Snow: The Only No-Show at the Snowball Derby

photo“Gentlemen, start your engines.”

Wait, what? This is the offseason.

“…David Ragan is on the pole, Kyle Busch rolls off fourth…”

Okay, I’m hallucinating. There is not a Sprint Cup race today. It’s the o-f-f-s-e-a-s-o-n.

“…in the 45th annual Snowball Derby!”

Well, that makes more sense. It’s not a Cup race – but what makes this “Snowball Derby” so special that Cup drivers jump behind the wheel of a race car just two short weeks after the NASCAR season’s finale at Homestead? I found out the answer to that question this past weekend.

First of all, this event creates a rare assimilation: from small-name short track racers to Cup stars. And, in contrast to the initial assumption that a Cup driver would check out on the rest of the field, almost every single driver in the Derby has a chance to take home the trophy – so long as that driver can survive the caution-filled race for the full 300 laps.

Even if a competitor is caught in a caution-causing entanglement, the Derby has provisions in order to keep the car in contention, if at all possible. Along with common racing procedures such as the wave around and Lucky Dog concepts, Derby rules enable teams to perform additional beneficent tasks.

Under red flag, teams are allowed to work on the car without penalty. Under the yellow, damaged cars are allowed to pull to the apron much sooner and speed up on the way to pit road to maximize repair time before the pace car traps them a lap down. And, to top it all off, the frequent cautions allow a damaged car to have many opportunities to regroup with the field and make their way back to the front.

Not only does 5 Flags Speedway produce frantic repair sessions on pit road, and close, fender-bumping racing, where laps tick away quicker than the blink of an eye and restarts never fail to be nail-biters, the aura encompassing the track is phenomenal.

The half-mile track that hosts the Snowball Derby, on the surface, may seem like a local short track for some Friday night casual entertainment – but it is far from that. This year’s winter spectacle at 5 Flags attracted fans from the far corners of the country, as well Canada, and even some from Germany; all passionate for wild short track racing.

Drivers add to the laid back atmosphere surrounding the Derby by being open and accessible, walking around pit road conversing with fans and pushing their cars alongside their crews; in contrast to the more structured vibe found at a typical NASCAR event. Each driver approachable, no matter their status in the hierarchy of racing.

Pre-race, fans who purchased VIP passes are given a large time window to explore all parts of the infield and pit road, with virtually no restrictions. When the racing concludes and victory celebrations commence, all fans – not just the ones who paid extra for VIP passes – are allowed through the fence to walk on the track and into the pit area, where drivers are nearly as accessible as they were to the VIPs pre-race.

The casual, informal semblance along with drivers from nearly every tier of racing creates an event like no other – the famed Snowball Derby. The event, so unique and stand-alone in stature, is a must-see for race fans everywhere. Maybe that’s why the Cup guys were so eager to join in the festivities.

By Alanis King

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