Through 50 years of Snowball Derby lore, there has remained one constant in the form of Ronnie Sanders.
The now 71-year-old made his Derby debut back in 1973, the sixth year of the now legendary Super Late Model race. He finished 26th, but that was simply the start of a legendary story that is set to continue this weekend in the golden anniversary of the event.
Ronnie Sanders has one victory in the Super Bowl of Short Track racing but it came in controversial fashion back in 1977. Darrell Waltrip was flagged the winner, but it was later determined that the scoring tower spotted him an extra lap. Waltrip kept the trophy, but Sanders was given a duplicate and more importantly, the check.
He was handcuffed and escorted off the property in 1975 for attempting to bust an axle through Bobby Allison’s windshield after an on-track incident between the two. He’s had bounties levied against him at the track for winning too much, and he’s spent sleepless nights in his shop for not winning near enough.
In many ways, the history of the Snowball Derby runs through Ronnie Sanders Racing.
Even when his own driving career came to a close in 2008, he remained a fixture in southern Late Model competition, by loaning out his iconic No. 18 to the likes of Bubba Pollard and Hunter Robbins. Armed with fresh blood, Sanders kept winning races across the region.
Now, he is aligned with former NASCAR prospect Casey Roderick, where they’ve become the winningest combination in Late Model racing this season. But oftentimes, the duo arrives in a No. 7 Graham Racing car and others, a No. 18 Ronnie Sanders Racing entry.
Sanders sold his own open motor in 2014, but has essentially joined forces with Graham Racing when it comes to Super Late Model racing.
“Whoever pays for it is basically on the car,” Roderick said with a laugh on Thursday at Five Flags.
But this is the 50th anniversary of the Snowball Derby and it’s fitting that Roderick would honor one half of his current team owner on the 40th anniversary of his signature triumph.
“Ronnie has been a huge help on the Graham No. 7 car this year and we wanted to honor that a little bit,” Roderick said. “We still have the 7 cars here as backups if anything happens. But really, Ronnie has been at this deal a long time and he has a lot of history and experience. That’s added motivation to get our cars right and be there at the end.”
Sanders restored his 1977 winner a few years ago and it will be on display in the fan zone throughout the weekend at Five Flags. The Fayetteville, Georgia native will also be honored on Sunday morning with a special breakfast alongside several other previous winners of the race.
“It’s going to be quite the event,” Sanders said. “Jody Ridley is going to be here (on Friday) too. He’s going to bring his Falcon. It’s just great to see these guys we raced against. I can’t believe how popular this race has become.”
It will even more special if Roderick and Ronnie Sanders with Graham Racing can get the job done over the weekend. But they struggled on Practice Day, posting just the 44th best time out of 52 drivers.
“We just need more corner rotation to get forward speed,” Roderick said. “I can’t get in the gas where I want to. The track has more grip than we thought would be and it’s just more snug.”
Sanders has faced adversity in his 50-year career, so he’s not dismayed by the early struggles.
“We’ve had a good year this year and put in a lot of effort,” Sanders said. “I think we can get it out front. There is a lot of time to make it better.”
And while Roderick would love to win the race for Sanders, he would also love to win in general. He won the track championship at Five Flags last year under the Graham banner and just wants to win for everyone who has helped him along the way the past few seasons.
“I just want to win the Snowball,” Roderick said. “Who doesn’t? That’s the highlight of anyone’s career. I see how Ronnie talks about it. I want that too. It’s what we all work for all year. It’s our biggest race.”
It’s their biggest race, but he’s also looking to win in one of its most important cars.
Roderick is racing to extend a legacy.
Read more Short Track Scene:
- Ty Majeski, Roush pit crew prepared for Snowball Derby
- How Snowball Derby qualifying works
- Why a misplaced transponder didn’t cost Matt McCall the win at SNMP