As has been well documented, the Snowball Derby turns 50 in less than a month. In 49 years, the half-mile oval of Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida has been the home to so much history and so many spectacular moments. If the walls could talk, the stories they would share would be amazing. But concrete walls cannot talk. Fortunately, local news reporters Dan Shugart and Gordon Paulus were there for many of the amazing moments that have taken place throughout the years.
Shugart is currently the sports anchor at WEAR 3 TV in Pensacola, Florida where he was worked since 1981. The 1981 Snowball Derby when Freddie Fryar won his second Derby was Shugart’s first trip through the pit gate at the legendary half-mile oval. For Shugart, he had basically stepped through a portal into a completely foreign world.
“I was thoroughly lost,” Shugart admitted. “I was in Rusty Wallace’s pit and I had no experience in auto racing at all. It was a learning experience. He and his crew were great. I didn’t try to hide it, not that I could have. It was one heck of an experience.”
Paulus’ first Snowball Derby was in 1989 when Rick Crawford won his one and only Snowball Derby. At the time, Paulus was a new reporter at the Pensacola News Journal.
The Snowball Derby wasn’t as strange to Paulus as it was for Shugart. Paulus came from a dirt racing background in Oklahoma. But, dirt and asphalt are very different, as Paulus came to quickly realize.
“I was used to the IMCA Modified cars going into the corners sideways,” Paulus explained. “I wasn’t used to them taking turns without going sideways. And just to see the crowds that were there. I knew it was big. Seeing the campers that were coming in, I’d never seen that before. I knew it was something.”
Paulus and Shugart have both seen the event and track change forms multiple times. They’ve seen walls go up around all of the track, they’ve seen different classes of hot-shot young-gun drivers try to take on different sets of local heroes. They’ve seen local heroes become immortals by beating the invaders. Paulus and Shugart have just about seen it all.
“When Tammy Jo Kirk won in 1994, that brought one of the biggest roars from the crowd that I can remember,” Paulus said. “Of course, that was replaced by a bigger roar in 2010 when Johanna Long from Pensacola won it.”
“Johanna Long winning her race in 2010 was big,” Shugart stated. “But for me, when Erik Jones beat Kyle Busch to win that race a few years back, just from the race standpoint itself was really amazing.”
Any reporter has stories that they’ll always remember. Often times those stories are events that the viewers never see. For Shugart, the things that stick out in his mind the most are memories of those that helped him learn the foreign sport of auto racing.
“Bobby Allison and Davey Allison could not have been nicer to us and essentially helped us along and forgave my mistakes and were grateful for the coverage. Rusty Wallace and his crew were great too. Those types of stories on a personal level went a long way.”
For Paulus, the memory that sticks out for him is about something that didn’t pan out the way he’d hoped it would.
Paulus explained that for 15 years, he ran a full-page Snowball Derby starting lineup with photos of and bios of each driver. In those 15 years, only one time was Paulus unable to get a photo of a driver.
“It was Matt Kenseth,” Paulus explained. “That was before he got big in NASCAR. He came in that year from Wisconsin and that Saturday morning because he wasn’t locked in yet I went to go take his picture and he was taking a nap in his trailer and they didn’t want me to bother him. I had to go back to the office and start putting the page together. That year the qualifying races didn’t get over until 10:30 and he got the very last spot and at 10:30 I realized he was the last photo that I never got.”
At the time of their first Derby’s, neither one of Paulus or Shugart knew just how big the Snowball Derby truly was. But now, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that knows how big the Snowball Derby has become like the two gentlemen that watched the event transform before their eyes.
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount