Forward written by Speed51.com’s Executive Editor Bob Dillner
Although some time has passed, I certainly have not forgotten about Charlie Bradberry. To me, he was a buddy, who just happened to be a helluva race car driver. We tragically lost Charlie in a highway accident in 2006, just three years after winning the NASCAR Southeast Series (All-Pro) championship and more importantly, the Snowball Derby.
The friendship between Charlie and I began years before he ever hoisted the Tom Dawson Trophy at Five Flags Speedway, but our history with the Snowball Derby was forever cemented that weekend. As I mentioned, Charlie had won a NASCAR Touring Series title that year and was invited to New York for the Cup Series banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. I was there as well, covering the banquet for the now defunct SPEED Channel. We spent some time together in the Big Apple that weekend and laughed when it began snowing because Charlie was, of course, from Alabama.
Problem was, it wasn’t just a little snow; a blizzard formed and basically knocked out the city of New York and the entire metro area. All our flights were canceled and we thought we were all going to miss the Snowball Derby. Charlie had told me that he and his dad were looking for a plane to fly them to Pensacola. I didn’t think anything of it, until I got a call just before walking into a play on Broadway with my producer.
“I found us a kamikaze pilot,” Charlie said on the other end of the phone. “We got a limo; I’ll pick ya up in 45 minutes.”
From there it was game-on.
We had a wild ride just to get to the Teterboro, NJ airport. Funny thing is, we got in the plane and it twice needed to be de-iced. There was a thick eight inches of snow on the runway, yet the pilot was trying to take-off. The plane got sideways and just before we hit the lights that line the runway, it lifted off. I looked back at Charlie, and with a sly grin all he said was, “a little loose, huh?”
We landed in Pensacola late that night and both went our separate ways. We conducted our business the way we normally did on Snowball Derby Sunday, that is, until victory lane.
He actually did it. Charlie Bradberry, with no practice or qualifying, won the biggest race of the year. In fact, when I got to victory lane, that’s kind of what he said, “We did it.”
To this day, Charlie Bradberry is the only driver I’ve ever hugged in victory lane.
The story below is from the Speed51.com archives and details Charlie’s trip to Five Flags Speedway victory lane.
What a difference 24-hours can make. You’ve heard that phrase a million times, but for Charlie Bradberry, it was truly the theme of his 2003 Snowball Derby. On Saturday, December 6, 2003 at 6 p.m., the NASCAR Southeast Series Champion was stuck in New York in a blizzard with no way out. 24-hours later he was celebrating the biggest win of his career after an amazing finish in the 36th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, FL.
Bradberry and his Dad were fortunate enough to hire a private plane on Saturday night to make an attempt at flying through the snowstorm. Unfortunately for the rest of the Derby drivers, he made it to Pensacola. And without practice, that’s right, no laps on the race track before the green flag, he won the traditional 300-lap race.
Yet, in typical Derby style, Bradberry didn’t win it easily. He was a lap down at one point, crossed the finish line sideways in a photo-finish with Gary St. Amant and had a controversial run-in with the race’s dominator, Kevin Cywinski, to take the lead with 15 laps to go.
“That is probably the hardest race I ever drove,” the 21-year-old Lucas Oil driver recalled. “I was a little quicker than Cywinski as I was catching him. He was going down the frontstretch and went high. I was carrying so much momentum; I went to dart under him and clipped him. He got out of shape and went up the race track. I really didn’t mean to get into him. I hate it because he had a great race car.”
“I think he knew we were pretty tough and that was the only way he was going to get by us,” claimed the ASA champ Cywinski, who wound up fourth. “I was going to let him go because I thought we could track him down in another 10 laps or so. He tagged me going into one and got me all mixed up.”
St. Amant, whom Bradberry had just passed for second a lap before, had a catbirds seat to witness the contact between the two.
“It was hard for me to tell,” said the two-time Derby winner, St. Amant. “From where I was at, it didn’t look like it was on purpose. It looked like Kevin might have lifted a little early. If Charlie meant to do it, I would have said he would have wrecked Kevin harder going into the corner. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I’ve watched Charlie enough and I don’t believe he would have done that intentionally.
“And man, this is the snowball derby. When it comes down to racing for $20,000 anything can happen. Today, there were a lot of good cars at the end. Very rarely does the best car win. I don’t know that it did today. Kevin probably had the best car today; he didn’t win, but at least he was there at the end of the race.”
And so was St. Amant. A late-race caution set up a green-white-checkered finish. Bradberry had been the fastest car, but he was feeling the pressure and was doing all he could to protect the lead. Indirectly, that may have slowed him up a bit and allowed us to witness a wild finish.
“I knew that green-white-checkered would be hard with all the experience he’s (St. Amant) got,” explained Bradberry. “I was going to keep it low and keep him behind me.”
“He actually gave me a chance by protecting the bottom,” St. Amant stated. “He came off of four and had her turned sideways.”
“Coming off of four, I saw he had a run,” Bradberry added. “I just was in the gas as hard as I could. The rear-end started coming around but I just let it go.”
St. Amant continued, “I already had her turned left and gassed it. I got out of the gas cause I knew I didn’t have a chance to win without wrecking us both. I actually got into him there a little bit.
“I figured I’d be a wedge coming across the line. It (getting sideways) was about like our take-off (Saturday night on the plane in the snow) from New Jersey. We slapped the left side hard and it knocked the breath out of me. I didn’t feel any of it though because I was so happy we won.”
Bradberry slapped the wall in turn one after the finish line and sat there for a moment as if he were dazed.
“Any time you take a left side shot like that, it could be bad. I wanted to hurry around and make sure he was ok,” admitted St. Amant, who approached Bradberry after he pulled his car in victory lane. “I just told him I didn’t mean to do it and he didn’t think I touched him.”
“All I was thinking coming off that fourth corner was, ‘this is now or never,” Bradberry said with a smile. “I’ve been wanting to win this race forever; I wasn’t going to let it slip away. This is a dream come true.”
Bradberry had been spun earlier in the race by last year’s Snowball polesitter Jeremy Pate. Just before that, Bradberry’s familiar No. 78 went a lap down. And ironically, it was Cywinski who had put him down that lap and Cywinski with whom he had to battle with to get his lap back.
“We were behind the eight ball all day,” Bradberry told us. “The car was lighting fast on short runs, but fell off on long runs. I got a long run there and Cywinski lapped me. I came in for some new tires and got by him and then ran off from him. But we had a long run and he started coming back to me. I was, bl— (Bradberry stops himself from saying “blocking” and pauses), doing everything I could to keep him behind me. It just so happened that a guy spun out in front of us while he was trying to put me a lap down again.”
To say the least, Bradberry overcame the odds at Pensacola. No practice, a lap down, a bump with the race dominator and a sideways finish with a slam into the wall couldn’t stop this up-and-coming youngster on December 7, 2003.
Oh, and we forgot about the Big Apple blizzard he was stuck in the day before.
You see, for Charlie Bradberry, 24 hours did make the difference for his 2003 Snowball Derby.