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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 interview.
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.