It’s an argument about which came first: the chicken or the egg? When did the Snowball Derby get put on the map? It’s easy to say that it’s been on the map since day one, but there have been some growing pains over the years that attempted to derail the event from becoming what it is today.
From the early years, NASCAR stars made their way to Pensacola, Florida, and so did the beefy car counts.
The race was lengthened to 200 laps for the third running in 1970 and that proved to not be enough, as the race was expanded to 250 laps for short stints in the 70’s and the 80’s before finding its home as a 300-plus lap race in 1988.
During the 70’s, NASCAR legends Darrell Waltrip and Donnie Allison scored wins in the historic race. Scoring errors and protests were scattered throughout the 70’s, leaving an element of unknowns when the checkered flag was displayed.
Affiliations with NASCAR and the All Pro Series along the way helped boost the exposure, but winners from several different states were helping expand the exposure of the event even more. At this time, the race started to become a national treasure for Late Model teams everywhere.
The 90’s were a rough time for the Snowball Derby. Sure, some of the top racers were coming, but the car count plummeted to only 40 in 1994. Not to mention, the races were becoming filled with cautions. In fact, five races included over 100 caution laps during the decade.
This was also an era when the track was closed due to damage suffered during a hurricane in 1995. The effects of the storm impacted the facility and caused damage to the officials tower at the track. At that time, the future of the Snowball Derby looked bleak. But great things overcome great obstacles, and the Derby overcame each obstacle thrown in its way.
Another notable change that took place in the 90’s involved the lap count. The event previously consisted of 300 laps, plus the annual total. For example, the 26th annual Snowball was 326 laps. This seemed to lead to more confusion and longer races. As a result, the distance reverted back to its current distance of 300 laps in 1998.
One of the biggest scares was was the PR nightmare of 1999. In a race that took fire hours to run, a scoring error shifted the $100,000 win from one hopeful driver to another. The local paper didn’t get updated photos until the following day.
Since the turn of the century, the economics involved with the race have played a big role. Spending big money on tires and soaking tires was a concern, so the liquid rotisseries were eliminated.
Also along the way, the track’s surface was shaved down to help with tire wear and sets of tires for the race were also limited in order to save cost.
Another economic change that was made was the addition of the Pro Late Model. Crate engines were a big hit and the Snowflake 100, which was previously just a support race, became the prestigious Pro Late Model race that it is today.
Technical inspection has also been a focal point since the turn of the century. The Snowball Derby “Outlaw Days” were over as templates, weight and engine inspection became uniform across the board.
Nowadays, the fields are equal and exposure for the event is at an all-time high. We can all agree that’s what the event’s founder Tom Dawson would have wanted.
-Story by: Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com