The Snowball Derby. From many accounts, this race is considered the “Most Prestigious Short Track Event” in all of racing. Over the past 50 plus years, the best of the best have made the pilgrimage to Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida to go to battle each December.
Let’s take a look at exactly what is this Snowball Derby.
In an interview with Pensacola journalist Jeff Weeks, Five Flags Speedway owner and promoter Tim Bryant told the origin story of the Snowball Derby.
“I’m always quick to point out that Tom Dawson was the originator of the Snowball Derby,” tells Bryant.
“He moved from Ohio in 1968 and started the event. That was the first one. They always tell the story about the press box being burnt down the night before the event so they had their challenges back then, too. It started out as a single day, a Sunday afternoon, 100-lap race for late model type stock cars.”
Tom Dawson used the name “Snowball Derby” after seeing a snowmobile race of a similar name in his native Ohio. With the race being held in December, the name just seemed to fit with the marketing as the event falls during the prime winter holiday season.
The first Snowball Derby was indeed contested in December of 1968 and was 100 laps. Wayne Niedecken Sr. won the first year, consequently also becoming the first local driver to win the race.
In the event’s early years, the format first featured a 100 lap race, but that later grew to 200, then 300 laps. For several years, an additional lap was added to coincide with the running of the race. In the 29th running in 1996, the scheduled race distance of 329 laps was extended to an event record 336 laps due to late race caution periods combined with rules that require a green flag finish. Since the early 2000s, the race has settled into it current 300 lap distance.
Over the years, the Snowball Derby has attracted many of the top names in stock car racing, and even more on their way up the racing ladder.
In the early days, names like Bobby and Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Gary Balough, Buddy Baker, and Red Farmer all raced at the famed half-mile with varying degrees of success.
Current NASCAR stars including Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Erik Jones have all left their mark with multiple Tom Dawson trophies shared between them in recent years.
Rich Bickle holds the record for most wins, at five, leading a contingent of many of short track racing history’s greatest drivers including Ed Howe, Ronnie Sanders, Jody Ridley and Bobby Gill to name a few.
Up and coming talent such as John Hunter Nemechek, Christian Eckes, Christopher Bell and Noah Gragson all have ties to this historic race.
The Snowball Derby attracts more than the biggest names. Drivers from across the country and even Canada make the trip to Pensacola each year.
The Derby is an independently sanctioned race featuring the Super Late Model stock car under a rules package that is the same as, or very similar to, many other tracks and tours across the country.
Those rules were comprised from and entity called the United Super Late Model Rules Alliance.
Additionally, all car bodies are governed by the guidelines set forth by the Approved Body Committee (ABC).
The event is officiated by an all-star crew comprised of officials from various touring series and tracks, but mostly consisting of the Southern Super Series, and led by Snowball Derby Technical Director Ricky Brooks, who’s “Room of Doom” technical inspection line has become notorious throughout the motorsports community.
Many races under the reign of Brooks have led to drivers being disqualified from their win, resulting in Brooks becoming one of the most respected technical inspectors in the sport. It’s a well known fact that the race isn’t truly complete until someone passes post-race technical inspection.
At the top of the chain is Five Flags Speedway owner, and Snowball Derby promoter, Tim Bryant. The Bryant family began promoting the Snowball Derby in 2004, then took ownership of the speedway in 2007.
Since taking the reins of the speedway, the event has exploded in popularity with continued growth year over year.
That growth is partially to the tight relationship between Five Flags Speedway and the short track media website Speed51.com. Speed51.com President Bob Dillner began covering the December event with brother Matthew Dillner in 2001 and each year has expanded and grown his outlet, growing the exposure of the Snowball Derby along the way.
The Snowball Derby is considered one of the crown jewels of short track racing, taking its place alongside the Winchester 400, All American 400, Oxford 250, and Martinsville 300.
This article will continue to updated and added to as I continue to learn more about the history of this event.
– Daniel Vining, Twitter: @danielvining
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