In 1953 Frank Sinatra recorded the song ‘Young at Heart.” In it he proclaimed, “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.” In 2010 that Sinatra hit became the mantra for an 18-year-old girl at the Snowball Derby.
The fairy tale came true for Pensacola’s favorite ‘Lady of Racing,” Johanna Long (now Johanna Robbins). The young aspiring racing star and daughter of veteran racer Donald Long, had the entire short track world stand up and take notice when she defeated the best in Super Late Model racing, on its biggest stage, in the 43rd Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway.
The chants of “Jo, Jo” reached an all-time high that December day in Pensacola, FL. Her reputation in the panhandle of Florida is that of folklore and it is her Snowball Derby victory that cemented that lore forever more.
You see, Johanna became only the second female to have her name etched on the coveted Tom Dawson trophy. This time, however, there wasn’t a cloud of controversy surrounding the victory of a female. Tammy Jo Kirk won in 1994, yet the doubt as to whether she was truly on the lead lap of the Snowball Derby is still persistent and will forever remain a mystery.
Long worked hard for her Snowball Derby victory. The battle for the lead throughout the day was physical for many of the drivers who fought for it, including the hometown girl.
As the laps grew shorter, Johanna and then NASCAR XFINITY Series Rookie of the Year, Landon Cassill waged war. Contact between the two young drivers was inevitable, and that rough and tumble racing sent then leader Cassill for a ride in front of a packed house.
On this day, though, the stands seemed to be filled with only her fans. Despite the contact, Johanna was not a villain, but rather a blossoming princess who drove her own chariot into a seemingly fairy tale-like victory lane.
The entire crowd, including Cassill, seemed to be spellbound by the feat of the hometown girl.
“He (Cassill) said that he understood (the contact),” Johanna explained of her conversation with Cassill after the race. “He knew that we had better tires than he did and that I had to do what I had to do and I didn’t mean to do it.”
Long had done something hundreds of other racers, through the first 43 years of the event, had not done… hold the Tom Dawson trophy in victory lane.
And much like Cinderella, she didn’t accomplish what she did without a lot plenty of diligence.
Johanna had won in both the Pro and Super Late Model ranks at Five Flags Speedway prior to her triumph. In fact, she beat the boys of the Pro Late Model wars for the track title in 2008 and the men of the Supers for the championship in 2009. We also got a glimpse of her star shinning brighter when she won the pole for the Snowball Derby the year prior to her triumph.
Ironic as it sounds, a lot has changed for the young female since that time. She competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series full-time and then returned to the Super Late Model wars with limited success.
Seven years after that memorable day, JoJo is now 25 years-old, a wife and a mom to her firstborn. She lives in North Carolina with her family, including her husband Hunter Robbins, a former winner of the Snowflake 100 himself. In fact, both Hunter and Jo, while dating years ago, started on the front row of the Snowball Derby.
And while Jo is unofficially retired, her reverence around the hallowed grounds of Five Flags Speedway can still be felt. If she were ever to grace the wheel of a Super Late Model in the Snowball Derby once again, it’s a sure bet there would be a twinkle in the eye of many fan in the grandstand, with the hope that the fairy tale would come true once again.
Story by: Bob Dillner, Speed51.com Executive Editor – Twitter: @bobdillner
Photo credit: Speed51.com