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Snowball Derby

Observations: 52nd Snowball Derby

The 2019 Super Bowl of Short Track Racing was a complicated affair …

Bruce Nuttleman | STS

It’s somewhat apropos to the legacy of the Snowball Derby that it went down this way.

You know, with everyone talking about race control and technical inspection instead of the on-track product.

Alas, here we are, again.

With five laps remaining in regulation, it was a totally fine Snowball Derby with exception to the rain that delayed it to Monday. Ty Majeski was just one more solid restart away from scoring the biggest victory in pavement Late Model racing after 295 laps of strategy and execution.

The die had been cast, as it were.

Then came the decisive restart in which Majeski got turned sideways in front of the field — allowing Stephen Nasse to take the lead for the first time — with many of the remaining contenders wadded-up in the same incident.

Nasse went unchallenged on the ensuing restart and drove away to the biggest victory of his career … until he reached Ricky Brooks and the Room of Doom.

The 24-year-old Floridian was ultimately stripped of the victory due to titanium brake caps over the pistons in the calipers — something that is clearly illegal based on two different regulations in the rule book. That meant that the Tom Dawson Trophy was instead delivered to Travis Braden following his own rigorous tear down process for two hours following the checkered flag.

There were so many complicated elements to unpack from the Snowball Derby so let’s start with the Room of Doom.

-ROOM OF DOOM-

For the fifth time in 15 years, a disqualification resulted in the flagged results of the Snowball Derby getting overturned by the post-race technical inspection process.

But this time felt even more scandalous than usual due to an allegation from Nasse that the inspection room was tipped-off by a representative from PFC Brakes — possibly even sales manager Chris Dilbeck himself.

Nasse had swapped from PFC to Brembo earlier in the season and the driver felt this was a vindictive act by a former partner.

So, there are two ways of looking at this:

First and foremost, every team knows from the moment they file an entry to compete in the Snowball Derby that they are subject to the most scrutinous inspection process of the year should they finish on the podium.

Say what you will about Brooks, the Room of Doom and its flair for the dramatic, but it’s been this way for nearly two decades. The moment a team pushes their car under the canopy and onto the scales, they are greeted by a black and white bold-faced sign that reads IT IS WHAT IT IS, almost as if to discourage complaints about failed inspections.

The titanium brake components are clearly illegal based on the phrasing of the rules, and Brooks has previously disqualified teams for far less. Just ask Christopher Bell and Chris Gabehart, who were disqualified upon picking up debris on the left side of their tires during a polish victory lap, resulting in a minuscule weight infraction.

In an opinion column following that 2015 race, Brooks was defended on the following basis:

“…The rules are the rules and Brooks doesn’t make room for exceptions or excuses.

Consider that on Friday afternoon prior to qualifying, Chase Elliott passed inspection and made weight, but opted to go over the scales again because crew chief Ricky Turner wanted to make some changes to build up a margin of error. Having failed post-race inspection in 2013 to lose the Snowball Derby, Elliott and Turner were willing to take no chances and that diligence may have won them the race on Sunday night.

These are some of the best engineers in the country, many of them having worked at the highest levels of NASCAR before returning to their roots for a weekend or over the past season. They’re also smart enough to know that this is the sort of thing that can happen when you send a car out on a victory lap on still-hot tires.

That’s not to vilify Bell and Gabehart, but it should serve as a warning moving forward to not take any unnecessary risks…”

Be it the Bell disqualification of 2015 or the Chase Elliott tungsten disqualification two years prior, not to mention Brian Ickler’s 2008 disqualification for unapproved brake blowers, they each served as a warning that continues to not be heeded in 2019.

“Be completely legal or get tossed.”

But there’s a moral argument to be had here too.

PFC’s Chris Dilbeck denied the snitching allegation, but it doesn’t really matter if he tipped-off a competitor or Brooks himself. At his core, Dilbeck is a racer and when racers feel like they are being beat beyond the tolerance of the rule book, they are going to float that narrative over to the inspection shed.

Such politicking starts at the street stock level and continues into the NASCAR Cup Series.

The moral argument to be had is what Brooks should have done with the information had he received it at any point prior to the green flag on Monday.

On one hand, if Brooks felt adamant that the field should have absolutely started the race on a level playing field, he might have considered telling the Jett Motorsports team that there is a rumor that they have illegal brakes. On the other, it’s not Brooks’ responsibility to chase down every tip and baby the teams to ensure they pass inspection.

Brooks publishes a rule book and opens inspection every day from Wednesday through Sunday to field questions from teams about the legality of their cars.

From an interview in 2017, Brooks was adamant that he doesn’t enjoy disqualifying drivers.

“I’ve never made it about myself,” Brooks said. “If that were the case, I wouldn’t give teams so much pre-tech. I give them every opportunity to pass. In fact, we do so much tech now just to make sure folks don’t get thrown out. You have to be pretty damn stupid or careless to get thrown out with this much tech.”

So, ultimately this issue comes down to Brembo Brakes. Did they sell Jett Motorsports brake caps that the team wasn’t aware were titanium? They offered a no comment when asked about the matter on Wednesday afternoon.

Did the brakes win Nasse the Derby, Winchester 400 or U.S. Short Track Nationals this season? Surely not.

But Brooks views the 15-year-old technology as an example of expensive NASCAR craftsmanship working its way down to short track racing. If he doesn’t write this into his rule book, it will be exploited in unforeseen creative ways by some of the brightest minds in the garage. Give Cody Glick, Ricky Turner, Buggy Fletcher, Jamie Yelton and Bond Suss an inch and they’ll take a mile.

READ MORE: Complete Snowball Derby coverage

-MAJESKI’S RESTARTS-

Perhaps the industry would have been spared yet another Ricky Brooks debate had Ty Majeski not gotten crashed crossing the start-finish line on the first overtime restart.

He led twice for 139 laps and looked like the driver to beat coming to that ill-fated restart.

What many fans didn’t realize in real-time was that Majeski’s previous two restarts had been scrutinized by race control. He was critiqued for going too slow on his first restart as the leader and then admonished for going too high when firing off in Turn 3.

Race director Nicholas Rogers said he liked the final restart from Majeski, but of course, it resulted in Casey Roderick running flat into the back of the No. 91 and sending him around sideways in front of the field.

Majeski has always fired-off really well over the years in a Super Late Model. Be it natural given talent, his engine package or Toby Nuttleman designed race cars, Majeski is just a really good restarter and he was ultimately penalized for it on Monday night.

There are two ways of looking at this too:

On one hand, the restart procedure works at the Florida half-mile without issue throughout the season during four Blizzard Series – Southern Super Series races throughout the summer. Majeski’s issue with restarting from the lead on the bottom is that Five Flags Speedway features a double-apex in Turns 3 and 4, which is why he wanted to fire off slightly higher on his second attempt.

Perhaps the best re-starter at the track is Bubba Pollard, and he frequently takes the outside during regular season races from the point. In hindsight, perhaps Majeski should have taken the outside — even at the risk of giving an always-aggressive Stephen Nasse the bottom barrelling into Turn 1.

On the other hand, perhaps the final five green flag laps of the Snowball Derby is not the place to overly-scrutinize a driver’s restart, especially when they were not egregiously susceptible to criticism.

And if you’re Majeski, just fire off the way you want to and make Rogers take it from you from race control.

Chance are, he wouldn’t make that call.

-BRADEN’S SIGNATURE MOMENT-

It’s a shame, honestly, that Travis Braden’s victory will get buried under the aforementioned headlines this week.

He deserves better.

Braden is a brilliant grassroots racer, a well-spoken mechanical engineer from the West Virginia University, and a gritty hard-nosed racer with an impressive resume without having the benefits of a considerable amount of funding behind him. He’s a two-time CRA Super Series champion, the 2016 Winchester 400 winner and was victorious in his ARCA Racing Series debut at IRP in 2015.

His pathway to the Tom Dawson is actually quite remarkable.

Braden first attempted to make the race in 2014 but failed to qualify on time and went home a day early. He came back with a Pro Late Model with Platinum Motorsports in 2016 and earned valuable experience.

Then came his Snowball Derby return in 2019, marred with so many setbacks.

Despite having one of the fastest cars throughout the week, he was involved in a dubious crash in the closing minutes of final Friday practice before time trials. He barely sneaked into the field of 37 by qualifying 30th in a qualifying session that only placed the top-30 into the main event. He lost a lap early in the race for pitting too soon. He needed a lucky dog to get back on the lead lap. He was spun with five laps to go, resulting in the restart that caused the 15-car pile-up on the frontstretch. He avoided damage in that crash and passed Jake Garcia for what he thought was second on the final lap.

It ultimately won him the race.

How storybook is that?

“Things were not going our way early in the race and that hurt us because of where we had to start,” Braden said. “I think we showed all week to everyone here that we belonged here in victory lane — that we could have done it outright.

“But you know what? I think for that reason it’s going to be the biggest thing to me to come back and win it the old fashioned way. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Braden is moving to North Carolina this winter. He will not be back in the ARCA Racing Series in 2020 but he’s excited about where he’s going and what he’s doing. And the long complicated pathway there led him to the Tom Dawson Trophy.

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Matt Weaver is the owner and founder of Short Track Scene. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He is also the associate motorsports editor of Autoweek Magazine and its website, which allows him to cover the highest levels of the sport.

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