This story is an account by long-time Speed51.com contributor Elgin Traylor. At the Snowball Derby in 2008 Traylor was following the Matt Hawkins story and he recalls his tale with the Canton, Georgia driver.
It was hard for me to understand why the driver standing in front of me was upset. He had just finished fourth in the 2008 Snowball Derby and it was a minor miracle that he even raced. Just two-days before, the driver in question, Matt Hawkins, time-trialed in the show with a sick motor and was able to make the Snowball Derby after coming away 12th fastest.
Hawkins stood at the end of his trailer where he pitted in the semi-circle of the infield at Five Flags Speedway. His team was getting ready to load the car up and the driver stood there, cool, calm and collected in his white t-shirt and black ball cap. This particular spot was the same place I got the information from him on his story during the weekend.
First it was a head gasket that made them miss a bunch of practice on Friday. In fact, they only ran 38 laps of practice all weekend. After qualifying with a hurt engine, the 22 was back on track for practice late Saturday after an engine change.
Come Sunday, Hawkins found himself on the rear of the field with last year’s winner Augie Grill who beat him out for the win. The two drivers raced to the front all day and when the dust settled it was Grill in second and Hawkins in fourth.
A post-race tech infraction on winner Brian Ickler gave the win to Grill and a second podium finish to Hawkins who would end up third.
“It feels good to finish this strong,” said Hawkins after the tech infraction. “This weekend was tough. Even though we finished third, we overcame so much with the sour motor in practice. We had to change it before the race. To come from the back was fun, but our car was definitely better last year.”
Hawkins was referring to his 2007 Derby run. He led a race high 100 laps and looked to be the man to beat as he was slicing his way back to the front after the final pit stop when he turned Dave Mader III in turn three causing a yellow. Hawkins dropped several spots after trying to get around Mader.
Augie Grill raced away for the win as Hawkins made it back to second in the closing laps on what could have been a win as Hawkins was the first off pit road on the final stop of the race.
So in two years I had seen this driver run on the podium at the Snowball Derby. Away from Pensacola he won in his first ARCA start and in his first Pro Cup start. At the time those feats were unthinkable and to this date never matched.
Before that Hawkins won a 150-lap GAS race at Peach State Speedway in his home state of Georgia. He had just started working with veteran driver Mike Garvey at the time and the two were a dream team. Garvey was in a mentor/crew chief role and Hawkins already was a talented driver, but they went to the next level after hooking up.
Garvey has told me several times in interviews that Matt was special and he gets choked up thinking about him. The two worked in Late Models and Pro Cup where the national media started noticing the young talent.
Tragically, the racing world lost Matt Hawkins in February of 2009. His final race was the 2008 Snowball Derby.
I stood beside him one last time asking him these questions about the race, not knowing it would be the final time he would conduct an interview. I asked if he could have gotten by Grant Enfinger for second.
“We had a good car that lasted and another lap there at the end we would have finished second. (Grant) Enfinger got into me when he went by. I caught him and I was getting ready to set him up for a pass (for second), but we were just a little short.” said Hawkins.
We chatted for a bit after the recorder went off and I think he said there were big plans for the following year. Either way, I figured I would see him down the road, but that was not the case and it was the last time I ever saw Matt.
Because his pit stall was close to the Speed 51 Billboard on the frontstretch, the team photo that year was taken by his dad, Fred Hawkins who was the nicest man you’d ever meet at the race track.
What finally clicked for me as an everlasting goodbye tribute came at the 2011 Snowball Derby. Chase Elliott won an epic battle over local driver DJ VanderLey. As I went back to the collect sound from other teams I noticed that the Elliott team parked in the same spot as fellow Georgian driver Matt Hawkins.
I thought to myself that another Georgia driver was looking down tonight and had he still been with us, by now he would have gotten his name on the Tom Dawson trophy too.
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com