Defining a perfect season can come down to a single race, a single lap and even a single turn. That was the story of Butch Miller’s 1986 season. Despite 19 wins that season, the one win that got away from him was the one that he thought about all winter long. The Snowball Derby was the race that kept Miller waiting at least one more year.
The closing laps of the 1986 contest saw the Derby polesitter and 1980 winner Gary Balough take a chance when he visited pit road for new tires with 43 laps to go. That left Jody Ridley and Butch Miller out front for the late stages. At first, Ridley drove away as Balough caught up to Miller. Soon after, they both got to Ridley. A three-wide battle in turn three saw Balough drive away with 13 to go and Miller settle into second.
Miller ended the season with a win total of 19, but it was the one that got away that he remembered the most.
1987 saw the big race season kick off in July when Miller won part of the Slinger Nationals. The momentum got stronger as he won eight times on the ASA National Tour by the end of the summer on his way to capturing the championship.
Along the way, he won the Winchester 400 and dominated the All American 400 before returning to Pensacola with 19 wins like he did in 1986.
Miller started the weekend off strong by winning the pole for the event and all signs looked to be good heading into Sunday.
On race day, overcast skies created posable drama as the stars looked like they were going to lineup for a Derby veteran. Miller dominated the day, and pitted with 85 laps to go and charged back to the front. With 19 laps to go he overtook Mike Alexander for the lead in turn three, the same corner he lost the race on a year prior.
In the late stages, Red Farmer, who had run all 20 Snowball Derby races, moved into the second position. The cinderella story of Farmer would be no match for Miller’s V6 engine.
“It was a special feeling when we won the race,” Miller stated. ”We had Kevin Hamiln as the crew chief and we had that little V6 engine and it was a great combination that day. I didn’t pit late, but I’m glad we didn’t. It meant so much to win the Derby, but also at the same time to end the year on a win.”
The victory marked his 20th win of the year. He would win 20 races in 1988 including the All American 400 for the first time, but he never won the Derby again.
He came close in 1993 and finished second after a late yellow gave fresh tire to Bobby Gill.
“I remember being a sitting duck,” Miller added. “We were leading and I had gotten my tires and out comes a yellow and there was nothing we could do. We ran second that day.”
Years later, Miller gave a lot of the credit for his success to Eddie Mercer.
“There were always 20 cars that could win, but Eddie Mercer helped us a bunch in those early years. He told us about the track and we worked out of his shop at times,” Miller explained. “We had a lot of fun in those days and with All Pro. I used to love Bob Harmon on the mic talking about how the All Pro Bull was wondering the pits. Those were good times.”
Mercer incidentally finished third in the 1987 Derby to Miller.
Years later, Miller is still a part of the Derby as a crew chief, driver coach, helper and just a fan in some ways.
“I love going to the Snowball Derby,” Miller said, reflecting on the race. “It means something when you look around and you see those Derby shirts and you have your name on there. It just shows how big that race is.
“They have really done so many great things there. The infield is packed and every class has a bunch of cars and there is always something going on at track.”
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent