Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday December 5, 2006
For those race fans that find themselves needing the adrenaline rush of good racing after the NASCAR guys take their hiatus from competition in November, consider circling the first weekend of December on the calendar and make plans to attend the annual Snowball Derby. The event, held in Pensacola, Florida since 1968, has arguably become the most prestigious Late Model race in the country, and, in this reporter’s opinion, offers as fast, entertaining, and competitive racing as will be found in all of oval track racing at any level. This year, it even set a whole new standard for its far more popular Nextel Cup counterparts : officials took a tough situation, stared it down without hesitation, and made every effort to do the right thing.
But I digress. This year’s story starts with a dream of making the Late Model equivalent of the Daytona 500, the 39th edition of an event so popular, the starting field attracted approximately 70 entries for just 39 spots. The entry list represented thirteen different states, with one competitor, Shaun McWhirter, traveling all the way from Ontario, Canada to compete. All were hoping to accomplish what so many like stock car icon and legendary short track driver Red Farmer have tried and failed to achieve in thirty-one consecutive attemptsâ€¦win the prestigious Snowball Derby.
Simply taking the checkered flag first at this 300-lap, 150-mile race held on the half-mile, high-banked Five Flags Speedway in the Florida Panhandle is as prominent a win as any Nextel Cup hopeful could hope to add to their resume. Some familiar names have accomplished the feat throughout the 39 years of the event: Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Ted Musgrave and Rick Crawford are amongst those who solidified their legitimacy as top-notch drivers by conquering the Derby field throughout the years. But the names of those that have attempted, and failed to win the prestigious event perhaps better exemplifies just how competitive this race is. Red’s not the only star who’s fallen short; the names on that list are truly a "Who's Who" of NASCAR greats, including Neil Bonnett, Bobby, Clifford, and Davey Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Ernie Irvan, Harry Gant, Matt Kenseth, Tiny Lund, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Sterling Marlin, Morgan Shepherd, and Rusty Wallace.
NASCAR fans yearning for the good old days of door rubbing, paint swapping, tough, but clean short track racing will find none better than this event. The surprisingly smooth track has not been repaved in more than thirty years and wears tires out rapidly. However, crews are hesitant to put new rubber on until absolutely necessary, as track position is extremely difficult to regain after pitting. Though the low groove is the preferred way around Five Flags Speedway, a driver can execute, with perseverance, passes in the middle lane. Such precision passing is rarely accomplished in just one straightaway, and, more often than not, it requires door-to-door racing for one or more laps to finalize.
The Snowball Derby would serve as a good demonstration as to what short track racing is supposed to be. NASCAR fans new to the sport and without a background in the roots of stock cars have been duped into believing that it is okay to execute passes on short tracks by the generally accepted “bump and run” maneuver that is frequently employed by drivers in Nextel Cup. Such tactics are actually still considered “unsportsmanlike” at most other lower division stockcar events, and especially at an event like the Derby. Such an offense at this track would result in the driver being penalized and possibly black-flagged; there will be no forced white flag drama here. Drivers such as Martin, Labonte, and Kenseth, who developed their driving styles in Late Model racing and participating in events such as the Snowball Derby adhere to this principle of passing to this very day. Long after they have graduated to the highest level in racing, they still understand that it is not proper or particularly skillful to push a competitor out of the way…but to race for the position instead. Those skills have served them well.
Race fans that have only witnessed the short track style of racing stock cars presented by NASCAR at the half-mile tracks of Bristol and Martinsville truly do not know what they are missing. Frankly…they are being cheated. There is still no more exciting racing than two drivers going into turn after turn, side by side until one or the other finally gains the advantage. I've attended this race many times over the years, and always leave wishing that big league racing would take a step back and remember what racing really is supposed to be. It seems as if NASCAR, in its never-ending pursuit to improve the sport and make it more palatable to the masses have, at least in this area, lost sight of what makes auto racing so greatâ€¦racing!
This year, that wasn’t the only lesson the race taught, either.
As the sun began to set on the Gulf Coast, the Derby wound down and a fellow from Lickskillet, Alabama by the name of Johnny Brazier made a late race charge under the final 71 laps of green-flag racing to take an impressive and popular victory. The fastest qualifier, Brazier overpowered veteran touring driver and champion Bobby Gill of Mooresville, NC, in the race’s final stages; Gill was forced to settle for second place.
Some two hours later, track officials announced that both Brazier and Gill had been disqualified for failing to pass postrace inspection. Brazier's car was found to be 1/10 of a percent above the 58% allowable left side weight. That’s a violation that may very well have been caused as a result of a miscalculation of fuel burnoff, but nonetheless, it was a clear-cut violation of the rules.
That appeared to hand the victory to Gill; but in a surprising turn that raised more than a few eyebrows, he was also found to be in violation of the rules, disqualified accordingly for a more flagrant violation than Brazier. According to Snowball Derby officials, Gill’s infraction was for “a wheel track in the front that was 1/8 of an inch wider than maximum.” Roughly translated, it appears that the veteran was racing with an illegal tire.
In light of the shocking turn of events, race promoter Tim Bryant still remained upbeat despite the trophy ultimately being handed to the race’s third place finisher, Gill’s teammate Clay Rogers. “We had a great race, and naturally, we like the fans to see the winner in Victory Lane,” said Bryant. “By the same token, as in racing series throughout the country, there are post-race inspections. And it’s our worst fear to find an infraction down there (in the technical inspection area).”
“We don’t like to, but we would be doing an injustice to the rest of the competitors if we don’t check the cars and make it mandatory they meet the tolerances. If they don’t…we have to do the right thing.’‘
That’s exactly what the officials at Five Flags Speedway did : the right thing. There were no paltry fines to multi-millionaires, or “probations” that doubled as a slap on the wrist. The officials simply instructed the violators to pack it up and go home. Do not pass go…do not stop at the payout window. See, only in NASCAR can a team be in violation of the stated rules or caught “dead to rights” cheating at their biggest event of the year, still be awarded points for the race, snag a lucrative payout, and go on and become the sanctioning body’s champion. In the rest of the short track world, it just doesn’t work that way. The finish was the fair and correct one for all the competitors involved, as the highest finishing driver/team with a legal racecar won.
NASCAR is no stranger to hard and fast racing and the correct handling of rules violations. The rules that the Nextel Cup hopefuls compete under the first weekend of December in the Derby are the same rules that NASCAR, in many of their divisions, have enforced for years. Unfortunately and inexplicably, all too often those rules become abandoned at the highest levels of competition after being strictly adhered to in the lowest divisions.
Hopefully, NASCAR will one day realize that the rules that make races such as the Snowball Derby work for the fans and drivers are the same rules that will work best for the Busch and Nextel Cup Series as well. In the meantime, if you are in the need for some great stock car racing the way it used to be, consider a trip down to the Gulf Coast of Florida about a year from now. You won't be disappointed.
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