PENSACOLA, Florida (January 27, 2019) — Five Flags Speedway announced on Saturday that the 52nd Annual Snowball Derby will see the end of live pit stops, instead favoring the controlled pit stop format used at other marquee events around the country. The hope is to help with the added costs of teams bringing in hired, professional pit crews for the 300 lap Super Late Model race.
Event promoter Tim Bryant made the announcement during the driver’s meeting at Saturday’s SpeedFest at Crisp Motorsports Park in Cordele, Georgia. During that meeting, Bryant emphasized that this decision was made with drivers and teams in mind.
“We know that the Snowball Derby is a costly event for the teams to participate in,” said Bryant. “We are in constant search of ways to make it less expensive for competitors. On-track competition has gotten increasingly more competitive over the years. The importance of length of time on pit road has gone to the extreme. The cost of a high-paid pit crew was never intended for this level of racing. Given the competitiveness of this event and the importance of the event, guys will take any measure necessary to get an edge on the others. For that reason, we’ve decided to go to the controlled caution format for the 52nd Snowball Derby. It’s simply in an effort to save teams the money of high-team pit crews.”
And save money it can. At last year’s Snowball Derby, Wayne Okrzesik, father and team owner of 2019 SpeedFest 200 winner Connor Okrzesik, told PixelatedSPEED that the cost of pit crews was a limiting factor at the Snowball Derby. He admitted that he had what was basically a crew comprised of pit crew “students”, and that the crew paled in comparison to the crews from the likes of Kyle Busch Motorsports.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Stephen Nasse, who became a highlight in the 51st Snowball Derby for all the wrong reasons after an altercation with his own crew member after a botched tire change resulted in Nasse losing a wheel while on the speedway and crashing hard into the wall, destroying his car.
Nasse told Short Track Scene, “There are so many elite pit teams, and only so many of them come to the Derby, so a lot of teams have to settle for mediocre options. So people like me get stuck with those.”
In practice, this format will see the field basically frozen during a caution period. During this time, teams may change tires and do all of the things that are done during a normal pit stop. The difference is, however, that instead of racing to be first off of pit road, teams will retain their position after the completion of their stops. Without the added urgency, teams will not need faster crews, and thus will save the $5,000 plus bills from the professional caliber crews.
There are a few more rules and procedures associated with this format. For instance, teams cannot change tires unless it’s under the controlled caution period (or replacing a flat after official approval). Bubba Pollard found this out the hard way during the SpeedFest 200, coming in to change tires — then having to return to pit road after being told he could not change the tires because it wasn’t a controlled caution period. The old right sides were put back on his car, resulting in a mountain of lost track position.
While the importance of cost savings is of paramount concern, implementing this format will also result in the loss of one of the layers of competition that has made the Snowball Derby so exciting over the years. For many, watching a full field of race cars swoop down pit lane with teams of crews slinging lug nuts and throwing tires is exhilarating. The race off of pit road could be the race for the win, or at least a vital part of the overall drama of the race.
I for one, will miss live pit stops. I realize I may be in the minority here with my experiences, but let me share why.
As a photojournalist at the Snowball Derby, I’ve had the privilege to find myself mere fee from the heart of the action on pit road. The thrill of cars flying by on pit road, watching them dive into their stalls, and capturing the action of the pit crews has always been one of the most intense experiences I’ve encountered at the race track.
During last year’s Derby, I was hit by a flying lug nut coming off of the car of Derek Kraus during a round of stops. I saved that lug nut as a memento, and know that anyone that has spent enough time on pit road over the years can probably relate. This may sound odd to most, but dodging flying lug nuts is just another aspect of live pit stops, albeit a sometimes painful experience.
In closing, yes, saving teams money whenever possible is a no-brainier. This measure will at the very least free up cash for teams to use in another area, but saying farewell to live pit stops at the Snowball Derby is going to be bittersweet.
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