Heartbreak Hill is hands down the toughest portion of the Boston Marathon.
It’s a treacherous 0.4-mile ascent near the end of the 26.2-mile torture chamber that leaves its victims pleading for mercy.
Begrudgingly, Five Flags Speedway has become Casey Smith’s version of Heartbreak Hill. The Austin, Texas, Super Late Model driver has had more than his fair share of close calls and disappointments at the famed half-mile asphalt oval in the 15 years he has raced in Pensacola.
But at the Deep South Cranes Rental 150 come Saturday, with the Southern Super Series championship hanging in the balance, Smith has a chance to turn his boulevard of broken dreams into a yellow brick road.
“Man, closing it out in Pensacola makes my stomach turn,” the 30-year-old Smith said. “Pensacola is to us the way Daytona was to Dale Earnhardt for so many years. Different things have happened there that have taken us out of a lotta wins.
“But it’s something to keep fighting for, and it actually makes us stronger than at other tracks because I wanna succeed there so badly.”
Every driver in the pits will be looking to succeed desperately Saturday. This weekend marks Five Flags’ annual Night of Champions, the final chance to see live racing in Pensacola until the 48th annual Snowball Derby festivities kick off the first week of December.
In addition to the Super Late Models in the Deep South Crane Rentals Blizzard Series, track titles will be handed out for the Pro Trucks, Beef “O” Brady’s Sportsmen and the Butler U-Pull-It Bombers.
Gates open at 2 p.m. Saturday with qualifying for all divisions set for 4:45. The night’s features begin approximately at 7:30 p.m.
Admission is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military and students; $5 for children ages 6 to 11; and free for kids under 6.
Smith brings a 62-point lead over Donnie Wilson in the Southern Super Series standings into Saturday night.
“No matter what Donnie does, we have to finish 15th or better,” he said. “It’s comforting, but it won’t be easy to run 15th with the caliber of late models that will be there Saturday night.”
Smith has a chance to sweep the night. He trails current leader Casey Roderick by nine points in the race for the Blizzard Series crown.
Smith knows for fortune to shine on him Saturday, he’ll have to erase a string of bad luck at Pensacola’s high banks.
“For me, even in Blizzard races, something happens and I don’t finish great,” Smith said. “I can think of three Derbys where we were one of the fastest cars on the racetrack, but didn’t win it because of a bad pit stop or a caution or a wreck taking us out.
“Every year we’re competitive at the Derby. We just haven’t got the finishes. But a lotta that comes on me, too.”
He plans on leaving the past right where it belongs in his rearview mirror this Saturday.
Smith has been trending upward in 2015. He has scored top-10 finishes in all 12 Southern Super Series races this season with nine of those being top-five results.
Smith has captured checkered flags at Mobile International Speedway (April) and Montgomery Motor Speedway (June) and has come home no worse than fifth in the three Pensacola races.
“We’ve had a lotta luck on our side and, hopefully, it won’t change there at Pensacola,” Smith said of his Smith Excavating and Paving No. 99 team. “But this’ll be a tune up for the Derby, so anything can happen. There will be a lotta really good cars there, and I wanna make sure we’re one of the ones to run up front.”
Smith has long eschewed the late model norm of utilizing a crew chief. Instead, he chooses to call the shots and make the important decisions.
“Racing is a hobby for us,” Smith said. “We’re not set up to hire a big-time crew chief and spend a half-million dollars. We have good equipment and everything it takes to make the car go fast.
“Plus, I enjoy that part. I enjoy knowing if we win a race, we beat somebody that has a crew chief. The flip side of that, though, is if we get beat, I’m down in the dumps and trying to figure out how to get better. But that’s part of it.”
While Smith continues to serve in his own crew chief capacity, he credits Johnny and Butch VanDoorn with helping him uncover more consistency.
“We talk endless hours on the phone, throwing around ideas to figure out the new stuff to get better,” Smith said of the VanDoorn brothers. “You have to keep digging or you’ll fall behind real fast. When I run badly, I have no one to blame but myself.”
Which is part of the reason why his frustrations at Pensacola have nagged and harassed Smith.
He can put his own and others’ lingering doubts to bed with a fitting coronation Saturday night.
“I’d rather win this than the Snowball Derby,” Smith said of the Southern Super Series championship. “A lotta people say ‘Wow! Why?’ The thing is, the Derby takes a lotta luck and you have to be good for that one day. This proves you’ve been the best car all year long. It has been a team effort this year and we’ve worked our butts off.
“There’s still a lotta stuff that could happen. I gotta finish, not do anything stupid and, hopefully, nothing breaks. I have to be smart and stay outta trouble.”
– By Chuck Corder, Special to Speed51.com and Five Flags Speedway
– Photo credit: Speed51.com