Throughout this “50 For 50” series, we’ve highlighted many special stories, some well known, others not so much. One of the most unexpected moments came just one year ago in the 49th edition of the Snowball Derby. A 16-year-old from the small town of Greenville, New York took the win in the closest finish in the history of the Snowball Derby.
Take a look at that last sentence again. There’s a lot to digest in that sentence. A 16-year-old kid. A New Yorker. The closest finish ever. Oh, the race was also run on a Tuesday night under the lights.
Rain postponed the race from Sunday to Tuesday evening. To save the teams some money, the professional pit crews were sent home and a controlled-caution format was put into use. Multiple big wrecks took place throughout the 300-lap event. And when it all ended, the margin of victory was just 0.017-seconds, barely the length of a bumper on a Super Late Model.
When it was all over with, 16-year-old Christian Eckes laid down on the cracked and sandblasted asphalt in victory lane at Pensacola’s Five Flags Speedway, exhausted, both physically and mentally, after one of the craziest Snowball Derby’s in recent memory.
“I had so much focus,” Eckes said 11 months later. “I’ve never been so focused in my entire life. It was a surreal experience to be battling for the win in such a big race. I really don’t remember that much because I was so focused. It was just cool.”
Eckes grew up in a town with less than 5,000 people in the Town of Greenville, New York. His town is so small that residents don’t even have a Greenville mailing address. Instead their mail is sent to either Port Jervis or Middletown, New York. New York is known for two types of racing; pavement Modified racing and dirt Modified racing, and Eckes grew up right in the heart of dirt Modified racing.
When one thinks of the Snowball Derby, they don’t think of Greenville, New York. Heck, when one thinks of Super Late Model racing in general, they certainly are not thinking of Greenville, New York.
But Eckes was thinking about the Snowball Derby. Even as a 12-year-old, Eckes realized how important the Snowball Derby was.
“I think in about 2012 when Erik (Jones) beat Kyle (Busch) and really got noticed it, really put it in perspective that if you win that’s a big race you get noticed for,” Eckes said.
Just three years later in 2015, Eckes finally got his own chance at the Snowball Derby. It almost ended quickly.
Eckes led the way in one of the early practice sessions on Thursday that year, the first official day of practice. Then, disaster struck. Eckes crashed hard off turn four as the day was coming to a close. His team did not have a back-up car, so the decision was made to try to fix his machine.
Amazingly, repairs were able to be made to Eckes’ car. But the damage was enough to hamper their qualifying effort. Eckes qualified 31st, one position and one one-hundredth of a second away from being locked in on time. Eckes qualified into Sunday’s race by finishing second in the Last Chance race on Saturday night. He finished 22nd in that year’s Derby, nine laps down.
But things were different in 2016 right from the start.
“We crashed in practice in 2015 and really put it into perspective that I needed to change some things in practice and how we went about practice. We were able to make those changes and have good practice sessions and have good speed and not really worry about our race car like we did in 2016. This past year we just worried about making race runs and not really putting a number up and that seemed to work out.”
It worked out indeed, as Eckes went on to win the 49th Snowball Derby. Now and for the rest of his life, Eckes will be referred to as “Christian Eckes, Snowball Derby champion.”
“It’s really cool. When you look at the list of winners and see your name on it, it’s surreal to see. There’s so many great drivers on that list, so to be a part of it is truly amazing to me.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that he’s still just a kid from New York, and that’s something that Eckes hasn’t forgotten in the 11 months that have passed.
“I’m just from a small town in Greenville, New York. To come down, compete and win the Snowball Derby from a small town in New York means a lot to me. It’s been a busy few years just getting my racing career going so to be able to come down from New York and win that race means a lot.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount