For three decades the track record was untouchable at the Snowball Derby.
Super Late Models came from all regions to Five Flags Speedway and could not master the lap that was laid down in 1980.
It was a perfect storm. Temperatures in the mid 50’s. Body rules out the window. Tires soaked right up and finally, a wild man behind the wheel know as Hot Shoe.
Gary Balough blistered around Five Flags Speedway during qualifying for the 1980 Snowball Derby and for some it must have looked like he was going to take off on the backstretch.
“We did a lot of tire testing for Goodyear back in those days and we helped with their Cup programs all the time,” said Balough. “I had a Goodyear deal with Penske up in the Northeast. I worked real hard with the engineers to make the tires go. We really helped to get the Goodyear deal rolling up there.”
Balough’s lap at the click of the stopwatch was 16.33. That was a full seven-tenths of a second faster than the track record a year ago. Mark Martin was second quick at 16.42 followed by Dick Trickle with a 16.52. The top 18 cars broke or tied the track record.
“Pensacola was just worn out and you need to have good a tire under you and that’s what we did,” added Balough. “We just had the right people behind us.”
“We were new in the tire business,” said Tim Bryant who spoke of the family operation in 1980. “The south Florida guys were the kings so of the hill. A local racer was in aww of their operations.”
Bryant was speaking of soaking and the ability to get all the speed out of the tires and the cars that looked like rockeships.
“The cars were way beyond anything we had seen before,” said Bryant. “Gary Balough was a crowd favorite back in those days and he put on a show that year.”
The amazing speed carried over into the race where the 200-lap distance was run in 1 hour and 23 minutes. There were six cautions for 33 laps, but the pace was blistering fast. No Snowball Derby has come close to this type of speed.
Balough won the race, but it was a minor miracle to keep tires on the number 112 machine. The pace blistered tires and Balough limped across the line with a tire going down.
“That might have been one of the coolest races to watch,” said Rick Crawford who would win the race at the end of the decade. “It was so fast it was over in a blink of an eye. Balough had them covered that year.”
To put into perspective how good this lap was despite the adjustments to the cars. It was not until 2002, some 22 years later, when Jeremy Pate went 16.349 around the half-mile. It would be another 10 plus years before someone would get close again. Then on a cool night in 2011 Bubba Pollard went 16.290 to break the record in the cool Pensacola night.
“I never thought it would go that fast,” said Pollard the night of his pole run.
Pollard had a perfect night and perfect lap and was right on the mark with weight. They checked the car several times before he cleared post-qualifying inspection.
Since then Chase Elliott and Ty Majeski have shaved off some more time. The track record stands at 16.190.
The future will bring more speed and perhaps another record. We can only think that the first sub 16-second lap is close ether with technology or with a pave job at Five Flags Speedway. No matter what happens, we don’t think anything will be like the legacy of the Balough record run from 1980. It will always be one of the special tails of the Snowball Derby.
-By: Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent