When I look back on my decade or so in the trenches and eventually at the helm of Speed51.com, there is one race event that stands above all the others – the Snowball Derby.
There is no other race that this website covers more extensively. There is no other race on asphalt that attracts the diverse entry list and attention from within the industry. There is no other race that more Super Late Model pilots want to win.
There is also no other race that has drawn so many rising stars to compete in it.
Family and business commitments have taken me out of the national short track picture. I am still heavily involved in the sport, but these days everything that I do is within a day trip drive of my Boston area home. I still follow the Snowball Derby on Speed51.com and to a lesser degree I also keep up with the sport of NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series racing. That was another world that I was once involved in during the earlier days of my career. Over time, many of the Cup drivers from my era in that game have retired or even sadly passed away. Only the truest veterans like Joe Nemechek, Derrike Cope and Morgan Shepherd occasionally still race on my television set.
However, I can still feel connected to the highest level of stock car racing thanks to several drivers who I covered with Speed51.com at the Snowball Derby. Some of their paths to Cup were expected. A few were bigger surprises. All of them made their mark on Five Flags Speedway as a step on their racing ladder.
I’m not sure that anyone has made a bigger leap up that ladder at the Derby than Erik Jones did. In 2012, I was aware of this young racer from Michigan, but I knew little about him. Several well-respected friends, most notably fellow 51 alum Kevin Ramsell, spoke highly of Jones’ character off the track and abilities on it. In the days leading up to that Snowball Derby, Jones impressed me in practice, but I did not think of him as a threat to win the race.
Boy, was I wrong.
Jones didn’t just win the Snowball Derby, he put on an unforgettable show in the closing laps that probably insured his eventual path to Cup racing. Jones went head-to-head with the most accomplished Super Late Model racer of this era, Cup star Kyle Busch, and he didn’t blink. In fact, he just plain outdrove Busch to win the race.
That effort made him a Snowball Derby legend and impressed Busch enough to take him under his wing. Today, the two are Cup teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Chase Elliott’s path to Cup racing also ran through the Snowball Derby, but there was no question that he was well on his way to the top even as a Derby rookie.
Elliott was no stranger to winning big Super Late Model shows when he won his first Snowball Derby in 2011. He was already on the fast track to the top. What impressed me the most though as we interviewed him during a live broadcast of Speed51 Radio from the Wednesday night pit party at Five Flag Speedway was just how down to earth the young man was. He was already getting mobbed by fans, yet he showed absolutely no arrogance. In fact, he was even a little bit shy. By the end of the week, he became the youngest Snowball Derby winner in history.
Ryan Preece will be going Cup racing next year and he is best known for his standout career in NASCAR Modifieds and his breakthrough Xfinity Series victory at Iowa Speedway for Joe Gibbs Racing. What many people do not remember though is Preece’s first ever race in a car with fenders. That came in the No. 51 Bob Dillner Inc. Chevrolet at the 2008 Snowball Derby.
Preece showed that he was a natural in that event. Despite it being a 300-lap affair involving the toughest Super Late Model drivers in the country, Preece flattened his learning curve and stayed out of trouble. He finished the race in the 15th position and gained an amount of experience that couldn’t even be measured.
A memory of now-NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Grant Enfinger also stands out from the 41st Snowball Derby back in 2008. In that race, Enfinger was aggressive and played a role in a four-car wreck that also involved veteran Florida racer Wayne Anderson.
Anderson was not happy with Enfinger. He referred to him as the “most ignorant son of a bitch” on the racetrack that day. However, Enfinger got the last laugh – and impressed me in the process.
Enfinger continued in the 2008 race after that incident. Yet he buckled down and used his head to keep trucking along. He stayed out of trouble and finish second. At this point, he discovered that he would not be a driver who became easily rattled. In the laps between the wreck and the finish, I saw his talent and potential.
Sadly, there were once a pair of Snowball Derby hotshoes who never got the chance to make it to Cup racing. They both had the talent and they both had the personalities. Unfortunately, they both lost their lives before making it to the big leagues. Those two fallen racers were Alabama’s Charlie Bradberry and Georgian Matt Hawkins.
While racing lost a pair of rising stars when they both passed away in separate accidents away from the track, it is even more tragic that the world lost two great young men. I considered both to be friends. They are both sorely missed even today.
Bradberry seemed wise beyond his years, but had a joking side too. His favorite trick was a voicemail greeting on his phone that started out with “Hello” and then went silent for several seconds – tricking the caller into starting to talk before Charlie’s southern drawl stated that he wasn’t available to take their call. I swear that Charlie recorded that message fresh all of the time and extended the pause each time he did. I knew his trick yet I kept falling for it time after time.
Bradberry won the 2003 Derby after missing most of practice to attend the NASCAR Banquet in New York City as that year’s Southeast Series Tour champion. He served as a mentor to younger drivers from his home state, most notably Josh Hamner, and he always had a smile on his face. He very likely would have written a new chapter for the famed Alabama Gang in NASCAR racing, but instead passed away in 2006.
While Bradberry had that huge smile, Matt Hawkins was best known for his shy grin. Behind that grin, Hawkins was always thinking. In his 21 years on earth, Hawkins won in just about every type of racecar that he drove – karts, Super Late Models and even heavy ARCA Racing Series machines. None of those victories changed his character though. His father Fred was one of the friendliest guys in the pit area and Matt picked up that trait as well.
Hawkins did not win the Snowball Derby in his short life. His best effort there was leading 100 laps in the 2007 race on the way to a runner-up finish. But personally, I cannot think back to my years at the event without fondly remembering Matt.
While Charlie and Matt never made it to the Cup level, they both put their marks on the history of the Snowball Derby and entertained plenty of fans who watched them live or followed along with their races on Speed51.com. When it comes to December in Pensacola, they are widely remembered.
So, for me, the Snowball Derby is not just a race held every December. I am reminded of just how important it is on any occasion when I get the chance to sit down and watch a race in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions. It might not be fair to call it a race where stars are born – that’s because anyone who even makes it into the Derby has accomplished a lot. It is a race though that can easily change a rising star into a driver well on their way to the top. It is an event that can turn someone with potential into someone with accomplishments. That is what stands out the most to me about the Snowball Derby.
-Story by Mike Twist
-Photo credit: Speed51.com