Plenty of cities across the country have nicknames. The origins of some are obvious - anyone who has ever felt a strong gust off Lake Michigan knows why Chicago is called “The Windy City” for example. On the other hand, some nicknames leave you scratching your head. For example, there are plenty of theories, but no reason of record, as to why New York City is called “The Big Apple”.
Pensacola, Florida's tag of “The City of Five Flags” dates back to fact that the flags of five different nations have once flown over the city. Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederate States of America and now the United States have all laid claim to the town. In modern days, the nickname has been applied to Five Flags Speedway - where the annual Snowball Derby is held every December.
And while it is almost certain that a checkered flag will greet the winner of the race on Sunday, December 6th (unless they win the race in the tech line… but that's a whole other issue), what is a great unknown is what type of flag that winner would want to hoist over victory lane. Drivers from Maine to Florida to Michigan to Nevada have entered the prestigious short track event this year. With so many great entries, a favorite can't be picked. It's not even easy to generalize on what type of driver could win the event. But, in the spirit of “Five Flags” there are a quintet of different groups of racers who hope to carry the flag of victory in the 42nd Annual Snowball Derby. Here's your scorecard:
Protectors of the Home Turf - The Snowball Derby is the biggest event of the Five Flags Speedway season, but it isn't the only time that Super Late Models are turned loose on the track over the racing year. A five-race Blizzard Series dazzles fans during the regular season and crowns a champion who is guaranteed a start in the Snowball Derby.
This year's Blizzard Series champion couldn't be much more local to the track. It is hometown girl Johanna Long. The popular teen driver grew up, lives and goes to school right by the track. She gained a love for racing by watching her father Donald race at Five Flags. There are even legions of Long fans throughout the Five Flags Grandstands. They are all said to have caught “Jo Mania”. Well, if this accomplished young racer can pull off a hometown victory on Sunday afternoon that might result in a whole new definition of mania.
But that doesn't mean that Long is the only hometrack favorite for fans to cheer for. Eddie Mercer is a former Snowball Derby winner who also hails from Pensacola. He's the kind of racer who legends are based on. It is said that the local kart track, Fast Eddie's, is named after him. Mercer is a public figure in the area thanks to his car dealerships and the Snowball Derby means the world to him.
Then there is Scott Carlson. The quiet, but aggressive, wheelman is also from Pensacola. He and his wife operate Fast Eddie's Fun Center - the aforementioned karting track. His son Brandon won last year's Snowflake 100. Seeing Scott win the Derby would be another feel good story.
But you don't have to be from Pensacola to run the Blizzard Series regularly. The winner of the past two Snowball Derbies, Augie Grill, hails from across the border in Alabama. He's still considered a local though thanks to his thousands of laps of experience at Five Flags Speedway.
Josh Hamner is also from Alabama, but he might as well be a local boy too. For awhile, he was. Hamner relocated to Pensacola for a season or so to work on racecars and be stationed closer to the track. The young racer grew up working on racecars and engines at the Derby and visited victory lane in the race as a crew member for the late Charlie Bradberry. Now, it might be his own turn to win the race.
Bubba Pollard knows a thing or two about going to victory lane at Five Flags as well in the Blizzard Series. He won the May Blizzard race in fact. He's from Georgia, but has spent plenty of time at the track.
Other Blizzard Series regulars expected for this year's Derby include Casey Smith, Hunter Robbins, Junior Niedecken and John Bolen.
Drivers From the Not-So-Deep-South - Because the Snowball Derby is such a big race, anyone with a Super Late Model within the several states of the track usually considers it a “can't miss” event.
So for those teams, all roads lead to Pensacola this week - it doesn't matter if you tow from Arkansas like Dennis Schoenfeld or Tennessee like Gary Helton or Heath Hindman.
Georgia will have a large contingent of teams at the Derby this year. In addition to Blizzard regular Bubba Pollard, who we already mentioned, you can expect to see Tyler, Milwood, Shane Sieg, Dwayne Baggay, David Hole, Justin Wakefield and Max Gresham there. Then there is Chase Elliott, who set the world on fire in his first full season of Pro and Super Late Model racing this year. The 13-year-old won in PASS South, Georgia Asphalt Series and ASA Southeast Asphalt Tour competition this year. He's also the son of 1988 NASCAR Cup Series champion Bill Elliott.
Further on up the road, a few teams from North Carolina will head to the Derby as well. Jeff Fultz comes off an emotional victory in the Super Late Model portion of the North South Shootout at Concord Speedway (NC) to try and win his first Derby. Also from North Carolina is the BDI Racing team owned by Bob Dillner. The team ran their first Derby last season with Modified driver Ryan Preece behind the wheel. This season, they've put multi-time Derby winner Bobby Gill into the seat of the #51 Chevrolet.
Big Names Who Are Dropping In From The Majors - The NASCAR Cup, Truck and Nationwide Series seasons are over, but that doesn't mean that racing is finished for some of the guys who race there.
Kyle Busch never met a big Super Late Model race that he didn't like and the Snowball Derby is no exception. Busch is entered in this year's Derby and since he won't be out in Las Vegas for the NASCAR Sprint Cup banquet, he can actually take enough time this year to dial in his car throughout days of practice. He'll be a force in the race. Also notable is the fact that Busch is funding the Derby trip out of his own pocket. He's not getting a big sponsorship or appearance check to just show up. If he's that serious about the event, you know that he's playing to win.
David Stremme has also invested considerable time and money into his race team. After running most of the 2009 NASCAR Cup Series season, Stremme will enter the Derby with his own #35 Super Late Model. He won the 2008 Winchester 400 and grew up racing these types of cars, so don't count him out.
Part-time Truck Series driver Brian Ickler crossed the finish line first in the 2008 version of the Derby. But then his Kyle Busch-owned car failed post-race technical inspection due to illegal brake blowers. He's back this year and has something to prove.
James Buescher and Brian Scott will also represent the Truck Series in this year's race.
And finally, there is NASCAR Nationwide Series regular Steven Wallace - who has experience plenty of interesting Derby moments. Wallace has won the race before. He's also been disqualified after its' last chance race and went home early. The reason for that is the kind of thing that Derby legend is made up. After his last chance race, Wallace was caught loading sockets into his pockets to help his entry meet minimum weight requirements. He'll never hear the end of that.
The Snowbirds - There isn't much racing going on in the Northern climates these days. Short tracks have mostly closed up for the season and the ice racing and snowmobile seasons haven't quite started yet. But places like Maine and the Upper Midwest are known through the warm weather months as racing hotbeds. So what is a true racer to do when he can't race close to home? Simple, they hit the road and head south.
Recently crowned CRA Super Series champion Johnny Van Doorn is set to make his Snowball Derby debut this season. He can pick up a few tips from the 2008 CRA champion Scott Hantz, who is used to making the Derby trip every season. PASS North and South standout Cassius Clark has been to the Derby twice before and was damn quick both times before bad luck kept him out of contention at the end of the day.
Ross Kenseth is looking to expand his winning ways beyond the Big 8 Series and the ASA Late Model Series and will be enjoying his first Snowball Derby experience. Kenseth, whose father is 2003 NASCAR Cup champion Matt Kenseth, has impressed plenty of observers this year with his performances up North and is could follow in the footsteps of second-generation driver Steven Wallace as a Derby winner. Many in the short track community think that Kenseth could prove to be more talented than Wallace too, so the sky might be the limit.
Then there is Michigan's Brian Campbell who is headed down South for Derby week. Campbell is a highly versatile driver who can win anywhere at any time. You won't be able to count him out.
From the Same State, But a Different World - You could drive through five states, have a beer in Texas and be back to Pensacola in less time than it would take to drive from Five Flags Speedway to the lower tip of Florida. The state is that big. As far as the racing realms go, the Central Florida scene is an entirely different world away.
That did not stop David Rogers and Jeremy Colangelo from leaving their comfort zones of New Smyrna Speedway and Orlando Speedworld this year to run the Blizzard Series schedule. They'll both be back for the Derby as well. We'll also see Wayne Anderson towing in from midstate and possibly Tim Russell as well. Russell recently won the Governor's Cup at New Smyrna.