For 17 years now, Speed51.com staff members have made their way to Pensacola, Florida each December to provide coverage of the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway. Over the years, our staff has gained a lot of unforgettable memories, both on the track and off.
Leading into the 51st Annual Snowball Derby this week, our current staff members and those who helped make Speed51.com what it is today looked back on their favorite memories.
Adam Mackey, Speed51.com Commentator
In 2012, we watched a 16-year old rising star, Erik Jones, somehow outrace a nearly unbeatable Kyle Busch to win the 45th Snowball Derby. While most of the eight Snowball Derby races I’ve been to have been fights to the finish, this one stands out because of what the race did for a young man’s career. Going into the final 20 laps, I don’t think anyone thought the outcome would’ve worked out that way in such a hard fought, side-by-side battle. My top Snowball Derby memory ends in a photo finish with many other great memories close behind.
Angie Dillner, Speed51.com Owner
I always enjoyed the meals with the 51 crew in the TV compound. Aside from that, I loved standing at the top of the tower and soaking in everything happening at Five Flags Speedway as the sun set over the racetrack and campgrounds. It was also family tradition to take our golf cart around after the racing action and seeing people enjoying Derby week.
Bob Dillner, Speed51.com Executive Editor / Owner
My favorite Derby memory was watching Charlie Bradberry win the race after we shared a plane ride with a kamikaze pilot to get out of a snow-covered New York after the NASCAR banquet. Charlie started shotgun and won the race. It was a special day and special bond with a driver that made my favorite Derby memory.
Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor
My favorite memory doesn’t involve a spectacular finish. In fact, it doesn’t even include a driver that finished in the top 10.
In 2014, Vermont racer Brian Hoar and team owner Rick Paya made the decision to tackle a handful of Super Late Model racing’s crown jewel events including the World Crown, Winchester 400 and Snowball Derby. The final race on their list, the Snowball Derby, was the biggest of them all.
They would be the first to tell you that they flat-out struggled during the week. They struggled to find speed and increasingly became frustrated as they found themselves buried near the bottom of the speed charts during practice sessions leading into Friday night’s qualifying.
After making his two qualifying laps Friday night, Hoar didn’t believe he had enough. He sat in his car expecting the worst. That was until Paya, also his spotter, read his lap time over the radio. He was fast enough to qualify into the Snowball Derby.
At that moment, Hoar sat in his car in disbelief. In interviews afterwards, the eight-time ACT champion was overcome with emotions. All because he simply made the race and would be starting 21st in Sunday’s 300-lap Super Late Model race.
To me, that moment says more than anything about how much the Snowball Derby really means. Not only to win the race, but simply to be involved with it.
Dakota Geyer, Speed51.com State Editor (IN & MI)
My first Derby was last year but I have to say my favorite memory is just the entire event itself. The first one is always the most special, and with it being the 50th running it made it just that much sweeter. I can’t wait until the 51st running!
Daryl Canfield, Speed51.com Tri-State Editor (NJ, NY & PA)
In 2016, I got to attend my first Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway with Speed51. I quickly learned that this is the greatest week in short track racing. As a fellow New Yorker, my favorite Derby moment was watching a young Christian Eckes of Greenville, New York drive to victory. It was hard to believe that we traveled some 20 hours from home and got to see a kid that we watched at our then home track, the Chemung Speedrome, win one of the most prestigious short track races in the nation.
Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
Seeing all the champions from the Derby on stage last year was special. That, along with the driver intros and class photos, makes the Snowball Derby pre-race activities really special. I remember my first Derby as well when the tires fell off so quick it was like losing the draft at Talladega.
Jeff Fisher, Speed51.com Cameraman
I am partial to the Navy influence of team announcement on load in day. “Now hear this.”
Jeremy Anders, Speed51.com Northwest Editor
My favorite memory will still be the first time walking into Five Flags Speedway and the track being empty on Wednesday morning of Snowball Derby week. I sat down in the grandstands for a moment to take it all in and think about the history of the track. Then I heard a voice come across the PA system; it was Dave Pavlock as he introduced the teams rolling in with the booming sound of “Now Arriving.” It gave me chills the first time and every time I’ve heard it, even if it was for the 120th time that day.
I’ve seen great racing moments over my short time of going to the Derby but to me it’s the traditional things that make it special.
Patrick Hahe, Speed51.com Great Lakes Editor
I have been blessed to attend the last three Derbies, each bigger than the one previous. Last year for the 50th, it was amazing to see the teams receive their commemorative helmets. The energy around the facility on Sunday every year is electric, and I have been proud to be a part of the team to bottle that energy and and bring it to the viewers at home.
Rob Blount, Speed51.com Associate Editor
The one consistent knock on Chase Elliott throughout his career is that he doesn’t show too much personality. Well, in 2015, after winning his second Snowball Derby, he showed plenty of personality in one impromptu moment. Bob stepped aside and had Jana Wimmer do the traditional interview in the grandstands on this day. Jana and Chase were sitting side-by-side, waiting for everything to be ready to begin this interview. As our social media director, I asked both of them to quickly look my way so I could snap a picture to use on social media to tease this interview. I didn’t even notice it until I looked back at the picture a couple of hours later, but Jana and Chase both made a pretty similar goofy face. Jana had her mouth wide open and Chase stuck his tongue out. But they didn’t talk about it and say “Let’s do something goofy.” Somehow it just happened.
If you know Jana, you know that is pretty much just Jana. She’s a goofy, fun-loving person. But for someone as reserved as Chase to do something like that… It was very out of character and really stands out in my mind. The Snowball Derby is the biggest race of the year. It’s one of the most stressful weeks race teams (and Speed51 employees) will have throughout the year. But when it’s all over, you remember that you’re there because you love it and remember to have some fun.
Ryan McCollough, Speed51.com Gulf Coast Correspondent
Fan – My first Derby experience came in 2005. My grandfather and I loaded up early Sunday morning and made the trek from southeast Alabama to cheer on our guy, Ronnie Sanders.
Ronnie drove the wheels off it that day, going from 26th to 10th by days end. But the biggest memory from that day is hearing the crowd get louder and louder as the laps ran down with their hometown hero, Eddie Mercer, out front. The cheers were the loudest I had ever heard, and it kept growing until erupting when he took the checkers.
My grandfather and I stood on the cinder block grandstands just off turn four, and watched in awe at the spectacle before us.
Reporter – I have interviewed Augie Grill no less than 40 times, but victory lane following the 2016 Snowflake was different.
You could really feel like Grill knew that trip to victory lane could very well be his last time in a major event. His dad and young son were by his side the entire post-race, and all three generations smiled from ear-to-ear.
We have known Grill the chassis builder and racer for years, but that night we got a peek behind the curtain at the family man. It was a truly remarkable experience.
Former Derby and 51 Staff Members
I have to say the epic battle between DJ VanderLey and Chase Elliott in the closing laps of the 2011 Derby. I can practically still hear Robbie Harvey screaming “VanderLeeey!”.
The Snowball Derby has so many cool moments on track and off track throughout the years, but the 2009 Derby weekend was memorable for a couple things. First, the “flood” at the track was insane with a lot of the facility under water. It was amazing how much water they had to pump out of that place! Second was the snake that Kyle Busch found on pit road, picked up, and sent us (Speed 51) a photo to post on our coverage. It must have been a lucky snake as he won the Derby that year!
There are two things that stick out to me. First, always the fun we had at Fast Eddie’s with the go-kart races. There were some, um, rough and rowdy races there. But probably the best memory for me is Charlie Bradberry’s win in 2003. Charlie was a hell of a racer. Charlie was an even better guy. And it was a hell of a race and finish with Gary St. Amant, my all-time favorite driver. That is the Snowball Derby I’ll always remember.
My favorite memory was working my first victory lane at the 2012 Derby when Erik Jones beat Kyle Busch. I was standing next to the car waiting for the photographers get organized and making sure Erik doesn’t get out until the photographers were ready. I felt this bump and it was Kyle Busch coming over to congratulate Erik and telling him they need to talk about the future. The next morning, I am on my flight from Pensacola to Atlanta and I saw a few rows ahead of me someone reading the Pensacola paper. All of a sudden, I see this color photo of that moment in victory lane. I waited to see if he would leave the paper on the plane when he got off. He did and I snagged it on my way out.
My first time at the Snowball Derby was as a fan…well, sorta.
Bob and I went down to loosely cover the race with our then primitive short track website speed51.com. It didn’t take long before we fell in love with the race.
My first day in the pit area I ventured over to a familiar face to say hello. As I walked in my old ASA buddy Gary St. Amant’s hauler to chat with he and his father Bud, I looked to my left in disbelief. Why? There, inside the hauler, was a set of tires on an electronic rotisserie… soaking away. I had never seen that, let alone in the open. That’s when soaking tires was legal. I was baffled and amazed. It’s just one of the multiple layers that make this race the tastiest in Asphalt racing hands down.
On race day, Bob and I sat and watched the Derby from the press box roof sitting with our legs hangin’ over the edge. From that day on we knew this would be the race we had to cover every year and do it bigger than anything we had ever done before.
For years we progressed our coverage and staff, endured weather, sickness (the time we thought Bob was dead and then unsuccessfully tried to take him to the hospital) and equipment gremlins, but the dedication of 51 never wavered. Although I’m not a regular part of the 51-gang anymore I admire the relationship between the site and this race. It’s as special as Snowball week itself. From tech, Fast Eddies, hauler parking day, to nail-biting qualifying, local-racing thrillers, Robbie Harvey’s calls, Johanna Long’s feel-good-win and Charlie Bradberry’s amazing road to Snowball victory, the Snowball Derby is more than just a race. It’s truly an experience. I’m thankful for so many years of great memories and great racing.
Matt “Duke” Kentfield
I have a lot of great memories of my time in Pensacola for the 10 Snowball Derbies I had the opportunity to witness as a member of the Speed51 team. Eight of those Snowballs I was on the coverage team in some fashion, whether it was simply writing stories for the site pre-51’s live at-track coverage days, to the radio broadcasts, to the live video streams in the last few years of my tenure with 51. But my favorite memory was actually the two times I wasn’t on the coverage team, but on Bob’s race team for the Snowball Derby.
The first time was in 2008 when we had a young punk Modified kid named Ryan Preece behind the wheel of the BDI Racing No. 51. Maybe you’ve heard his name a time or two in the years since. I was the team manager of BDI Racing and was normally the spotter for the team, but Preece brought his own guy, Mike Herman, to spot, so that race became my first foray into being on a pit crew. I was the catch-can guy with my buddy MD, Matthew Dillner, as the gas man. We left a small lake of fuel on pit road every time, but man did we have fun. And I’ll tell you what, our volunteer pit crew that day gained positions on just about every stop against teams that brought in professional crews.
My other favorite memory was in 2009 when I was on the spotter’s stand for the BDI car wheeled by former Derby winner Bobby Gill. When I first approached Bob months before the Snowball Derby with the idea to put Bobby behind the wheel, I did so knowing we’d have a legit shot at winning the race. See, in our years as a race team, we almost always had young development drivers, almost always teenagers, drive the car in various events and series. Those kids were good, but having a Snowball Derby winner, Pro Cup champion and flat-out short track legend behind the wheel was an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up. Anyway, Bobby Gill is not an easy man to please and he was probably the most intense guy I’ve ever spotted for. My hopes of having a car to win almost came to fruition, as we were in position to battle Kyle Busch for the win that year, but our hired-gun pit crew lost us spots on every stop, unlike our volunteer crew the year before with Preece. We ended up fourth and Bobby actually pulled me aside after the race and told me I did a great job and that he’d want to work with me more. Every time I see Bobby these days around town, we always talk about how we almost had that one won. Bobby doesn’t drive anymore and I don’t spot anymore, but if there’s ever an opportunity for him to get behind the wheel again one December in Pensacola, I’ll be the first to sign up to work with him.
My fondest Snowball Derby memory may have been covering a very unconventional victory in the race by someone who I believe is one of the best, and maybe the most underrated, short track drivers of my era – Clay Rogers.
Rogers was the 2006 Derby winner, but he actually crossed the finish line in the third position. The pride of Lick Skillet, Alabama – Johnny Brazier and Rogers’ teammate for the race, Bobby Gill, were initially flagged as first and second in the race, but both failed technical inspection.
So Rogers found out about his victory while in the inspection area of the pits and in a way that was very appropriate. That is because Rogers is a true racer’s racer. He turned wrenches and made his own cars go fast. He was not a guy who just showed up with his helmet and fire suit just before practice started. Rogers’ victories throughout his career were earned just as much by making the right moves to the car as they were making the right moves while in the car.
So if we are going to talk about the biggest short track race on asphalt, it’s natural to fondly recall a victory by one of the truest short track racers around. Winning the Derby wasn’t just a step on the ladder for Clay Rogers, it was the top of his racing world and waiting a few hours after the race to be crowned its victor was well worth it for him. Looking back in my own writing career, it was one of the most heartwarming victories that I have ever covered as well.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if Rogers’ Snowball Derby book doesn’t have a chapter or two left to be written. If he ends up on the entry list again, only a fool would bet against him.
My first season with Speed51 at the Snowball Derby was 2011, the year Chase Elliott and D.J. VanderLey went toe to toe for five of the most intense, hold-your-breath and yet completely clean battles for glory you’ll ever see in short track racing. The moment the first hauler pulled out, I was aware of a tingle on my skin, a crackle in the air, an ominous and exciting feeling of big things about to happen. And as the day progressed – from the engine warmups moment, to the driver introductions, the pace laps, the big wreck halfway that took out half of the pre-race favorites, and finally Derek Thorn’s wild flip into turn one – that intensity grew more and more tangible until it finally erupted into the cheers of every single fan in that sold out crowd.
Whenever I watch a replay of a big game-changing moment in sports, my favorite angle is always the widest one showing the reaction of the crowd. The collective moment everyone realizes what is about to happen and they go wild is the most special moment, it is what people in the stands remember the most. And that Snowball Sunday, when two local heroes went toe-to-toe and everyone in attendance was on their feet and screaming for all their worth, for the first time in my life I owned that feeling. Five laps of the crowd moving and waving as frenetically as the racecars were going, capped off by seeing a surefire superstar pull into victory lane. Forever etched on my mind just as sure as Elliott’s name is etched on the trophy.
-Text by Speed51.com Staff