Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond were on top of the musical charts with the song “You Don’t Bring me Flowers” as teams pulled into Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida for the running of the 11th Annual Snowball Derby. The year was 1978 and the parties that would play a factor in the first youth movement in short track racing still remember it like it was yesterday.
The two young, long-haired drivers that would later become heroes in the racing community were 23-year old Alabama native Dave Mader III and a 19-year old from Arkansas named Mark Martin. Back in 1978 these two were the youngest in the field and the victory came down to them.
“I don’t even remember seeing two to go,” said Mader. “I got to the middle of the backstretch and I bumped him. I remember Mark looking up and seeing his eyes. He then went in a little too deep and went up a little bit. I stood back in the gas and put it in the hole. We never touched. We came back and I saw the white flag waving.”
The white flag got Mader’s attention and he said he got excited at that point as he made the winning pass for the Snowball Derby.
“He went on around me and I finished second,” said Martin, who was making his second start in the Snowball Derby in 1978. “It never occurred to me to look at the right-rear tire. But I did blister it. We had 46 compound on the right side and 51’s on lefts. The 51’s were softer. My plan for the last stop was to put 51’s on the rights for the last run. We did and I am leading the race and I started slowing down and getting a little loose. The next thing I know I feel a little push on the back bumper. It was Dave Mader III.”
Mader’s victory marked the youngest winner in Snowball Derby history at the time. It was later trumped by Steve Wallace some 26 years later and then again by Chase Elliott in 2011.
After the race ended the future NASCAR star Martin waited for Mader and was the first one to congratulate him in victory lane. He didn’t bring flowers, but he brought a memory that has lasted a lifetime.
“He parked his car next to mine after I did two cool down laps,” said Mader of Martin. “I guess I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we won’ and did an extra one. That moment stands out. Mark was one of the most gracious ones. I have the picture on my wall and I see it every day.”
The 1978 edition was both drivers’ shining moment in the Snowball Derby. Martin ran seven more Snowball Derby races and could only finishe as high as fourth in 1984. Mader ran a total of 25 Snowball Derbies before his last in 2010. Third in 1985 was the closest he got to returning to victory lane.
“It’s really the crown jewel of Late Model racing,” added Martin. “There is an amazing list of people who have won that race. For all the racing I did and all the races Rusty Wallace and I won, we didn’t get one of those things.”
For Mader the taste of victory slipped through his fingers year-after-year.
“You want to talk about being sick,” said Mader. “I did it to myself thinking about the number of times I was in the top three in the final 30 laps after 1978 and didn’t win. I could have won so many times, it’s sickening to think of them. I can’t tell you how much it means to have won one out of the 25 I ran.”
Even today the Derby still has meaning to Martin, who’s now a NASCAR Hall of Fame driver at the age of 58.
“Man what an incredible accomplishment it is to win the Snowball Derby,” said Martin. “Steven (Wallace) goes down and gets one and Johanna Long does it too. I salute the young drivers who get wins there. It was a big-time deal for us even 30 years ago and now it’s a big part of the racing culture. Even though we don’t participate in those races like we used to, the NASCAR world recognize them and is watching.”
Some 30-plus years later, Mader can tell the story over and over again and it does not get old for him at least.
“To be able to race Mark for the win was the highlight for me and it would have been for anybody.”
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent