Who better to tell us about the early years of the Snowball Derby than someone who lived it? Wayne Niedecken Jr. watched his dad win the first Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida in 1968. Two years later, it was his dad again going to victory lane as the first multi-time winner. The second-generation driver knows the history all too well.
“A lot of people don’t know that my dad drove a Chevelle to victory lane in the first Derby,” Niedecken told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Back in those days the Chevelle was just about the best race car you could have and they won several of the first Derby races.”
“The cars were true Stock Cars,” Niedecken added. “The wheels were symmetrical. The chassis were stock. It was Late Model Sportsman rules and there was only so much you could do.”
The Stock Era started to fade away after Ed Howe came from Michigan and won the race with a car they called the Green Hornet.
“Ed was the first with an off-set chassis from what I remember,” Niedecken recalled. “All through the Midwest the cars were still Sportsman. Georgia cars were of ‘56 and ‘57 frames. They would chop and panel those cars so they could lower the body and push the motor back.”
This led right into the next wave of race cars as Pete Hamilton came in 1973 and blistered the field in time trials only to be forced to change his car which had the engine too far back. Dickie Davis won that day marking the fifth and final win for a Chevelle.
“They tried to move the A frames in the car, but Pete couldn’t drive it after they adjusted for the race,” Niedecken said.
As technology grew so did the strength of the field in Pensacola, Florida. By the time Junior Niedecken was old enough to run the Snowball Derby it was guys like Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, David Pearson and several other big nationally-known drivers flocking to his hometown.
“It made it tough on you cause you were always racing the best,” Niedecken said. “You had to be at the top of your game. Sure being a local driver gave you some advantage, but these guys did this for a living.”
Junior ran his first race in 1975 in a year where the Allison brothers of Donnie and Bobby led all 200 laps against the local cars.
By the time 1980 rolled around, the days of the Stock Car Derby’s were over. Wedge Bodies and soaked tires led to the fastest race ever run and speeds that were 30 years ahead of the times.
From there, Niedecken was there for the new bodies, the All-Pro days and the V6 vs V8 battles. He’s seen it all and heard it all and he kept racing.
Nowadays it’s not the speed that impresses Niedecken, it’s the amount of people.
“These teams will come down here this year and vans will pull up and a full team will get out to help work and pit the car,” Niedecken stated. “The money is amazing and it’s still a lot of fun, but I remember when it was all stock.”
Niedecken will be at the family reunion as he calls it as he will take part in running the Snowflake on Saturday night. He finished the season second in Pro Late Model points at Five Flags Speedway, one position away from a record seventh Late Model track title.
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Dave Pavlock