Sitting by a fire in a lawn chair tucked away on the back row of the camping area at Five Flags Speedway is man that has seen it all at the Snowball Derby. Literally.
Pensacola native John Nowlin has been to each and every running of short track racing’s premier event, beginning in 1968. Through the decades, he has seen the track and cars change, the drivers come and go, but feels the atmosphere and camaraderie of the weekend has remained.
When Nowlin’s streak began, Five Flags Speedway was far from the racing Mecca it is today. In fact, there was no outside wall and cars would spin off turn one into the parking lot, and occasionally find their way on Pine Forrest Road. A spin in turn three was an even wilder experience.
“They would spin out in turn one and get back on the track right there in front of the stands,” Nowlin said. “Over there in turn three, they would spin out and you would see a tree shake every now and then. There is swamp out there and a few of them have went in it, including Red Farmer. They interviewed him later and he said he only caught one fish and didn’t see any snakes out there.”
The years went by, and Nowlin moved from the grandstands to the infield as a member of track security. It was during his time working for the Escambia County Sheriff Department that he found himself in the middle of the most iconic and wildest moments in the history of the Snowball Derby.
The 1975 event is best remembered for a late-race incident involving Ronnie Sanders and Bobby Allison. Nowlin, working as an auxiliary officer and security guard at the time, remembers the altercation well.
“Ronnie and Bobby Allison got into it on the track, and it broke the A-Frame on Ronnie’s car. Ronnie chased him around the track for a couple laps trying to get in to him, but never could. He (Sanders) came down into the pits, grabbed a piece of a drive axle and walked back out on the track. I was working with the sheriff's office and I told him he might want to put that thing down. He eased that axle down, and I took him off to the office at the track. His uncle was in there and give him a chewing like I’ve never heard.
“I talked to Ronnie a while back and told him that I had a picture from a paper out of St. Louis that someone sent me. He told me that he was so scared he was going to jail. Everything turned out alright, and he grew up to be a great man.”
Nowlin first saw the “skeeter” division make laps at Five Flags decades ago, and watched the racing evolve to full-bodied stock cars, to NASCAR-sanctioned series and now to the sleek, fast Super Late Models.
The types of cars have changed, but the intensity of the men and women in the seat has remained constant.
“I’ve seen some great racing over the years here,” Nowlin said. “They would get a little tempered up from time to time, but they always kept it pretty in check. The used to have big ol’ slick tires on them, and those guys had to muscle those things around. I’ve seen them come by with their fists out the window shaking at each other.”
As Nowlin relaxed by the fire on a cool December evening, several generations of family and friends celebrated the night away on the opposite side of the camp spot.
Nowlin and his late best friend used to be the ones at the center of the revelry. But now he is at ease watching and knowing that he is passing on his love for the Snowball Derby to the younger generations.
“It’s all about camaraderie,” he stated. “I sit over here, and let those younger ones do all that stuff that I used to do. It’s about friends and family everywhere you go. We have friends that camp next to us that we see once a year. The drivers and their families come by and speak. Everyone mixes and mingles all weekend. It just makes it a great time.”
Nowlin admits that he isn’t as spry as he once was, needing the assistance of a walker to move around the track. However, he doesn’t see his streak coming to an end any time soon.
“As long as I’m walking a little bit, I’ll be here,” Nowlin said with confident grin. “I’m going to be here as long as I am able because this is what I live for. I want to see everyone have a good time and enjoy themselves.”
Race fans unable to enjoy the Snowball Derby in person will be able to watch a live pay-per-view broadcast throughout the week on Speed51. Visit www.speed51.com/snowballderby today to purchase your live video ticket.
-Story by: Ryan McCollough, Speed51 Gulf Coast Correspondent – Twitter: @RyanLMcCollough
-Photo credit: Speed51