Robert K. “Bobby” Ball didn’t look like a race-car driver. With his wire-rim spectacles and slim, 6-foot-1-inch, 140-pound build, he more resembled an accountant or a college professor. That he loved classical music only solidified that scholarly image.
Yet for those who had the privilege of seeing him in a race car, it was obvious that he was born to race. And, but for a tragic accident that cut him down too early, he might easily have become one of America’s best.
Born in Phoenix in 1929, his parents were divorced when Ball was only a year old. His grandmother raised him and became so concerned about what was, in her mind, an unhealthy focus on cars and motorcycles as he arrived at his teen years that she enrolled him in a military academy.
That ploy proved unsuccessful, however. Even though Ball had the financial means to do anything else with his life, he chose racing. He started with the Arizona Roadster Ass’n and won so often that the promoters asked him to back down. He wouldn’t. He raced harder.
Moving from roadsters to midgets, he was soon embroiled in the midget mayhem that swept the nation immediately following World War II, winning the Arizona State Midget Ass’n championship in 1949 and 1950.
While still running with the ASMA, Ball made successful inroads into California’s highly competitive URA and the premier American racing organization, the AAA.
In 1950, he got his first chance in an AAA championship car during the 100-miler at the Phoenix State Fairgrounds. Driving Emmett Malloy’s stretched sprint car, he won the pole and led until the crank broke on the famed machine.
That performance got Ball to Indianapolis in 1951. He struggled to get his Blakely Oil Special into the field, but finished the 500 miles, charging from 29th to fifth at the checkered flag. Observers predicted he had a great future in the world’s greatest race.
His runs on the championship trail verified that vote of confidence. Although he finished only 32nd in his second 500, he racked up seven other top-six finishes, including a victory at San Jose, in only two seasons in the big cars.
The year 1953 dawned with high expectations, but on Jan. 4, at a Carrell Speedway (Los Angeles) midget race, he was caught up in a brutal, multi-car crash.
Ball survived, but with massive head injuries. The slight racer, who never looked tough, proved otherwise. He tenaciously fought off death for more than a year, first in the UCLA Medical Center, and then at his Phoenix home, before an infection caused by the very devices sustaining him took his life Feb. 27, 1954.
Ball was only 25, yet his brief career was packed with such promise that he won the hearts of thousands and remains an important part of the fabric of American racing history.