was significant, since you could use any engine that was being offered by the company for public sale. That year, you could get a 300 horsepower, supercharged 312-cid engine, and that's exactly what he had under the hood until NASCAR barred it later that same season," says Tom.
But even though the completed replica would be basically stock-appearing from the outside, that certainly wasn't the case under that heavy sheetmetal. To create the Fireball clone, there was a ton of work to be done, and Kitchen did it correctly, to the smallest detail.
"I started out with a fairly good '57 Custom 'D' Code body," Kitchen says.
The extensions on the forward...
The extensions on the forward edges of the rear bumper were requested by the teams to prevent two cars from hooking together. But the smooth extension reportedly provided an aerodynamic advantage.
Heavy-duty factory wheels...
Heavy-duty factory wheels were the standard during the period, with these coming from a Ford station wagon. Wheels from trucks were also used. The car has vintage 8.00x14 bias-ply tires.
That "Supercharged" nomenclature...
That "Supercharged" nomenclature on the hood was something that you didn't expect to see in NASCAR. But the engine could be ordered in '57 Fords, which made it legal with NASCAR-at least during the first part of the season.
With most of the sheetmetal very usable, Kitchen painted the underside black and covered the headlights and taillights. Per the custom at the time, the rear bumpers were extended forward along the rear quarter to avoid hooking another car. This also provided a bit of an aerodynamic advantage.
To keep the front-hinged hood from opening at speed, there was a pair of hooks on the body in front of the windshield and two more on the hood rear. They were hooked together with a stretch rope, which held the hood in place. There was also a door handle on the right side of the hood to aid a crewman in lifting it to gain access to the engine compartment.
The trunk lid hold-down mechanism had two hooks behind the bumper and a single hook on the trunk, with a stretch rope passing through all three hooks.
Interestingly, the stock stainless steel side-body trim was retained and actually used in the racing paint scheme. Even the stock door handles were retained, but it has to be noted that the doors were prevented from opening by molded metal strips on both sides. All the factory window glass was still in position.
In race trim, the wheels (minus wheel covers) were heavy-duty Ford station wagon units along with larger 8.00x14 tires. The color scheme was carefully copied with the familiar red-and-white detailing. All the correct decals and stickers are in their exact positions, and the passenger side of the car even sports a trio of tire marks.
And you better believe those "Supercharged 300 HP" statements on the hood really got your attention. That was big-time horsepower for the period.
Kitchen continues, "There were a number of red-and-white cars at the time, so the team created a way to immediately identify Fireball when he came into view. They put a large white cross on the left-front headlight, which could be easily viewed with binoculars. This was before in-car radios."
You don't have to look twice...
You don't have to look twice to realize that the stock aspects of this 50-year-old model have been mostly retained. The model identification of the era was one of the strong points of the sport back in the day.
As can be clearly noted, all...
As can be clearly noted, all the factory trim was still in position. Here, the chrome strip fits around the windshield and around the windows. Also, note that nifty 1957 NASCAR decal.
With a number of red and white...
With a number of red and white cars competing that long-ago season, it was necessary to figure out a way to identify Fireball's car. It was done with a white "X" covering the left headlight.
The suspension system was re-created using existing automotive components. "Some of the coil springs were cut shorter, and heavier Ford station wagon front/rear springs were added, including a beefier front sway bar. We then added four more front shocks, for a total of three on each corner with tower supports. An additional shock was also added to each rear shock," recalls Kitchen.
Not having a correct original engine would have stopped many restorers, but not Tom Kitchen: "I had a rebuilt, 312-cid, four-barrel carb engine with an original Paxton Phase I Supercharger. It had all the correct pieces, including the pulleys, blower hoses and hose clamps, fuel filter, and air cleaner."
The restorer indicated that the 300hp statement on the hood probably understated what was under the hood: "The teams made several changes to those engines, including the pulley. The correct horsepower was probably more in the 375-horse category."
The remainder of the powertrain consists of a heavy-duty rebuilt three-speed manual transmission (shifted on the column) with a truck clutch and pressure plate. The rearend is a 9-inch Ford heavy-duty 3.73-geared unit.
This 312 supercharged powerplant...
This 312 supercharged powerplant was ahead of its time. Fortunately, Kitchen had one of these rare engines. This correct restoration probably couldn't have taken place otherwise. Note the additional shock and tower support.
That's a 9-inch Ford heavy-duty...
That's a 9-inch Ford heavy-duty rearend, as viewed from the rear of the car. It receives its rotation from a three-speed manual tranny.
Notice the leather strap bolted...
Notice the leather strap bolted to the dashboard and hooked over the column-mounted shifter rod, keeping it from jumping out of Second gear on certain short tracks.
With the help of N.O.S. fabric for the door panels and seats, the interior took on the look of the original. The rollcage was fabricated from 2.5-inch-diameter black pipe and friction taped. The correct custom steering wheel carried a sponge on the center wheel hub that was then taped over. "An early airbag," Kitchen quips.
Next came the expected radio, clock, and heater deletes, along with the removal of two firewall heater panels. Also, there are the period S&W gauges and a Sun Tach, along with an N.O.S. boost gauge from Tom Pistone. All the inside headliner was removed with the metal surface then being painted.
A little late '50s race tech can be seen in the leather strap that held the tranny in Second gear on dirt tracks to prevent it from popping out of gear. There was also the vaunted trap door over the right-front tire, which could be lifted up at speed to view the condition of the tire. Kitchen continues, "It was pulled up with a rope and there was a Sun timing light that could freeze-frame the rotation and effectively 'stop' the tire."
There was another device that Roberts had installed in his original '57. "It was a piece of wood that was installed in a vertical position that laid against the right leg and hip, which kept the driver from sliding to the right in the turns. There weren't any modern five-point seatbelts back in the day."
Kitchen kept going, though, to create as much realism as possible with his clone car display. "I have a period helmet and uniform both done up in Fireball style," he explains.
What more can you say about...
What more can you say about this interior being stock? The door covering is still in place, along with the door handles.
Surprisingly, the stock bench...
Surprisingly, the stock bench seat was retained even when the car was in race trim. The back for the passenger side, however, was removed. There was also a body support on the right side of the driver side, which was a great help when going through the turns.
That old tale about early...
That old tale about early NASCAR drivers being able to check the condition of a tire during a race was actually true. There's the trap door on the right-front side of the floor.
A FAN AND CAR SHOW JUDGE FAVORITE
Everywhere Tom takes the replica, it gains huge attention. He laughs when he reveals that many people ask him if he's Fireball Roberts. "I remind them that he was killed in a fiery crash in 1964 at Charlotte Motor Speedway."
The car has appeared at a number of large shows and won a Top 25 "Period Perfect" award at the Jacksonville (FL) Good Guys show and "Best Race Car" at a large St. Petersburg (FL) show. By the way, this car is street legal, with Kitchen being able to remove the headlight covers and reveal functional headlights.
Kitchen made a statement about the car, which many would agree with today: "It was a time when stock meant stock and you could tell a Ford from a Chevy from a Mercury . . ."
As the hood for the '57 Ford...
As the hood for the '57 Ford hinged at the front of the car, it was necessary to restrain the rear of the hood next to the bottom of the windshield. The method to accomplish that feat is shown here.
This blocked-up door handle...
This blocked-up door handle sits at the rear of the hood to aid a crewman when it has to be lifted.
To prevent the trunk lid from...
To prevent the trunk lid from popping up in an impact, a rubber strap was hooked to three hooks providing strong support to keep it down.
A view of the interior of...
A view of the interior of the replica racer. The dash contains a number of delete plates for accessories.
Kitchen also put together...
Kitchen also put together a totally accurate replica of Fireball's Firestone racing jacket.