Every sport has its marquee event.
Football has the Super Bowl, Basketball has the NBA Finals, Hockey has the Stanley Cup and NASCAR has the Daytona 500. As someone who grew up in a racing family, I was introduced to NASCAR’s Super Bowl for the first time in 2004. I’ve seen my fair share of big ones, thrilling finishes and cinderella stories at the World Center of Racing, and those memories aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Heck, I’ll be attending my 15th straight Daytona 500 just two months from now.
But Sunday, I got the opportunity to see the so-called Super Bowl of Short Track Racing. Fourty-eight hours after watching the 51st Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway, I can promise you that event is everything that everyone hypes it up to be.
There’s side-by-side racing throughout the field, a gritty surface that eats at tires and makes tire conservation a must in the early stages of a run, and the top Super Late Model talent all in one place.
But what’s more important about the event is the environment it creates for drivers, teams, fans and media who are all a part of it. When I started walking the pit area Sunday morning just hours before the drop of the green flag, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The energy in the infield of the half-mile Pensacola oval hours before the race had drivers sharing conversations with their teams preparing strategy, posing for photos with fans and starting to lock their mind in on what was about to take place.
Three-hundred laps around that tough track isn’t a task anyone takes lightly. Hell, when you have short track racing’s top talents going up against NASCAR stars in a grueling race that tests driver ability, setup, crew chief strategy and pit crew speed, you’d better know you’re coming for a fight.
A look at the caliber of drivers that flocked to Florida chasing the Tom Dawson trophy reveals that many of them have deep Super Late Model roots.
Ty Majeski, who has won just about everything in SLM racing but the Derby, moved to the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season and ran a partial schedule for Roush Fenway Racing. He nearly knocked the Derby off his list, but came up one spot short after a caution gave him one last shot and he passed four cars en route to his second-place effort.
Bubba Pollard, who’s been trying to win the race for 13 years, also was stopped before he bookended his dream 2018 season with the Tom Dawson. But, those two names right there are going to go down as two of the best short track drivers this era of racing will ever see.
Look at the rest of the field and you’ll understand why this race is the best of the best.
NASCAR K&N champions Tyler Ankrum and Derek Thorn, four-time K&N West winner Derek Kraus, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular Stewart Friesen and 2017 K&N East champion and KBM’s Harrison Burton were also in the field. Combine them with the upcoming youth SLM talent like Chandler Smith, Derek Griffith, Carson Hocevar and Connor Okrzesik and established stars like Jeff Choqeutte and Stephen Nasse and you have every race fans dream of a complete field.
I’ve also been to the Oxford 250 six or seven times, and watched qualifying races where drivers fought with their last burst of energy trying to drive from the back to the front of a race just to earn a qualified spot in the big dance. But Friday’s 51st Snowball Derby time trial qualifying session was unlike anything I had experienced before in racing. The anticipation for it was high, and you could feel how nervous many of the competitors were just before it got underway.
Even just after, talking with Spencer Davis, who took the final timed spot and barely squeaked his way in, I could feel the relief in his voice after he took a deep breath.
This race has everything a short track race fan could dream of. If you haven’t been there, I won’t spoil the rest of the weekend for you. Make sure you mark your calendar for the 52nd running of the Snowball Derby.