The Snowball Derby was growing and the reach was far and wide by the 1976 season. One year after Donnie Allison tasted victory at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida the fans of the Alabama Gang wanted a repeat, but in 1976 what they got was mess of confusion from three drivers and a big post-race protest.
Darrell Waltrip was fresh off a 1976 NASCAR campaign that saw him win at Bristol and run well on all the short tracks. Waltrip started second in the 45-car field and was flagged the winner at the end of the day.
“I loved that race because it was the best of the best,” said Waltrip looking back on his starts in Pensacola. “If you can win that race you had to beat the best from most all forms of racing. I’m proud to have my name on the list of people that have won that race because there are a lot of big names that never did.
Those that didn’t, at least in 1976, were Harry Gant and Freddie Fryar. Some 40-plus years later, they are both still pleading their cases.
“It was always a big show at the end of the year,” said Gant who ran just about every weekend in the 1970’s. “I won the race down there one time, but the scoring said I was second. I don’t know how he won because he was a lap down.”
Gant conceded that day after being shown where he lost time in the pits, but he still feels like he won.
“I think Harry might have been stretching the truth a bit about almost lapping me,” added Waltrip. “Even to this day there always seem to be a controversy after the race.”
Freddie Fryar would go on to win in 1979 and 1981, but at this point he was seeing a repeat of the 1971 Derby where Fryar protested the winner and lost.
“I figured after 71 that it was my time to win,” said the veteran driver. “I swear I won in 1971 and others told me I won in 1976 so I filed a protest.
After the protest Fryar was scored with fourth behind Waltrip, Gant, and Jack Bland.
Part of the confusion were the rules about what laps were scored. After having too many caution laps in the past, track owner Tom Dawson decided to not count caution laps and look at what the results were.
Protests were nothing new to the Derby as they dominated the race in 71, 72 and 73. In fact Waltrip protested Ed Howe’s win in 1972 wanting a check of the scoring.
Waltrip couldn’t stay away from scoring issues at the Derby as he returned to win in 1977, or so he thought.
“Knowing scoring could be an issue the next year I brought Linda Monroe my cup scorer with me to be safe,” added Waltrip. “She was highly respected and would never cheat even for me.”
Waltrip was flagged the winner, but he left the track to celebrate when things were overturned and Ronnie Sanders ended up the winner.
“Robert (Gee) was the car owner and all of us went out and had a celebratory dinner,” stated Waltrip. “We hurried back to the hotel to see the story about the races on the news, were we shocked. So Stevie and I jumped in the car and ran back out to the track, everybody was gone, I stayed over night so I could get with the promoter the next day and figure out what happened.”
Waltrip never found Tom Dawson the next day and he went home with a trophy and no money. He tried to get the money, but the track wanted the trophy.
“I never got paid,” said Waltrip. “They wanted their trophy back, I said send me my first-place money and I’ll send your trophy back.”
Two trophies for 1977 were handed out. Waltrip got the first after the race and Sanders got his the next spring.
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent