Harrison Burton may only be 17 years old, but the driver from Huntersville, North Carolina already has a handful of Snowball Derby memories – both good and bad – etched into his mind. On Sunday, December 3, Burton will be making his way back to Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida hoping for his greatest memory yet and a Tom Dawson Trophy at the 50th Annual Snowball Derby.
Burton, the son of former NASCAR Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, first arrived at the Snowball Derby four years ago as a 13-year-old driver not knowing what to expect. That year he only competed in the Snowflake 100, the Pro Late Model race on Saturday night, but he soon discovered the magnitude of asphalt short track racing’s biggest event.
He felt the nervousness as he sat in his car waiting for his only shot at recording two fast laps in qualifying. He felt the excitement of the thousands of race fans and hundreds of racers on property at Five Flags Speedway. He felt a feeling and witnessed an event bigger than any he’s ever experienced before.
“The biggest thing I remember is being nervous as a 13-year-old kid trying to make it into a big race like that,” Burton recalled of his first Snowball Derby experience. “Not really having a whole lot of experience it was hard because you’re racing against some of the best in the country.
“What comes to mind when I think about that race is just the prestige of it. It’s such a huge race and to me, it’s the biggest race in the country and the biggest race that I’ve raced in so far,” Burton claimed. “It’s really, really big and it’s really awesome. Those are two of the best descriptions I can use for it, really. It’s just an all-around awesome race.”
Competing against a strong field of Pro Late Models, Burton finished 16th in his first Snowflake 100. He returned a year later to compete in both the Snowflake 100 and the Snowball Derby itself. Burton recorded a solid fourth-place finish in the ‘Flake while failing to qualify for his first shot at the Derby itself.
Fast forward to 2015 and Burton was simply focused on making his first Snowball Derby. With two years of experience on his side, he seemed destined to do so. That was until a practice crash caused significant damage to his No. 12 Super Late Model. But his team didn’t give up there.
Burton and crew made their way to a nearby shop to make the necessary repairs before returning to the track on qualifying day. Driving a car without decals and different colored body panels, Burton pulled off a feat by making the show and qualifying 24th. He would have to exit the race early on Sunday due to suspension issues, but a valiant effort to make the show was a memory in itself.
One year ago, Burton entered the race as a potential favorite. At this point, he had more experience, more wins and more confidence heading into the biggest race of the year. He was fast throughout the weekend and in the race before a mechanical issue forced him to exit the race early.
“My experiences so far, it’s been a hard race for us as a team,” Burton admitted. “We’ve had a lot of hardships that happened there and a lot of good runs that could have been better. Last year comes to mind; we had a really good car and was racing with John Hunter (Nemechek), kind of riding to make sure we weren’t using up our tires and broke.”
Burton will make his way back to the Snowball Derby in December as the 2017 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion. He continues to build experience by racing throughout the country but admits that the nerves of the Snowball Derby can still get to a driver.
“The Derby qualifying is probably the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done as a driver,” Burton claimed. “It’s hundredths of seconds that can make the difference between being in or out of the race. I think as a young kid going there it’s pretty nerve-wracking and pretty challenging.”
Despite his roller coaster experiences at the Snowball Derby itself, Burton has found success at Five Flags Speedway in recent years. In 2016, Burton scored his first victory at the track in a Southern Super Series / Blizzard Series race. Although that win came more than one year ago, it’s still something that gives him confidence as he readies for another trip to Pensacola.
“Whenever you can win a race and put that on your resume, it was definitely a huge confidence booster; not only for that race track but just for my driving as a whole,” Burton stated. “It’s such a hard race track and one that has so much character so if you can master it, it’s a big deal. Anytime you win at Pensacola it’s a huge deal and a huge confidence booster because it normally means you can get the job done just about anywhere if you can win there. I had a huge confidence boost after winning that and recently I’ve run really good there and had some opportunities to win that just didn’t fall our way.
“I think that gives me a huge amount of confidence going in. As always there are the guys that you have to beat like Bubba Pollard and drivers like that whenever you go there, but everyone picks up their game at the Snowball Derby. There will be thirty-two good drivers in that race, so it’s all about being there at the end and having a shot.”
For a driver who hopes to soon take a big step up to the highest levels of NASCAR, a Snowball Derby win would be a huge boost for Burton. Recent Snowball Derby winners such as Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek have all gone on to compete full-time in one of NASCAR’s national series.
Although the career ramifications for winning the Snowball Derby are large, Burton is even hungrier for the win after having another crown jewel win slip out of his hands earlier this year.
“It would mean the world,” Burton said. “We kind of had one that slipped out of our hands at the Winchester 400 and that was something that was another bucket list race. It’s such a prestigious race as well. We were leading late and had a stud break. It would be awesome to win it, but it’d be even more awesome to win it this year just because we feel like we had a major that slipped out of our hands. I’ve been really fortunate this year to win a lot of races, but I couldn’t think of a better way to cap it off than with the Tom Dawson.”
While Burton still has a handful of races, including a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start at Martinsville Speedway (VA), on his schedule prior to the Snowball Derby, preparation has already begun for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby.
“We went down there and ran a Blizzard race there recently and had a good run and built a really good notebook off of that race,” Burton explained. “There’s so much that you can learn whenever you go there. It’s a challenging track to drive, but it’s also a challenging track to set a car up for. I think that preparation has definitely already started.
“As for me, I think mental preparation is the biggest thing. You’ve got a really big stage; you have 70 cars on the entry list that are trying to get into a thirty-two-car field. You have to get your job done right, that’s for sure. It’s more of a mental thing than a preparation thing for me getting ready for that race track. It’s about preparing my mind and getting ready to deal with the nerves and hopefully getting a good result. At the end of the day, I think I have enough experience at the race track that I don’t think I need to iRace for a bunch of hours and get laps in. I will still do it, but I don’t feel like I need it as much as I do somewhere else.”
Burton will join a stout field of Super Late Model drivers at Five Flags Speedway during the race weekend of November 29 – December 3. More information on the 50th Annual Snowball Derby can be found by visiting www.5flagsspeedway.com.
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com