Story By: CHUCK CORDER / FIVE FLAGS SPEEDWAY – PENSACOLA, FL – Death, taxes, and the Snowball Derby always delivering climactic conclusions. Those are life’s three certainties.
Every year, the best Super Late Model drivers arrive at Five Flags Speedway, desperate to hoist the Tom Dawson Trophy just as the sun sets on the first Sunday in December. The latest edition of short-track racing’s mountaintop at the famed half-mile asphalt oval didn’t disappoint either.
Chandler Smith, 19, won the 54th Annual Snowball Derby presented by Hooters thanks to rocketing from the back of the 37-car pack and making a late pass of California driver Derek Thorn that will be discussed and picked apart in short-track circles and on podcasts for eternity.
“Anybody who’s seen me grow up around here and other racetracks know that I don’t normally do that and that’s not me,” Smith explained his actions on Lap 292 of 300. “But Donnie Wilson and Donnie Wilson Motorsports deserve to win the Snowball Derby.
“God has His timing for everything. We’ve had some heartbreak throughout the year, but today was our day.”
Thorn, who sat on the pole for a record third consecutive year, led every lap until Smith moved him coming out of Turn No. 3 following the race’s final restart.
“I got a good jump and was clean off (Turn No.) 2,” Thorn said. “I’ll have to see the replay for what happened in Turn (No.) 3.”
Smith exited the Donnie Wilson Motorsports No. 26 in Victory Lane to mixed reviews. Some roared their approval for the Talking Rock, Ga., native while others heartily booed and pelted their newly crowned Derby king with obscenities. As he posed for photographs with the Ken Jernigan and Associates commemorative Derby ring, some comments fans hurled at Smith were hostile and aggressive. Smith, though, ignored them like any champion would.
Thorn, 35, saw his dream Derby week dashed eight laps from the finish when Smith barged right through him. It’s not often drivers struggle to accept runner-up finishes. Thorn had to swallow his maligned fate for a second year in a row. He also finished second to Ty Majeski in 2020.
“Was that a clean pass?” Thorn asked the crowd when interviewed for Racing America and over the public address system. Jeers and groans cascaded from the grandstands, as fans showed their disapproval in Smith’s move.
“I’ll let them talk for me,” Thorn continued. “I have a few choice words, but that’s not gonna change anything. I thought we won the Snowball Derby. We didn’t. This was an awesome week. I love coming here to race. We’ll try again.”
Canadian Cole Butcher, in another Donnie Wilson Motorsports car, rounded out the podium. It was quite the weekend for Mr. Wilson. Snakebitten for so many years as a driver, Wilson had three cars finish in the top-five with Iowan Sammy Smith occupying the fifth position.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Wilson, who wiped away tears after bear-hugging Chandler Smith. “To come out of the Derby finishing in the top-10 is an accomplishment in itself. For us to have the finishes we had is a testament to all the guys that work on these cars and some great drivers.”
Smith pitted in the opening 30 laps because of overheating issues and restarted at the tail end following the last unplanned caution. The race also had three controlled yellows following 75 green-flag laps.
“Well, we’re in the entertainment business, boys,” Smith told his guys over the radio just before the race went back green at Lap 34, Racing America editor-in-chief Matt Weaver tweeted out.
Smith went to work, clicking off spots and found himself back in the top-10 by Lap 119. Meanwhile, Thorn was dominant, the class of the field, and easily holding off challengers—NASCAR Cup star Ryan Preece (fourth) tangled with Thorn, as did Casey Roderick (15th), and the eventual champion. Smith had climbed past everyone except Thorn when the final controlled caution flew with 279 laps completed. Thorn led the field off pit row at Lap 287, focused on the final 13 laps and trying to suppress visions of hoisting the big trophy with the softball-sized plastic snowball sitting on top.
It had been a magical week for Thorn and his team. He was perfect coming into Sunday, making history along the way. He became the first driver to win three Derby poles in a row Friday and rewrote more record books when he captured the Allen Turner Snowflake 100 pole Saturday. Thorn went on to win the biggest Pro Late Model race in America and scored a $15,000 payday. He would’ve left Pensacola with more than $60,000 in total winnings had he come away with the victory.
“It’s heartbreaking,” a visibly frustrated Thorn said. “Everyone on this team who spent their time to come here and work as hard as they did, it’s not fair for those guys.”
Rich Bickle experienced his own brand of heartbreak in the final race of his illustrious 45-year career, struggling to a 31st finish. Choked up in pre-race festivities by a moving tribute from Tim Bryant and the Five Flags family, the five-time Derby champion reflected fondly on his love affair with the sport’s preeminent race.
“Where’d 45 years ago?” Bickle teased. “It has all been pretty special. I’ve been here when it froze, and it’s great to see all these people here today.”
Fourteen states and two countries were represented in the Derby field, which saw 10 rookies make their first career starts. Thorn has now led nearly 660 laps, the most by active drivers, in his nine Derby starts. He has now settled for bridesmaid honors two years in a row.
“Chandler did an excellent job,” Wilson said of his driver. “He stayed cool, calm, and collected. Thorn was the guy to beat all week. Chandler got up on the wheel and got it done.”
And provided another thrilling Derby finish that will be dissected for decades to come.
|1||Chandler Smith||Talking Rock, GA||26|
|2||Derek Thorn||Bakersfield, CA||43|
|3||Cole Butcher||Porters Lake, NS Canada||53|
|4||Ryan Preece||Kannapolis, NC||6|
|5||Sammy Smith||Johnston, IA||22|
|7||Carson Hocevar||Portage, MI||14|
|8||Stephen Nasse||Pinellas Park, FL||51|
|9||Corey Heim||Marietta, GA||78|
|10||Erik Jones||Byron, MI||4|
|11||Ty Majeski||Seymour, WI||91|
|12||Casey Johnson||Edgerton, WI-||5|
|13||Bubba Pollard||Senoia, GA||26|
|14||Brandon Watson||Barrie Ont. Canada||9|
|15||Casey Roderick||Pulaski, MS||25|
|16||Jase Hansen||Evans, CO||8|
|17||Derek Griffith||Hudson, NH||12|
|18||Jake Finch||Lynn Haven, FL||51|
|19||Grant Enfinger||Kannapolis, NC||32|
|20||Derek Krause||Stratford, WI||21|
|21||Kodie Connor||Kannapolis, NC||45|
|22||Luke Fenhaus||Wausau, WI||4|
|23||Kaden Honeycutt||Aledo, TX||96|
|24||Jeff Storm||Waterford, WI||25|
|25||Mason Diaz||Manasses, VA||24|
|26||Matt Craig||Kannapolis, NC||54|
|27||Jeremy Doss||Upper Lake, CA||44|
|28||Preston Peltier||Johnstown, CO||48|
|29||Jake Garcia||Monroe, GA||35|
|30||Dan Fredrickson||Northfield, MN||36|
|31||Rich Bickle||Sun Prairie, WI||45|
|32||Daniel Dye||Daytona Beach, FL||43|
|34||Jesse Love||Redwood City, CA||21|
|35||Jett Noland||Groveland, FL||81|
|36||Jeff Choquette||West Palm Beach, FL||21|
|37||Kyle Plott||Anderson, SC||4|