By Bud De Boer
Stoneham, Massachusetts is a quiet, family oriented community located nine miles north of Boston at the interchange of I-93 and I-95. Though current population stands at just a tad over 22,000, its history dates back to 1725. It was here in March of 1948 that Don Roberts came into this world. Little did he know that some 18 years later in 1966, he’d embark on a 10 year span driving some of New England’s finest quarter-mile machinery.
Such notables as Jack Doyle (AAGD), A & J Speed Center (AA/FD), King & Marshall (AA/FD), Tom Dawes (AA/FD) and Kosty Ivanof (AA/FC) were among some of those he enjoyed "seat time" with during that period. Though his driving career was cut short due to an unfortunate accident at Epping, New Hampshire in April 1975, the 1971 New England Driver of the Year left his mark on the competition wherever he appeared. This is his story. This is about a dream that became a reality.
The Early Years (Pre-1966): Roberts grew up about 12 miles north of Boston in Reading, Massachusetts and had an affinity for all things mechanical. Built model cars, raced go karts, and made chums with those older than him who had street machines and hot rods. As he put it, "I was always helping someone change an engine or transmission." It didn’t take him long before get hooked up with a local car club called the Orientals. Primarily a drag racing car club, Roberts could always be found helping out where needed. Going for coffee, cleaning parts, waxing cars or as he said "just doing anything I could to be part of the group."
Then came May of 1963. It would be his first time ever at a drag strip. The track was Sanford, Maine. First car he saw go down the track that day belonged to a friend, Greg Spurr, who also from Reading. Ironically, that same car would be the one Roberts would make his first journey down the quarter-mile in. Though only 15 years old at the time, when he left Sanford that evening, he had but one thought in mind; some day becoming a professional drag racer. Didn’t know how, but the flame was lit. The dream had begun!!
First Car Driven… Roberts spent 1966 helping friend John Watson with a car the latter mentioned had purchased from local Reading racer Greg Spurr. It had run as an A/GD with a blown small block. It was made from Model A frame rails with some crossmembers and roll cage that were stick welded to the floor. Watson had an Hilborn injected Chevy small block and a Chevy 2 speed transmission (2nd & 3rd). The car was taken apart, cleaned, painted, and then re-assembled. With the aid of only an Isky cam and Crane rockers, its nearly stock 265" powerplant produced times in the high 10’s and speeds near 125 mph with Watson at the helm and Roberts tending to the push car duties.
Though both learned a lot about dragsters and how to run a small block during that year, that last race of the season would unveil a real surprise for Don. He would get his "dream shot" as so to speak when Watson said to him "get in the car, you’re going for a ride." To say Roberts was excited would be putting it mildly. He buckled up and sat in the car for nearly an hour, going over everything he would have to do during a 1320 foot pass. When it came time to fire, he was ready. A short push and the engine came to life. He drove it to the starting line, staged the car, and brought up the rpm’s. When the flagman give the signal, he was off like a shot. Though the run lasted only 15 feet due to drive line failure, he had experienced the thrill of leaving the starting line in a dragster for the first time. His dream was still alive!
|John Watson's Fiat in action in the far lane with Roberts at the wheel at New England Dragway Epping, NH in 1967. Roberts also drove Dana Jewell's Chassis Research C/D in the near lane that season, filling in for regular driver Marty Schwartz for one race. |
1967… Roberts and Watson began the year by putting a steel Fiat body on Watson’s B dragster and painting it purple. As Roberts said, "it looked really cool." But the duo didn’t stop there. They also installed a newer Chevy motor, increasing the cubic inches from 265 to 283. But that wasn’t all the changes the team made. Watson also asked Roberts to be the full time driver. First pass in the car netted Don times of 10.60 at 130 MPH.
Not only did the car run well for its class, but the heavier steel Fiat body they had transitioned to produced large, graceful wheelstands when a shifting from 2nd to 3rd during a quarter-mile pass. They had a lot of fun running the car that year and even won a couple of races at Epping, New Hampshire. However, little did Roberts know that there were people watching him during the summer of 1967 as he gained more confidence and enhanced his driving skills with each run .His dream was about to become a reality!
|Owner Jack Doyle keeps a watchful eye from the back as Roberts leaves the starting line the " Slider" AA/GD in 1968 action at New England Dragway. Low E.T. and top speed for the year was 7.64 at 195 mph. |
1968… One of those people watching on the sidelines during 1967 as Roberts displayed his driving talents was AA/GD stalwart Jack Doyle. In addition being one of the area’s better-known owner/drivers, he would also hire others to take the helm of his car from time to time. In the fall of 1967, Doyle paid a visit to the gas station where Roberts was working in Reading and asked if he would be interested in driving for him in 1968. Needless to say, Roberts jumped at the chance.
|In 1968 New England Dragway also operated an 1/8-mile track in Norwood, Mass that raced every Friday night. On occasion Doyle and Roberts would put alcohol in the tank of the "Slider" and run with the top fuel cars and qualify and go a couple of rounds. Running alcohol on the 1/8 mile Roberts drove the car to a 4.99 best at 163 mph.|
Doyle’s cars were known as "The Slider" and for the ’68 season there would be "no more home made stuff" like Roberts said. His new ride would feature a recently built SPE chassis, an Ellis mag body, with a stroked 392 Chrysler for power. Not only did the car win 80% of its races in local competition but it also took Top Gas at the 68’ AHRA Nationals in Long Island, New York, setting low E.T. and top speed for its category.
But Doyle and Roberts didn’t stop there. They also set a AHRA ¼ mile E.T. record for their class at 7.64 seconds as well as notching 1/8th marks of 5.25 seconds at 155 MPH. "What a season" as Roberts would say. Only 20 years old and he had become the youngest AHRA driver ever to win a Top Gas championship. His dream had come true.
Uncle Sam calls… In November of 1968, Roberts received his draft notice from the Army. First it was basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and then off to Fort Campbell, Kentucky for a spell. Come May of 1969 he was on his way to Vietnam. When he arrived there, a sergeant in the replacement center asked what he did for a living. Roberts replied that he "drove stuff." "Good" said the sergeant "we’ll make you a truck driver." So for the next year, that’s what he did. In July 1970 he came home from Vietnam and was discharged.
1970… Soon after being discharged, Roberts picked up right where he had left off as far as driving chores were concerned. He was back at the helm of Jack Doyle’s car, at least for the remainder of the season. However, with the popularity of Top Gas on the wane and the class about to become extinct, Doyle decided to park his car for good as the end of the year. Roberts had no plans for 1971 and as he said "I didn’t even know if I was going to race. He did not have a ride for the upcoming season. But life is full of surprises.
|Roberts' first ride in a top fueler was in Ade Knyff's A & J Speed Center car early in 1971. This car was the last front engine car off the jig at Logghe Chassis. |
1971… First to contact him was Ade Knyff of A & J Speed Shop. His ride at the beginning of the season would be in the last front-motored car that Logghe Chassis built.
It was an AA/FD with a stout 392 hemi for power. However, halfway through the year, it was suddenly parked due lack of funds. But Roberts did stay idle long. Talented "shoes" like him never do.
|Don Marshall and Jimmy King had taken note of Roberts' abilities and put him in the seat of the 1970 Gatornationals winning King & Marshall car. Shown here at the New England Dragway Grande American race in 1971, Roberts went on to beat Tom Ivo in the final. |
Enter Don Marshall of King & Marshall AA/FD fame. Marshall was looking for driver for their dragster as partner Jimmy King was spending much of his time at the helm of their Plymouth Duster funny car. Roberts jumped a the chance to wheel one the "top hitters’ on the East Coast. This team was "major league" and had won Top Fuel at the Gatornationals in 1970. The King & Marshall had a full calendar for the remainder of 1971, both on the match race circuit as well as competing in many Pro Fuel Dragster events throughout the east. Highlight of ’71 was winning the Grande American at Epping, New Hampshire, beating TV Tommy Ivo in the final.
|Extra dollars and exposure were where ever you could find them, as shown by this shot of the King & Marshall dragster and funny car during a promotion for Loctite, trying to pull two pieces of metal apart with the cars. Roberts was in the dragster, King was in the funny car.|
Also, during that same year, when not wheeling the K & M dragster, Roberts spent time at the helm of some best cars in the area. There was Jeff Gordon’s "King Cuda" funny car, in which he set an 1/8th-mile track record at Oxford, Maine of 4.60 at 166 MPH.
|Roberts filled in for regular driver O.J. McKenney at the wheel of Tom Dawes' beautiful " Freedom Machine " on occasion, making the rounds of the east coat Pro Fuel Dragster circuit races. Don's best time in this car was 6.63 at 224 mph. |
He even filled in for regular driver O. J. Mc Kenney in Tom Dawes "Freedom Machine" AA/FD, running match races and Pro Fuel Circuit events. Best run he recorded with this team was 6.63 at 224 MPH. There was even the time when friend Don Gianquitto asked him to drive his A/FD in Competition Eliminator at Epping, New Hampshire. Roberts was always game for a challenge, so he said yes. Not only did he steer the 426 Hemi powered car to clockings of 7.56 at 190 MPH, but also took home top honors for the category that day.
|Don teamed up with Charlie Siegars and John Corcoran on the new "Freedom Machine" Vega funny car for 1972. Powered by a Tom Dawes 392 hooked to a B & J Transmission, the car was a match race regular in the northeast.|
1972… He began the year at the helm of a brand-new Vega bodied funny car dubbed "Freedom Machine." The John Corcoran and Charlie Siegars owned car featured a Tropeano chassis, Pete Jones tin and body mount, and a Tom Dawes 392 motor coupled to a B & J transmission. Though Roberts had always considered himself a dragster driver, it was "floppers" like this that got most of the bookings.
Their travels took them all over the Northeast where they recorded best clockings of 6.80-210 MPH. "Not setting the world on fire" as Roberts said "but always making three runs and getting paid." But money problems surfaced within the team and Roberts decided it was time to leave. So they parted friends and Don soon returned to the King & Marshall car.
|King & Marshall put this Garlits chassis car together and it made its debut in August 1972. Nice car, ran easy 6.50's and won its share of races. Roberts said this was a fun car to drive and it opened up a whole new world with the motor behind you.|
In August, the K & M team took delivery of a brand new Garlits’ rear engined car. Utilizing a 426 hemi for power, the car made its maiden voyage on Saturday night, August 11th at New England’s Grande American race in Epping, New Hampshire. It ran an effortless 6.60-221 mph and was runner-up next day to Tommy Ivo. According to Roberts "It ran 6.50’s at 230 mph and never came apart at the races" .All he and Don Marshall had to do was fuel the car and pack the chute.
1973… Roberts continued with the King & Marshall team, both on the Pro Fuel circuit and match racing against such names as Don Garlits and Tommy Ivo. However, early in the season he got a phone call from Bill Lawton of Tasca Ford fame. In addition to driving his regular car, Lawton also had Pinto funny car that he had raced a few times.
He asked Roberts if he would available on occasion to drive the Pinto. Roberts replied "sure, as long as it didn’t conflict with his commitments to the King & Marshall car."
He drove the Pinto once at Englishtown and said ok to a date at Epping because he had nothing scheduled with the K & M for that day. However, the K & M car got added to the Epping race at the last moment and Roberts now had two cars to drive.
This is where he showed his versatility as a driver. This is what made him one of the top "shoes" on the East Coast during that time. He not only made all three runs in Bill Lawton’s Pinto as agreed, but was took runner-up in Top Fuel against the Jade Grenade.
|Roberts spent some time in the seat of Kosty Ivanof's "Boston Shaker" in the latter part of 1973 as well, putting up 6.60's and 6.70's in northeast funny car action.|
Also during 1973, he was approached by Kosty Ivanof to take the wheel of the "Boston Shaker" funny car now that Al Segrini was no longer the driver. Once again, Roberts said "sure, as long as it didn’t conflict with his K & M commitments. He ran five or 6 races for Ivanof, notching ETs in the 6.60 to 6.70 range while stopping the timers at near 220 MPH. Then news came that because of rising costs, the King & Marshall team would be going back to one car at end seasons end, that being Plymouth Duster funny car. This meant that Roberts’s services would now longer be needed because Jimmy King was already driving the Duster.
So in October 1973, Don Roberts would make his last runs ever in the King & Marshall dragster at one of Englishtown’s open top fuel shows. He went it all the way to the final where he defeated Roger Toth’s Hemi Hunter with a 6.50-225 mph clocking. He left the K & M team the same way he began…as a winner.
1974… Nobody needed a driver and Roberts had no prospects on the horizon. He thought this was it, that he was all done. The only car he drove that year was a second Boston Shaker for Kosty Ivanof at the New England Funny Car Nationals.
1975… Roberts ventured south to Gainesville, Florida, home of the NHRA Gatornationals in March of that year. While there he found out that the Jade Grenade top fuel dragster was in need of a driver, as their regular "shoe" Satch Nottle had to vacate the seat due to health problems. Upon hearing this, Roberts approached car owner Bill Flurer about the possibility of driving for him. Flurer told Roberts that he wanted to talk with other drivers before making a final decision and would let him know.
About a month went by and then one day the phone rang. It was Flurer calling to let him know that the ride was his and that their first race together would be on April 20th in Epping, New Hampshire. Once again he would be driving a premier east coast car. One that had set low E.T of 5.94 at the ‘74 U.S. Nationals. It had been over a year since he had been in a car of this stature and Roberts was ready to "do his thing."
|Roberts takes his last ride down the quarter-mile at Epping on April 20, 1975 in the Jade Grenade. The ensuing accident and injuries sustained as a result ended a driving career that spanned nearly a decade.|
His Final Ride... It was a day that no one plans for when diving a high powered machine such as Roberts did. During his first run at Epping on April 20th, the car got out of the groove and he lost control. The car went over very badly and was a total wreck when it came to rest. His right leg was fractured between the knee and the ankle. In fact the fracture was so severe, that the doctors had no recourse but to amputate it below the knee some two weeks after the accident.
It took nearly a year for Don to recover fully from the mishap and he calls what happened to his leg that day "a minor inconvenience." He also went on to say, "I never wanted to stop driving. But sometimes we don’t have the luxury of having the choice to choose which way it’s going to go. I have no complaints. I was very lucky to have so many opportunities to drive so many great cars."
|In 2003 Don had the chance to go back for a warm up when he got back into the seat of the restored King & Marshall car now owned by Sy Sidebotham. The last time Roberts sat in this car was August 1972."|
Today… Don and his wife Margie reside in Everett, Massachusetts. They have two children, Mark and Jessica. He is currently General Manager at Metric Screw & Tool in Wakefield, Mass and has been so for 10 years. Metric Screw is a distributor of metric fasteners and related components, servicing both the OEM sector and some wholesale accounts
Hobbies include keeping attending as many "Cruise Event" as possible in their 39 Chevy Sedan as well a regular trips to Maine via motor home during the summer months.
When asked, "How would you like to be remembered for your contributions to the sport," this was his reply: "That I drove many different cars with success. I don’t think there was anyone else in New England that drove as many cars as I did. I was the kid who was a huge fan, that became a competitor, but who never stopped being a fan, even all these years later. I had one bad day at Epping in 1975. I had many, many great days at tracks all over the country. I have never lost sight of that fact."
Photos by Paul Wasilewski, Robert Lanod, Steve Crane, Henry Witham, Mark Hovsepian, and Don Roberts.