When he adds it all up, Okie Mason figures he has been coming to Five Flags Speedway for more than 30 years.
At 52, the Eight Mile, Ala., native is just a few years older than the Snowball Derby itself, which will celebrate its 47th annual edition in December.
In all that time, Mason has won a lot of feature races. Even won the Super Stocks version of the Snowball last December for his first career Derby trophy.
But never has he won a track championship at the famed half-mile asphalt oval.
That will certainly all change at this Saturday’s Night of Champions when the Allen Turner Pro Late Models, Pro Trucks, Home Depot Modifieds, Beef “O” Brady’s Sportsmen and Butler U-Pull-It Bombers take to Pensacola high banks where track winners in all five divisions will be crowned.
“I guess who could say it’d be storybook,” said Mason, who will win the Mods title and could also snatch the Pro Trucks crown, as well. “It’s tough to win championships there. It’s a racer’s track. It really makes you feel good when do good there and win.
“It’s a track where the driver has to be ready. When the tires go away, it’s all in the driver’s hands. It’s probably the best feeling to have, knowing it’s all about to you to win a championship at a track that’s tough to win at.”
The gates open at 4 p.m. Saturday. Admissions is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, students and military; $5 for children ages 6 to 11; free for kids 5 and under.
While much of the attention Saturday night will revolve around the head-to-head PLM battle that awaits current points leader Johanna Long and defending series champion Garrett Jones, who trails by just four markers, the local classes have many storylines to offer up, starting with Mason.
He has an insurmountable lead for the Mods title, 69 points ahead of his nearest competitor, David Beale. But the night could be doubly sweet for Mason, who could go from zero track championships at Five Flags to two in the span of minutes Friday.
He holds a 23-point lead over fellow Alabama driver, Jay Jay Day, in the Pro Trucks class. Mason knows a win isn’t necessary, but why leave any outcome — especially one with a title riding on it — to chance?
“First and foremost, I’m going over there to win, like it’s any other week,” he said. “Everything else will take care of itself. You can’t go into a race thinking about points. If you do, your strategy goes away.
“We’re gonna compete and try to win. Wherever we finish, whatever happens, that’s how it’ll happen.”
Shanna Ard has enjoyed a second-half explosion in recent months.
After being regarded as one of the top Beef “O” Brady’s Sportsman drivers, he has clearly vaulted himself into the frontrunner for his first career track championship at Five Flags going into Saturday’s showdown.
Two-time Sportsmen track champion Brannon Fowler is firmly in second and hopes the racing gods will shine on him this weekend.
But the one feature race everybody seems to be circling on Saturday night’s schedule is the Butler U-Pull-It Bombers marble match between Robert Balkum and defending track champion Michael Nelson.
With quite the stretch run — four victories in his last five races and five overall this season — Nelson moved into a tie with Balkum for the overall lead after last week.
Balkum, who has helped Nelson set his cars up in the past, is putting their on-track friendship aside for the most important evening of the season, and, perhaps, for his career.
“We’re making sure every nut and bolt is tight and greased up,” Balkum said. “We gotta find something. We’re going through everything. He might beat us, but it won’t be by much.”
While he owns a crown from Southern Raceway, the dirt track in Milton, Balkum has never won a track title at Five Flags.
He’s ready to right that wrong come Saturday.
“Five Flags is a different, more demanding track,” Balkum said. “We’ll make sure all our “P’s” and “Q’s” are together this week for sure.”
But Rickie Balkum, Robert’s father and a former driver at Five Flags himself, has a foolproof way to decide the Bombers champion if the boys are tired of racing.
Taking a page out of the “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, Rickie Balkum wants to see a footrace.
“I think they should have to run the 100-yard dash. Of course, I don’t think either one would be able to finish 100 yards — at least Robert couldn’t,” he joked. “It’d be good for the fans.”
With five championships on the line Saturday night, there will be plenty for the fans to enjoy.
By Chuck Corder Special to Speed51.com from Five Flags Speedway – Speed51.com Photo