Rich Bickle. Garrett Evans. Ben Rowe. Derek Kraus. David Rogers. Tate Fogleman.
Six names, all with impressive resumes, littered with championships and big-race wins. All six were in last year’s Snowball Derby Last Chance Qualifier at Five Flags Speedway (FL).
Only Kraus and Rogers, along with Tyler Dippel and Jerry Artuso, transferred from the LCQ. The rest went home.
That’s what makes the Friday night of Snowball Derby week the most dramatic, most tense, and most exciting qualifying session in Late Model racing. With a stacked field of Super Late Model drivers getting just one shot at the 30 guaranteed spots in the most prestigious race in the country, there is little margin for error.
Only three provisional spots are available for the Snowball Derby: The defending winner of the event, and one each for the highest driver in Blizzard Series and Southern Super Series presented by Sunoco points failing to qualify. With Casey Roderick winning both the Blizzard Series and Southern Super Series championships and 2017 Snowball Derby winner Kyle Busch currently not on the entry list, only Roderick can say right now he has a guaranteed spot in the 51st Snowball Derby.
Those provisional spots can prove valuable, as last season’s qualifying night proved. In 2016, Christian Eckes scored a signature win in the Snowball Derby. In 2017, Eckes was the last driver to take the famed half-mile for qualifying on Friday night, just needing to beat the time of 16.660 seconds by Stephen Nasse and Donnie Wilson to start in the top 30.
Instead, Eckes clocked in at precisely 16.660 seconds. Down to one-thousandth of a second, the three drivers clocked identical lap times. By virtue of being the first to produce the lap, Nasse earned the 30th starting spot. Wilson and Eckes were relegated to 36th and 37th respectively via provisionals.
Meanwhile, Nasse breathed a sigh of relief, after watching the defending race champion narrowly miss the opportunity to bump Nasse into a provisional starting spot of his own as Southern Super Series champion. Both champion drivers, both nearly missing out on a top-30 spot in the field.
That is the razor-thin margin for error at Snowball Derby qualifying. And while the Snowball Derby is a marathon race, 300 laps in distance, starting up front is pivotal to success.
The last driver to miss the top 30 in Snowball Derby qualifying and finish in the top five in the race was Jeff Fultz, when he took the final transfer spot in the 2012 Last Chance Qualifier and finished fourth behind Erik Jones, Jeff Choquette, and Kyle Busch.
Augie Grill won the 2008 Snowball Derby from the 38th starting spot after having his qualifying time disallowed from a roof height violation. Since then, Busch starting 15th last year has been the worst starting position for a Snowball Derby winner, and the average starting position for the winner since then has been 7.6.
You may not win the Snowball Derby on qualifying night. However, you can dramatically lessen your chances of winning with a poor qualifying effort – if not miss the show outright, as Rich Bickle did last year despite being a five-time winner of the event.
All of this is why Friday night of Snowball Derby week is just as tense as the race itself. A driver’s performance in the two timed laps sets the tone for the rest of the weekend.
While the stands will be packed for qualifying night at Five Flags Speedway, not everyone can make the trip to Pensacola for the biggest weekend in asphalt late model racing. Race fans unable to attend the 51st Annual Snowball Derby in person will be able to watch a pay-per-view broadcast all week long on Speed51.com, including qualifying night. Five-day video tickets can be purchased now for $74.99 ($35 savings) to watch all of the action. Click here to purchase your video ticket today.
The 51st Annual Snowball Derby will take place on Wednesday, November 28 through Sunday, December 2 at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, FL. For more information regarding the event, visit Snowball Central presented by Schaeffer’s Specialized Lubricants.
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51.com Southeast Editor
-Photo credit: Speed51.com