Since coming onto the scene a few years ago, many people have had a hard time taking Noah Gragson seriously. It’s time for that to change, and it’s time to take him seriously following the biggest win of his career in the 51stAnnual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway.
To set up Gragson’s road to the Tom Dawson trophy, it’s important to clarify how he became involved in the sport of racing.
Gragson comes from a family with no racing background, from Las Vegas. He hasn’t always been a kid that eats, sleeps and breathes racing. He actually didn’t get behind the wheel of a car until he was 14. And he’s a jokester. Whether he’s “tagging” people with stickers or standing around on pit road wearing a shark head, Gragson is almost always goofing around.
Except when he’s racing. He’s serious about racing, and he has been since he got behind the wheel of an electric go-kart at Pole Position Raceway in Las Vegas. He and Riley Herbst, a Joe Gibbs Racing Development driver and longtime friend of Gragson’s, would race constantly at the indoor track, not in the adult karts, but in the smaller ones because they weren’t quite tall enough.
But that was enough for him to get the itch.
On a Wednesday in early 2012, his father’s coworker invited Gragson to The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to test a Bandolero car for the first time. It was love at first lap. Gragson, who was an action sports kid until then, was hooked.
Fast-forward about six and a half years to Sunday, December 2. Gragson, now 20 years old, is the 37thdifferent winner of the Snowball Derby in the 51-year history of the legendary race.
“We won the Snowball Derby, baby!” Gragson screamed in victory lane.
It’s a race that almost nobody thought he could win. Even though he was behind the wheel of a Kyle Busch Motorsports Super Late Model, not many people considered him a favorite to win the race. Especially not people that were at Five Flags Speedway in September to see Gragson and his team struggle to a disappointing eighth-place finish in a Blizzard Series race.
It’s hard to think he’d be a serious contender given his history at Five Flags Speedway. His first trip to the Snowball Derby saw him qualify 32nd, but he made the race because Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek were disqualified in post-race tech inspection. Then, a crash with about 20 laps to go in that race resulted in a torn ligament in his hand. He was much stronger one year later, scoring a ninth-place run with Wauters Motorsports. But 2017 was another disappointing run as he finished 12th, one lap down, while his teammate and car owner, Kyle Busch, went on to win the race.
But Gragson embraced the struggles and views that as a large part of why he was in position to take the lead from Harrison Burton on a restart with six laps to go and eventually go on to win the 51stAnnual Snowball Derby.
After his wild celebration began to die down and the stress of the “Room of Doom” was over and he was officially the winner of the race, Gragson sat down on the rough pavement in turn three with the Tom Dawson Trophy next to his right leg. Sitting cross-legged with his back leaning against the ‘P’ in Pensacola on the wall, Gragson took some time to reflect on what it took to get to this spot.
The normal funny-guy Noah Gragson was gone. This was a different Noah Gragson. He was happy, but serious and introspective.
“It’s times like that that make this so special,” Gragson said. “For how much I’ve struggled here. I’ve never been good at this race track. We came down here this September to run the Blizzard race. I felt like I had a good opportunity to run good. We were fast for the first 30 laps and struggled with the long-run speed and the longevity of the race car. It’s almost a blessing that we were able to struggle down here. It was hard during that time, but it made me understand what I needed in the race car when I came back here for this particular Snowball Derby.
“I went to my crew chief, Marcus Richmond and I went to Cody Glick, the head Super Late Model guy at Kyle Busch Motorsports and I said ‘Hey, we need to make some changes for my particular driving style.’ We did that and we came down here and first day of practice I made 45-lap race runs. Everyone thought I was crazy or wrote us off. We were 25thon the board. Nobody knew anything about our speed. I knew deep down that was going to pay off during the race and it did.”
Gragson has heard plenty of criticisms throughout his career. He’s been told he’s just a rich kid. He’s been told that he isn’t serious enough. He’s made mistakes, like crashing while battling for a win with Johnny Sauter at Dover, or making a bonsai move for the win at Iowa and failing, resulting in crashed vehicles that his crew has to fix each time.
As his phone screen continued to light up with congratulatory text messages, Gragson said that the criticisms mostly don’t bother him because they’re what fueled him to get to this point. He tries to use it for motivation, instead of letting it lead to self-doubt.
“Laying in bed it’s easy to think about the what-ifs. Then I remind myself to not measure myself off of somebody else’s ruler. Staying positive is the most important thing.”
On load-in day earlier in the week, Gragson was his usual self, doing impressions of teammate Raphael Lessard’s French accent and trying to find a gullible person to lock to the spoiler brace of Carson Hocevar’s car.
He wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to win the race, where he was going to put the Tom Dawson Trophy, or what even what it would mean to him to win the race, the last race for him with Kyle Busch Motorsports and Toyota before joining JR Motorsports and Chevrolet for the 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series season.
A little more than two hours after the checkered flag had fallen, Gragson said it still hadn’t sunk in that he was the winner of the Snowball Derby. But even still, the winner of a NASCAR Camping World Trucks Series race at historic Martinsville Speedway and the 2017 Winchester 400 winner was already able to know that winning the Snowball Derby was the most special win of his career for a variety of reasons.
“It’s extremely special. For me to be able to bring this home for everybody at Kyle Busch Motorsports and be able to hang another banner and go out on top, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to do it.
“This is the top of my list. You know, at Martinsville I was in a good position to be able to win a race. It was my second time there and I’ve always run good there. I don’t want to say it came easy because I had to work hard there, but I didn’t go through four years of struggling my ass off at that particular track and really not liking the place.”
As the infield continued to empty out and his phone continued to light up with text message alerts, Gragson looked across at the frontstretch catch fence that he climbed a couple hours earlier and the now empty grandstands. He was asked if, now that he’s won the Snowball Derby, he finally likes racing at Five Flags Speedway. He thought for a moment before offering up an answer in the most serious manner possible.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I haven’t quite figured it out. I love coming here because of the atmosphere and all of the fans and just what the Snowball Derby is. But this track, it’s the hardest track I’ll ever race on.”
-Story by: Rob Blount, Speed51.com Associate Editor
-Photo credit: Speed51.com/Mojo Photos