When people talk about racing’s greatest ironmen, those in the Deep South short track racing circles will tell you to look no further than one of the sports living legends who still has no desire to hang up his helmet. Red Farmer is not only one of the founding members of the prestigious ‘Alabama Gang,’ but also its oldest that still races to this day, a career which began in 1948.
For 32 seasons from the very first Snowball Derby in 1968 to 1999, he made every single Derby he attempted. While he never was able to take home the trophy, he always managed to leave his mark. This includes the infamous 1968 edition, where he sat on pole and led the majority of the race. Though he does not remember too much about the inaugural Derby, it was the beginning of a long relationship with the Derby and Five Flags Speedway.
“I was at every one of them for 32 years. I sat on the pole for the first Snowball Derby they ever had in ’68. I made it every year on, including when there were 75 to 100 cars for that thing,” Farmer said proudly.
The early years of the Derby were wild and wooly for all those involved with a number of drivers getting behind the wheel of some pretty bare bones rides in some of the tricky conditions that have shaped a number of the first 49 races throughout the years.
“I remember those early years we didn’t have windshields and stuff in the cars,” Farmer explained. “Lot of years we ran the Snowball it was freezing; they had fires up and down the pits. I drive with my left hand up at 11 or 12 o’clock on the steering wheel. One year I spun out and the wheel up in the car and my hand got caught in the spoke a little bit. I recovered and came out to run the last laps. After the race is over I got out and we were standing by the fire warming my hands and I realized I broke one of my fingers, but they were so cold and numb during the race I didn’t even know it until they thawed out.”
As is with all racing, technology and build quality continued to improve, and while the cars changed throughout the years, Farmer was able to keep up with them, still waiting for a chance to claim Snowball Derby glory. That chance finally came in the All-Pro Series era when in 1987 Farmer went to Five Flags with one of the best handling cars he ever had, but a blunder that went unseen once again brought him up just short.
“In 1987 I finished second, but I had to drive my butt off the whole race. I was driving hard, driving deep, and I still couldn’t run with some of the cars. I kept complaining that the car wouldn’t come off the corner like it should, and we thought we had the wrong gear in it or just missed it during practice,” Farmer stated. “We practiced with that car and it was handling good, it was just sluggish off the corner that whole race. We finished six or eight car lengths behind Butch Miller, finally later on we found out why it had been sluggish. Somebody else had run that car about a month before with a rule that they had to run a 390 carburetor, but at the Snowball Derby you could run a 750 carburetor, which is about a 150 horsepower difference between the two. They forgot to change the damn carburetor, I ran the whole 250 laps with a tiny carburetor and finished second. I think with a 750 I could’ve lapped the field. That was probably the one thing I remember best.”
Farmer continued his streak of Derby starts for another 12 years through the 1999 edition. But when the new millennium came, Farmer’s streak abruptly came to an end. The reason had nothing to do with age or willingness to race, it was simply a shift in a different direction, triggered partly by a certain three-time NASCAR Cup champion.
“I didn’t really quit. had planned on coming to the Snowball Derby (in 2000) and my buddy Tony Stewart called, he was going down to go deer hunting and wanted to know if I wanted to come with him. It was the same weekend as the Snowball Derby and he was flying in to go hunting. So I was flipping a coin deciding which way I wanted to go, and I don’t know what the chance of weather was that weekend, but I decided to go hunting. I had planned on coming back the next year, but I ended up running at the Talladega Short Track and I love dirt track racing. I just got side tracked I guess from the Derby.”
Since the change, Farmer has not looked back, and ever since his career has soldiered on in his home state Alabama, where he nowadays he makes history with every feature he now runs.
“When I start the Ice Bowl in January it will be my 71st year of racing. I haven’t gotten tired yet. What I said this year is that my goal is to try to get to 86 (years old), I just turned 85 so I decided my goal is to try and reach 86. My motto is, ‘Wear out, don’t rust out.’ I’ve still got three racecars out in my yard, work on those every day. I got two grandsons who race with me up at Talladega Short Track, my daughter sells the shirts. It’s a great family deal which I still enjoy, just go out and have fun with no pressure, that’s where I am with racing after 70 years.”
Looking back on his Derby days, Farmer recognized what an instant hit the event became, seeing the passion of his friend and Derby founder Tom Dawson, the two of whom shared a number of pre-Derby fishing trips on the Gulf. But even they could not have dreamed to what it would continue to build in to.
“When you start something like that, we had no idea back in the 60’s that the Snowball Derby would be next year or the year after that, or five years. It’s exactly what it is, a snowball, it just rolled and kept getting bigger and better every year. They kept adding laps to it, started out a 100 laps and it got up to almost 325 laps by the time I stopped. That’s a pretty good chore for a man my age at the time, slowing down a little bit.”
While Farmer has plans elsewhere for this year, he does plan in the future to make a long awaited return to Five Flags in December to reconnect with a race that he and it share so much history.
‘I’d like a chance next year to come down and goof around the pits and just see everybody. There’s people I know there with their kids and grandkids racing now.”
-By: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com CT, MA, RI & Long Island Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Jim Jones