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SCCA racing champion Don Roberts of ‘winningest Cobra’ fame dies at 82

SCCA racing champion Don Roberts of ‘winningest Cobra’ fame dies at 82

The legendary driver was highly regarded both for his driving ability and mechanical skills

Legendary SCCA champion Don Roberts, best known for his many victories in what became known as “the winningest Cobra,” died Saturday at the age of 82.

Roberts, who lived in Phoenix, Arizona, was perhaps the greatest driver that most people never heard of, although he is held in awe by those who raced against him or watched him perform with magical skill on the track.  He was a leading figure in the Shelby Cobra community, both for his driving skills and for his uncanny mechanical ability to perfectly set up a race car.

Don Roberts

Roberts racing the ‘winningest Cobra’ in 1968 | Courtesy of Sharon Roberts

Roberts made most of his greatest drives behind the wheel of a 1964 Shelby Cobra 289, CSX2473. In that sports car, he scored a record number of SCCA victories, as well as in other events, from 1966 through 1973, and for three years was an SCCA divisional champion.

He later raced the winningest Cobra in vintage competition, with the car under various owners who asked him to drive it, continuing his run of resounding successes.

His final race in CSX2473 at the Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca – which he won four years in a row from 1980-83 – was a memorable performance, according to Sharon Roberts, his wife and biggest booster, as well as a fine driver in her own right.

Don Roberts

Another checkered flag | Courtesy of Sharon Roberts

Roberts was racing a heads-up competition with champion driver Bob Bondurant, who was in a Cobra Daytona Coupe. Bondurant was in pole position at the start, with Roberts gridded second. When the flag dropped, Roberts raced ahead and Bondurant was never able to get past him. Roberts took the checkered flag.

“(Carroll) Shelby was in our pits rooting for Don,” Sharon Roberts wrote in a timeline. “(He) told Don after the race, ‘I knew you could beat that sum-bitch, Don’.”

One reason why Roberts is not more heralded as a champion driver was likely because of his quiet and humble nature, and the way he shrugged off his terrific talents as just one of those things.  He was also philosophical about how he was able to get the most out of Cobras, behind the wheel and under the hood.

“A Cobra’s a Cobra, there’s not much difference,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I just upgrade things and make it better.”

Don Roberts

Don and Sharon Roberts | Scott Dames photo

Roberts lived a relatively normal existence in an older home on a 1-acre property filled with garages in which he stored or worked on cars, mostly historic racers.  He recently completed the restoration of another early 289 Cobra, CSX2173, which Sharon intends to keep.

He owned CSX2473, the Winningest Cobra, at the very start of his racing career, purchasing it from one of Carroll Shelby’s employees who had begun turning it into a full-fledged race car, which Roberts completed, converting to his own satisfaction.

His success with the Cobra was immediate. The first race that November was during an SCCA regional meet in Tucson, Arizona, and he won first place in the A-Production class, a remarkable debut for driver and car. He continued racing the Cobra into 1967 with tremendous success in hill climbs, autocross events and road races.

Don Roberts

Roberts recently finished restoration of another early 289 Cobra | Bob Golfen

He converted the Cobra to B-Production for the 1967 season and during the next two years dominated with 14 overall first-place finishes and 25 class wins. Roberts won the 1968 Southern Pacific Divisional B-Production championship and went on to win it all at Riverside International Raceway to earn the title of B-Production national champion, finishing 30 seconds in front of the B competitors. This also marked the only time a Cobra won that national championship.

Roberts sold the car to another SCCA driver who raced it with good results during the 1969 and ’70 seasons. Roberts raced the car again starting in 1972 when it was owned by another enthusiast, and he resumed his winning streak. He and the Cobra won the divisional B-Production championship in 1972 and 1973.

He again later owned CSX2473 in partnership with two other motorsports fans, which is when he drove it to his Monterey Historics victories.

Don Roberts

The winningest Cobra as it looks today | RM Sotheby’s

In more-recent years, Roberts headed up the vintage race team for Jim Click, a Tucson auto dealer whose Ford competition machines are highly regarded, mainly because of the care ministered by Roberts.

“I have to tell you, I never had to worry about a car, I never had to worry about it performing, I never had to worry about the handling, I never worried about the safety because of Don; I just had total trust in him,” Click said in a past intereview.

Roberts also taught him some of his racing techniques for vintage driving, he added.

“He was very helpful to me about the track, how to set up for a turn, entrance speed, exit speed, where to keep your eyes. He was just great. And I think he’s been that way for a lot of people,” Click said.

Roberts is survived by his wife, Sharon. Funeral arrangements are private.

But as a leading light of the racing community in the Southwest, Roberts is sure to be lauded and remembered in many gatherings to come.

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10 Comments

  • Lynn Park
    August 22, 2019, 6:12 PM

    Don Roberts was the epitome of what a racer should be. Everyone who has raced a Cobra wants to be like Don Roberts. And he was one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. The world would be a better place with more Don Roberts. We will all miss him.

    REPLY
  • Steve Hughes
    August 22, 2019, 6:55 PM

    It was with a sad heart that I heard the news of Don passing. He was truly a great guy.

    I remember the day that Don gave me my first lesson at Phoenix International Raceway on how to take the proper line through a corner. His one lesson stuck with me more than any other tips I learned throughout my entire time racing.

    Just as memorable, I remember Don giving me a ride in one of Mike Schoen’s Daytona Coupe’s around PIR for 10 laps! Even though he was probably only driving 9/10ths, he scared the living crap out of me! And, I enjoyed every second of it! Truly a memorable experience!

    I was lucky enough to meet Don early on, when he owned his shop aptly named Race Engineering and I was the parts delivery driver for a local BAP/GEON store. Even though I was just a parts driver, Don and I became instant friends. It produced a memorable friendship that lasted all these many years.

    Throughout, Don was always a warm generous and good friend. God’s speed Don. You are truly missed.

    REPLY
    • Pete Hinkel@Steve Hughes
      August 22, 2019, 9:58 PM

      I met Don and Sharon in the late ‘60’s. Two of the nicest, down to earth people ever. Don’s engineering and driving abilities were awe inspiring. I owned a street 289 Cobra with a twisted rear A frame. I asked Don if he could build a new one but every minute of his time was scheduled two years ahead. Years later Don asked me to help him ‘pit crew’ with him while Sharon was driving ‘66 GT-350 at a PIR event. Both Don and I were worried that if either of us had to get underneath the car, we wouldn’t be able to get back up. Fortunately Sharon drove very well and the Shelby ran fine. And, neither Don nor I had to try to get off a creeper.
      Many fun meetings with the Roberts over the last half a century with friends. Never a dull moment and always an abundance of laughing.
      The Earth was a better place with Don Roberts. Except for the Corvette guys.

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    • Tex Guthrie@Steve Hughes
      August 23, 2019, 1:54 AM

      Happily unheralded, Don was
      A loving husband,
      A skilled mechanic,
      An unassuming friend to all
      …and, beyond that,
      an amazingly talented driver.
      Arizona’s motorsports community grieves.
      He will be missed

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    • Alan Baron@Steve Hughes
      August 23, 2019, 6:32 AM

      I worked with Don at Goodyear Aerospace & he was as good at work as he was a driver.I will miss Don Roberts.

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  • Dale Ramsperger
    August 22, 2019, 8:41 PM

    What An AWESOME Humble Man!
    I had the privilege of meeting him & "talking shop" while he was blasting around the incredibly expansive PITS (in THAT Cobra #89) @ miller Motorsports Park in 2006! He was there with Jim Click Jr, and families, AND with Ford’s brand new Gord GT, Generation II, ( in Gulf Livery, of course!)!
    I asked him if it was OK if I had my picture taken with him, and he was SO gracious….and he was genuinely surprised I knew Who he was, & to hear me tell him how HONORED I was to meet him, Still the holder of more SCCA Class Wins than any other human!
    RIP Don Robert’s! GODSPEED! ❤

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  • Peter Aynesworth
    August 23, 2019, 7:52 AM

    One of my very best friends, if not THE best, Don will be remembered for all the times he helped me with things and the smile on his face when he did it will never be forgotten. I don’t have a
    Cobra or anything even close to it. But, it didn’t matter to Don. He helped me with my car any way
    he could. I’ll never forget our trips to lunch with his wife, being in his garage, seeing him smile or
    laugh about something. This is a tough one for me. Thank you Don. There is no other.

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  • Ron Burn
    August 24, 2019, 7:52 PM

    I’m sorry for the loss of a great person. I totally agree that Don’s humble nature kept his driving ability from stardom. Don spent many hours helping me rebuild a 67 A sedan Mustang, which he later owned, and later helped set up a 92 World Challenge Camaro. He was fast to lend a hand and I’m lucky to have known both Don & Sharon.

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