Don Roberts: After the Fire

On September 13, 2013, at New England Dragway, in Epping, NH, the National Hot Rod Association bestowed an NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award upon Don Roberts, of Georgetown, Mass., for “years of faithful dedication to serving the interests of others on behalf of the entire hot rod fraternity.” He was a bit flabbergasted when he learned he was to receive the award.

I really didn’t know if anyone noticed me really, I was just trying to go drag racing and further the sport” he commented of his decades in drag racing and hot rodding.

From Roberts’ “American Graffiti-like youthful years, steeped in that very era of Americana, he grew up pumping gas, was embraced by the Orientals Hot Rod Club, and went on to become one of New England’s best known drag racers. He drove everything from Model A home built “rail” cars to Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars. Don was even in on the build of Al Hanna’s first “Eastern Raider” jet F/C.

Don’s burning desire to become a professional drag racer is a model of how it’s done: passion, commitment, and dedication to purpose are the foundations on which he built his career. His fire to succeed took him all the way to the top and almost cost him his life. But he got off cheap in only losing his right leg.

Despite his career-ending crash in a fuel dragster, Don soldiered on to become part of track operations, was instrumental in his support of New England Dragway, and helped a fellow drag racer for two decades – after the fire of his competition years was behind him.

This is his story, after the fire.

Every morning when retired veteran drag racer Don Roberts rises to meet the day, he begins the ritual: shower, shave and attach the prosthetic leg while dressing for work. He's retired from his years as a hired hot shoe drag racer, yes, but there's still a mortgage to pay and a life to lead. So at the age of 67 he's still working a daily part time job five days a week, but minus the right leg below the knee. The sport he's held a lifelong love affair with claimed that. Drag racing is a cruel mistress and a difficult vocation at best; at her worst, she’s deadly.

Roberts literally gave a leg to his sport.

It's kind of amazing when you think about it. He was once a starry-eyed kid, who more than anything else in the world wanted to be a big time drag racer, yet the sport he loved took a leg. Yet he's not the least bit bitter about it. "It's been a minor inconvenience for forty years really" he mentioned more than once while being interviewed. "It's presented its challenges yes, but really, in the overall scheme of things, it's been a minor inconvenience." He beams slightly while he says this; such is the measure of the man.

That's a big statement coming from a person who once wrapped his whole life around trying to advance in the world of professional drag racing. Then one day a career-ending crash that took his leg and ended his lifelong dream. His journey into drag racing began with an epiphany at age fifteen, in 1963, at a drag strip in Sanford, Maine, the birthplace of New England drag racing.

"I well remember my first trip to a major drag racing event; it was a life changing moment for me" he recalls. "There were six of us piled into one car driving basically from Boston to Maine. We each put up two dollars for gas and tolls, and the guy who owned the car drove us. We needed a $1.50 each for our ticket into the track and another dollar covered the French fries with change left over for an ice cream."

Things were a bit different when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was in the White House in 1963. The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline was just thirty cents and the Beach Boys were Surfin' U.S.A.

Don was a young man attending Reading High School in ninth grade when he went to his first major drag race featuring Tommy Ivo. Ivo was match racing his way across the USA at the time with his "Barnstormer" Top Fuel dragster putting on a show for the fans. Don knew from reading the hot rod magazines of the day that "TV Tommy” Ivo was a big name California drag racer and this was Don's first time seeing a big name on the drag strip. "I was awestruck" he remembers with a broad grin and eyes ablaze. "I took one look at them out there on that track and I said to myself, ‘I have to get out there, I want THAT to be me!’”

From that day forward he chose to do whatever it took to get into a drag car, roll out of the bleach box, boil those hides, and smell the nitromethane as the fans went wild. He vowed one day that would be him out there; on that day a drag racer was born.

Don worked a variety of jobs during his teen years, which included gas station attendant. Pumping gasoline, checking customer’s oil levels and tire pressures were every day events back when America still had a polite society. Back when please and thank you were frequently used, men held doors open for women, and our elders were respected. The men and women of the WW II era raised their youth to be people with a purpose, to hold down a job, to be someone people can rely upon.

Don worked at a Shell gas station in Reading, Mass., as a teen and he would see members of the local hot rodding club, The Orientals, come in for gas frequently. He'd also see them trailering their drag cars up to Sanford, Maine, on weekends to go drag racing. At the local club garage, not far from Don's work, Orientals member Dick Roberts (no relation) often had his dragster in the garage for repairs and one day he invited Don in.

"Next thing I knew, I was in there cleaning parts, going for coffee and on occasion, he took me along to the drags." Don joined the Orientals as a member some years later.