For many race fans, the stock-car racing season ends in mid November: snow blankets the northern tracks throughout the offseason, and top-level stock-car racing in America is put at a halt until the engines are fired back up at Daytona in February. But, on the mild-weathered beaches of Pensacola, Florida, stars from all levels of racing — Sprint Cup Series included — take to the green flag at Five Flags Speedway’s half-mile oval once more in early December, where up to 37 of the most talented short-track drivers around battle it out for 300 laps in arguably the most prestigious event in Super Late Model racing: the Snowball Derby.
Though the typical mild weather on the beaches of Pensacola is what makes racing the Derby in December possible, that wasn’t the case heading into the opening weekend of Five Flags in 1953.
Most people only know of the indignation associated with track drying on rainy weekends, but the first track promoter of Five Flags, L. H. Williamson, faced something far more severe: persistent rainfall delaying the paving of the track as the clock ticked down to the start of the inaugural race weekend. The rain got the best of Williamson’s project, forcing a hasty solution in order to open the track on its planned date — dirt was spread over the prepared surface of the oval, and the first green flag of Five Flags’ history was taken on May 31, 1953.
The inaugural race didn’t stay under green as long as Williamson had hoped, however. The day’s events appeared to be a mirror image of the weeks leading up to the opening of Five Flags: things not going according to plan. The green flag was soon replaced with a red one as the result of a 14-car pileup on the dusty racetrack, and opening day was cut short due to unsuitable racing conditions on the makeshift track surface.
When weather finally relented, the paving was able to be completed two weeks later on June 13, 1953. The following day, Five Flags’ only NASCAR Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup Series) race was held at the speedway. The race failed to complete its 200 scheduled laps, though, as a result of rain once again putting a damper on the track’s day. After the running of 140 laps, Herb Thomas became the first and only driver to collect a Sprint Cup victory at Five Flags.
Throughout the 1960s, Speedway Incorporated fielded Supermodifieds at Five Flags as a part of the Gulf Coast circuit, a series that raced four to five times a week at southern tracks in states including Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. In 1968, Williamson sold the track to the namesake of the Derby trophy — Tom Dawson. The winner’s trophy is rightfully named after Dawson, who brought major changes to the track immediately at the beginning of his ownership. With the arrival of Dawson, Five Flags’ foremost racing class underwent a major shift: open-wheeled Supermodifieds were replaced with cheaper stock cars, and Late Models became the trademark of the speedway from that point on.
Dawson didn’t only bring Late Models to Five Flags, however. In December of his first year as owner, Dawson introduced a long-distance event to the track; thus, the Derby was born. The inaugural running of the Derby in 1968 was a fraction of today’s length — 100 laps around the abrasive asphalt oval — and was won by Wayne Niedecken, who went on to win the event again in 1970. The Derby’s race distance evolved over the years, varying between the original length of 100 laps, 200 laps, 300 laps, and temporarily in the format of 300 laps plus one lap for every year of the event’s running. Today, the Derby is set at a 300-lap distance, though its scheduled length can be exceeded by virtue of the running of additional laps under green-white-checkered conditions.
In its long history, the Derby has only been televised once: 1995, as a part of the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Late Model Series when Prime Network (now Fox Sports Networks) broadcasted the race eventually won by Jeff Purvis live through their affiliate networks. Another one-time occurrence in the Derby was its sanctioning by NASCAR when the All Pro Super Series, which alone sanctioned the Derby from 1984-1990, was acquired by NASCAR in 1991 and was merged with NASCAR’s All-American Challenge Series to become the Winston All Pro Series. All other years of its running, the Derby has been and continues to be run as an unsanctioned, independent event.
Despite the Derby’s status as an unsanctioned event, competitors and fans aren’t discouraged from flocking to Pensacola every December. Every year since 1968, the Derby has been run on the first weekend of December and draws competitors from every racing background imaginable, all with one common goal: capturing the coveted Tom Dawson Memorial Trophy. For the past 45 years, countless drivers have had the opportunity to add their name to the list of Derby winners, and some of the most talented names in the history of the sport have failed to do so.
Among those who have tried and failed to visit Victory Lane in the Derby are current racing notables Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth, NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bobby Allison, and Rusty Wallace, short-track and Late Model standouts Dick Trickle, Charles "Red" Farmer, and Mike Garvey, and even the current owner of Five Flags himself, Tim Bryant. Short-track showdowns are also known to result in close battles for the win, leaving countless drivers with the feeling of almost becoming a Derby champion — some of which are included on the aforementioned list of winless racing legends. Martin, Allison, Wallace, Farmer — all have failed to finish higher than the runner-up position at Five Flags’ premier event.
Others, however, have been more fortunate. While only eight drivers in the history of the event have become repeat victors, Rich Bickle Jr. and Augie Grill, who is entered in this year’s Derby, are the only competitors to record back-to-back victories. Grill’s Derby trophies were acquired in recent runnings of the race (2007, 2008), and Rich Bickle Jr., who in total accumulated five Derby wins (1990, 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999), is the winningest driver in race history — the only one to visit Victory Lane in the event more than twice.
Three competitors who have had success in the Derby, and in their racing careers, are the drivers who have won the most recent runnings of the race. Hometown winner Johanna Long (2010), Chase Elliott (2011), and Erik Jones (2012), are all currently making waves in NASCAR: Long in the Nationwide Series and Elliott and Jones in the Camping World Truck Series. Long, the second-ever female winner of the Derby — Tammy Jo Kirk became the first in 1994 — recorded a best finish of 11th in the NCWTS in 2011, and now pilots the No. 70 ML Motorsports Chevy in NNS with a career-best finish of 12th, which she has recorded twice. Elliott and Jones, though unable to run full NCWTS schedules this year due to their ages, have recorded impressive finishes in their minimal starts; Elliott, the youngest Derby winner in history, also became the youngest winner in NCWTS history at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in September — that record being broken by Jones at Phoenix International Raceway in November.
Veterans, young guns, short-track stars, top NASCAR drivers, Super Late Model standouts; all will compose this year’s Derby field just as they have in the past. The variety of competitors makes for a unique race with no points on the line — only the right to call oneself a Derby champion. For the many who aren’t locked into the event by the means of Southern Super Series points, Blizzard Series points, or the past-champion provisional, the battle begins in Friday’s qualifying session and possibly Saturday’s 50-lap last-chance qualifying race, as approximately 70 drivers are entered in the event and only 30 drivers will qualify on time, four in the last-chance race. The drivers who qualify for the Derby face an even tougher challenge come Sunday afternoon: beating out a field that boasts a plethora of racing talent for a victory in one of the crown jewels of short-track racing.
For most competitors in this year’s field of Super Late Model drivers, the 2013 Snowball Derby will be remembered as "just another attempt" at capturing the checkered flag in the prestigious event — whether it be merely falling short and finishing second as many of the sport’s great drivers have, having dreams held off for another year due to a race incident or mechanical issue, or simply being out finished by the stout field that will take the green flag on Sunday — but for one, this year will mark the year of joining a list of some of the greatest names in short-track racing as a Snowball Derby champion. The questions remain: will that driver be a repeat victor in the race and join an even shorter list of names, or will a first-time champion be crowned? Will that driver be a young gun, a NASCAR star, or a Super Late Model veteran? Will that driver go on to have a successful NASCAR career, as Long, Jones, and Elliott are in the process of doing?
Those questions will be answered this Sunday, December 8th, at Five Flags Speedway. Regardless of the victor, short-track chaos will ensue, history will be made, and the 46th running of the Snowball Derby won’t be one to miss.