Last December, David Rogers made history with his 33rd start in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway (FL), breaking a tie with Red Farmer for most starts in the biggest Super Late Model race in the country.
He did so after receiving the “Derby Dedication Award” from Five Flags Speedway officials, along with a provisional starting position in the field after failing to qualify for the event. But the story behind his record-breaking start wasn’t as simple as Rogers accepting an award and the provisional that came along with it.
Guests appearing on Speed51’s “The Bullring” Monday shared how reluctant Rogers was to accept that provisional before doing so.
The journey to the 52nd Annual Snowball Derby was an arduous one for Rogers, starting with his battle with lymphoma. Rogers received the diagnosis during a medical procedure last winter.
Rogers announced the cancer was in remission in April, and proclaimed at the time, “My goal this year is to be back at the Snowball Derby. It’s a long-term goal. The way I see it, if I get back to the Snowball Derby, I’m going to be doing good.”
It was around this time that Five Flags Speedway promoter Tim Bryant started to consider a potential provisional spot for Rogers, even though it went against the precedent he had set since taking over the event and facility.
“That conversation started several months earlier,” Bryant told Speed51. “The first conversation was my brother, Randy. Promoters’ options were never something that were a part of the Snowball Derby. Part of the allure of that race is knowing how hard it is to qualify and that you have to earn your way in.
“I can remember in the early days, before we had the race track, there would be a line at the track office of people pleading their case to be the promoters’ option. When we took over the race track, we said we just don’t want to be in that position.”
Still, Bryant felt Rogers, more than anyone, had earned an exception to the rule with his decades-long dedication to racing and his fight against cancer. He began to discuss the possibility with others in the industry.
“When we found out one of his inspirations was to get back to the Snowball Derby, our decision was made. We were nervous about it and we talked about it with some highly respected people, but it was unanimous that might be the right thing to do.”
Rogers climbed back behind the wheel of a race car by testing at New Smyrna Speedway in November, then announced his intentions to compete in the Snowball Derby.
Unfortunately, the weekend would not play out as Rogers had hoped. He qualified 44th, missing the top 30 lock-in for the race and relegating him to the 50-lap Last Chance Qualifier. Rogers would miss out on the top four transfer spots in that chaotic race, finishing ninth.
“I went down [after the Last Chance Qualifier] and he was sitting on a tire,” Bryant recounted. “The crew was looking over the car, and I could tell he was disappointed. He was talking about the incident he had gotten into. He said some of the drivers just weren’t using their head. I said I really hated how the race turned out for him.”
Bryant then approached Rogers with the proposal of taking the 37th starting spot in the race. At first, Rogers was hesitant to take the offer, not looking for charity or sympathy after missing the show.
“I looked him in the eye and said, ‘David, do you want to race tomorrow?’ He hesitated for a minute. When he realized what I was asking, he paused and he said, ‘I appreciate what you guys are offering, but I don’t think I feel good about it. I don’t want to be unfair about it.’
“We talked for a couple of minutes and I told him, David, our lineups are going to the printer but there’s no pressure. Talk it over with your crew, talk it over with Mr. Steve [Holland] if you want to, and let me know.”
Rogers then debriefed with his crew before seeking out the opinion of Bubba Pollard. Pollard had driven the TM Ranch No. 11 in Rogers’ absence earlier in the year, winning the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway with the team.
Pollard shared his recollection of that conversation, where he encouraged Rogers to take the provisional.
“He said, ‘I can’t take that provisional. I don’t want them to feel sorry for me. I want to earn it.’
“I told him, ‘You have earned it. We all go through times where we struggle at the race track. To do the things you have done, people have a lot of respect for you and what you’ve done over the years. It’s not about feeling sorry for you. You’ve earned it.’
“If there was ever anybody supposed to be in that race, he was. I had to talk him into it. He didn’t want to. That’s the type of racer he was, he wasn’t going to let anyone give him something.”
Pollard was indeed able to convince Rogers, and it was not long thereafter that he accepted the provisional.
“It was about 30 minutes later,” Bryant said. “I guess he had talked to Bubba, and I’m so grateful Bubba gave him the words of wisdom that he did. He talked to his crew, and Steve Holland called me and said, ‘We’d sure love to be in the race tomorrow.’”
Rogers shared those pre-race hesitations about the provisional when reflecting on the event with Speed51 post-race, but admitted that the ovation he received from those in attendance for the race assured him it was the right decision.
“I’m glad I took it,” Rogers said. “When the crowd cheered, I felt like I should be in the race. It all worked out for the best.”
No one could have expected after his courageous battle that this would be Rogers’ last Snowball Derby. Bryant and Pollard both shared their gratefulness that Rogers indeed accepted that provisional spot to give him one last moment in the Derby.
“I’m really glad he did it,” Pollard stated. “He deserved it for the things he’s done over the years and the kind of person he was.”
“I think God had a hand in all of that, from the very beginning of that ordeal,” Bryant said. “I’m grateful.
“After the race I talked to David again. I left there thinking that day, ‘Next year, he’s going to be back and he’ll earn his way into the Snowball Derby.’ That was certainly the hope, but it wasn’t meant to be. I’m glad we could play a small role in David’s career.”
Monday’s episode of “The Bullring” was dedicated to Rogers’ memory, with many guests sharing their stories and memories of “The Gentle Giant.” Fans who missed the show can watch an on-demand replay of the episode in its entirety by clicking here.
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51 Content Supervisor – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51 Photo