Jonathan Davenport has just finished up one of the greatest Dirt Late Model seasons in racing history. Victories in high paying events like the Eldora Dream, USA Nationals, World 100, Show-Me 100, and the North-South 100 were just highlights during a 22-win season that also saw him win the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series crown. Total 2015 winnings: over $600,000.
Not too shabby for a driver whose career almost ended trying to scrape by financially.
One might think that the recent success for “Superman” Davenport might have erased the frustrating memories of the early years of Davenport’s career. As a teenager, the Georgia native grew up racing cars on the rough asphalt of the Lanier National Speedway. He showed some talent in the Legends ranks and quickly was ushered up to try his hand at Pro Late Models to mixed results. Before he could cement any solid success or reputation, the money dried up for an asphalt program and Davenport slowly shifted his focus to dirt.
“Money was really all it came down to,” Davenport told Speed51.com Powered by JEGS shortly after capturing a $12,000 victory during World Finals weekend at Charlotte (NC). “My dad simply didn’t have enough money to get me to the next step. I had a great sponsor back when I ran that car with Team Ford of Marietta. I still really appreciate that opportunity everyone gave me. Just one of those deals where eventually we ran out of money and I came home for a bit. Grandpa had a few Dirt Late Models ready to go though and I thought I’d give that a try.”
The change over a dozen years ago may have proven to be fortuitous, but Davenport still flashes a smile when asked about his asphalt days. No bigger one is reserved than for the biggest asphalt late model event of them all – Snowball Derby weekend.
In 2001, Davenport made his lone trek down to Five Flags Speedway, his Lanier Pro Late Model in tow for the Snowflake 100. Today the nation’s biggest Pro Late Model race, the Snowflake in that era was more of a toned-down Super Late Model show that set the stage for the proceeding day’s 300-lap Snowball Derby. The big race, with its tire changes, pit stops, and long distance, was simply going to be too much for Davenport to attempt. But the Snowflake was just affordable enough to go down and try.
“That was a neat deal because we didn’t even have a crew. We were under motor that weekend; had a steelhead that we put a four-barrel on. But we went out and qualified really well – didn’t even expect to do that. There were some kids there that had some pit equipment and we hired them to do a stop for us. Ran well, but wound up getting in a wreck in the race.
“That was the first time I had ever even seen the track. I remember it was really cold, the wind chill was fogged up all the windshields. We were about to go green and I remember thinking, surely they aren’t going to let us go green because we can all hardly see. It was a different experience for sure, but I’d really like to do it again someday.”
Davenport’s fondest memory though of the experience is reserved for an era as bygone from the Derby as his own asphalt days.
“That was the first time I had ever seen anybody prep tires before. Everyone had them stacked up and got them ready to be soaked. They had some sort of newspapers wrapped up on them and had some cellophane and I was like ‘What are you all doing?’ Finally I got someone to come do me a set and I thought ‘this is definitely the coolest’. A ton more grip that way.”
Davenport has one more race remaining this year to see if he can record a 23rd victory. He’ll go 100 laps in “The Turkey” at Swainsboro Raceway (GA) Thanksgiving weekend. Just as his crew is finishing packing up the #6D for the year, asphalt teams will be heading to Five Flags for the 48th running of the Snowball Derby.
For more information on the Snowball Derby, visit snowballderby.com and find all things Snowball Derby coverage-related at Speed51’s Schaeffer’s Snowball Central.
-By Tim Quievryn, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent – Twitter: @thethirdturn
-Photo credit: Heath Lawson