There is a reason why Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida has a concrete wall surrounding the 1/2-mile asphalt oval. Rick Crawford proved that it was needed some 10 years before it went up.
Without the wall, the first turn was like a catapult for race cars much like the Blue Angels jets located at the nearby naval base. Several racers ended up in the parking lot, but that was minor compared to what Crawford experienced in a test session back in 1986.
“We went to test a brand new All-Pro car,” Crawford began. “So we go to Five Flags to shake it down and the throttle hung going into turn one and we got airborne. I went off the top of the track and ended up facing the race track clear across Pine Forest Road.”
“We went through a fence and right between two trees,” Crawford explained. “We couldn’t imagine that it happened after looking at it days later when I got out of the hospital.”
Crawford climbed from his car not knowing that be had broken part of his back. A local resident stopped by after seeing a wrecked race car on Pine Forest Road and told him to stay still until he could be attended to by ambulance.
This would be the first time that Five Flags Speedway would get credit for breaking Rick Crawford.
His first attempt at the Derby came in 1976 when he drove for Red Farmer. From there, Crawford won a pair of track championships in Late Models in Pensacola and he won what is now the Snowflake race back-to-back in 1983 and 1984.
“Growing up around it just made us more hungry,” Crawford stated. “Winning those Saturday Snowflake races made me a star on Saturday nights and led me to running on Sunday.
“I made such an effort to have the best engines, crew, tires and we really threw everything and the kitchen sink when it came to racing in the Snowball Derby.”
Just two years after the accident while testing for the Snowball Derby, Crawford was broken again. This time after the 1988 Snowball Derby. On a day when he sat on the pole and led the most laps, Crawford lost the lead to Ted Musgrave and he never got it back.
This was the second time Pensacola broke him.
“It broke my heart,” said Crawford. “In all of racing, in all the years, I have never had a race car that good. We had a V-6 and we had things figured out that day. When the race was over I was sick to my stomach like Muhammad Ali had hit me in the gut.”
The V-6 engine combination was the fad of the late 80’s at the Snowball Derby. According to our records, the V-6 won at least four Snowball Derby races during that era.
“It about killed me,” Crawford said. “They had to stop the race because Mike Alexander had to get out of there by chopper cause he was hurt so bad. We sat there for like an hour and my tire went way below the pressures needed and we just couldn’t do anything with Musgrave.”
Crawford truthfully thought he’d never have another shot at the Derby again. When he made it back for the 1989 running he still felt defeated about 1988. They had changed to the V-8 Engine program which was a pretty significant change from the year before.
“The strategy was to have the best four tires on the car at the end of the race,” Crawford stated. “We came in and got the tires and then we took off. We never led a lap until late in the race and we led the most important one.”
“I won the biggest race in short track racing,” said Crawford. “It was awful special.”
It was the win at the Snowball Derby that also broke him in for the next level of racing.
“It wasn’t right away, but winning the Derby helped pave the way for me to climb the ladder of racing and make it to the truck series. I never would have gotten there without winning the Snowball Derby.”
Crawford would run in the top five several more times in the Derby, but his best racing came in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series where he won five times and had 160 top 10’s in over 300 starts. He was second for the championship in 2002, but it all comes back to the Derby.
“When The Snowball is over and you get the family through Christmas all you think about is running and winning the Snowball Derby again,” added Crawford. “When I ran trucks that was Daytona. That was the feeling. I won at Daytona, but I never would have gotten there without the Snowball.”
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Kelsey Payne