“50 for 50” is a new series on Speed51.com that will tell the 50 best stories to have ever come out of the Snowball Derby. The stories will focus on the legendary tales of the event as we prepare for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby on December 3.
Dan Spence has seen it all when it comes to the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway. The veteran race director has witnessed his fair share of those races from the flagstand, the tower and even the grandstands in Pensacola, FL.
Throughout his years working with NASCAR, the All Pro Super Series and the old ASA National Tour, Spence made it a point to be at the Snowball Derby. Nearly every December, he would find himself somewhere at Five Flags Speedway watching the prestigious race.
Although we can’t factually say that he’s never missed a Snowball Derby, we can say that he’s only missed one of the previous 49 versions of asphalt racing’s most prestigious race.
“It’s been a part of my life since the very first one. I was sitting in the stands in 1968 for the first Derby,” Spence stated. “It’s just always been very special. It’s the thing that happens in early December, you know for those 50 years. It has just become a part of my life, you know, on a yearly basis.”
The one Snowball Derby he missed came when he was forced to move out of an apartment in 1973. He returned to Five Flags Speedway for the 1974 Snowball Derby when he made his way to the flagstand for the first time.
Spence will suit up as race director to call the 50th Annual Snowball Derby from the tower this year and it’s nothing new. At one point during his career with the All-Pro Series, Spence called the races from the flagstand, with assistance from the scorers, while flagging.
“I called the race from the flagstand,” Spence began. “Bob Harmon who owned All Pro was the race director, but most of the calls were made from the flagstand. Bob came on the radio one time and said, ‘I am going to be off the radio for a few minutes, you guys have this. I came back and said, How is that any different?’”
To know Spence well, one needs to know his sense of humor. He’s quick with a joke or a witty comment and he’s a walking book of racing history.
He remembers the days when competitors raced around Five Flags Speedway without outside walls.
“It was wild,” he commented. “I mean, if you went over the top, especially on the back straightaway or straight into turn three, it was quite a drop-off. I remember just seeing trees move off in the distance when cars left the track with no walls. It was wild.”
On many occasions, cars would be left out in the trees until after the race because it would take too long to get them back into the infield. Other times, cars would go off the race track and come back on.
“There was a time when one car went off and you could hear him coming back around the track on the gravel,” Spence explained. “I remember Tom Dawson got on the radio and told the officials, ‘When that car gets to you, make sure he’s got a pit pass.”
Spence worked with Dawson, who is the father of the Snowball Derby. Each year, drivers make their way to Five Flags Speedway to race for the coveted Tom Dawson Trophy.
“Tom actually gave me a real break as far as getting involved in automobile racing on the officiating side,” Spence said. “He put his faith in me as a kid and I always appreciated Tom for that. He was just a good guy.”
Scoring mishaps were also apart of Spence’s past endeavors at the Snowball Derby. The 1977 Snowball Derby was perhaps the most famous one. Darrell Waltrip took the win, but ended up having the win taken away after a check of the scoring in the tower.
“We took all the scorecards that were relevant to the lead lap cars and we spread them out on the floor of the tower,” Spence stated. “You know, we spent probably a couple of hours reconstructing the race. And as it turned out on the scorecard, Darrell made up a lap under a caution flag and I don’t have the exact number of it. In fact, he made one more lap than the leader on a caution. So what happened there was impossible.”
The win was taken away and it’s become one of the most famous races in the 49-year history of the race. Ronnie Sanders had won the race outright and received the Tom Dawson Trophy the following spring.
Spence was also a witness to one of the scariest moments at the Snowball Derby in 1988 when Mike Alexander was critically injured in turn four.
“He went from 75-70 miles an hour to a sudden stop,” Spence recalled. “I was working the flagstand and he was hurt pretty bad. We had to stop the race to get him out of the track. That was probably one of the most famous wrecks in Snowball history.”
Alexander was a two-time Snowball Derby pole sitter, but he would never run the race again after that wreck.
Off topic, we asked about some of the more memorable drivers he’s witnessed at the Derby. That question struck a cord that most people have forgotten.
“There used to be a driver out of West Texas knows as the Sundown Sizzler. He always made the race and he drove number 41. It was guys like that that made the Snowball Derby. He was never a factor, but he was always there.”
The driver was J.D. Hughes and he made the race six times, according to our records, and his best finish was 15th in 1977.
When Spence climbs to the tower for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby, it will keep him in good standards having only missed one. Spence, the race director, will have a radio in his hand and his son will be on the flagstand carrying on the tradition. To add to the matter, his wife Nancy will be in the tower gathering information for the final results.
“It’s been a fun ride and we are all looking forward to the 50th running.”
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com