Story By: CHUCK CORDER / FIVE FLAGS SPEEDWAY – PENNSACOLA, FL – Nothing like a little adversity on the path to achieving goals. Especially a lifetime goal.
Derek Thorn flipped for the Five Flags Speedway faithful more than a decade ago in his first Snowball Derby start. Battling for track position, a driver came across Thorn’s nose and sent him end-over-end on a highwire act that finished with thud in Turn No. 2. On Sunday—exactly 11 years since his barrel-roll—the 36-year-old Late Model stud became the first California driver to hoist the Tom Dawson Trophy when he won the 55th annual Snowball Derby presented by Hooters.
“The car was so dang good,” Thorn said. “It feels unbelievable to go back to California this time with the trophy.”
How dang good was the car? He led 307 of 318 total laps, as the 300-lap Super Late Model went into overtime with a series of late cautions.
Emotions overflowed in Victory Lane while reflecting on the last 365 days. Chandler Smith denied Thorn his first win in short-track racing’s most prestigious race last December with a controversial aggressive maneuver in another Derby edition Thorn dominated. He remained in his seat for several minutes Sunday processing the moment, sporting a giddy smile and blowing kisses to supporters.
“The disappointment can drain you. It has been tough,” Thorn admitted. “So, this definitely makes it special. It’s one of those achievements that I will always look back on.
“I still don’t know how to win this race. It takes a lotta luck and you gotta be there at the end.”
Thorn’s first career Derby title capped an incredible four-year run at the biggest race in America. He finished second the previous two runnings and sat on the pole three consecutive times (2019-2021). Thorn, who led more than 200 laps in each of the last three races, eclipsed Pensacola legend and 2005 Derby winner Eddie Mercer to become the Derby’s all-time laps leader en route to Sunday’s win.
The only bittersweet piece of the prize was it marked the final race Thorn would run for Byron Campbell Motorsports, a mutual decision both parties came to amicably.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to replicate what (the Campbells) have done,” a grateful and humbled Thorn said. “They always gave me such great racecars. Closing this chapter by winning the biggest race of my career, what a better way to end it.”
Sammy Smith finished runner-up and 27-year-old Stephen Nasse’s third was his best career finish in 12 starts.
Thorn had a sense of déjà vu throughout the race because of how balanced he was. Just like last year, he led the most laps. And just like last year, a Donnie Wilson Motorsports car was his toughest competition. But unlike a year ago, Thorn swatted away Sammy Smith, Cole Butcher and NASCAR Cup rising star William Byron—all piloting Wilson SLMs—instead of battling just Chandler Smith.
Sammy Smith had his own opportunity to rough up Thorn in hopes of securing the win similar to Chandler Smith before him. They dove into Turn No. 1 on the last restart with 315 laps complete. Thorn was glued to the bottom with Sammy Smith behind him and Nasse to the right of Thorn. Smith decided discretion was the better part of valor and chose not to move or, worse, wreck Thorn.
“Our only shot would’ve been to take (Thorn) out and dump in Turn No. 1,” the 18-year-old said. “We’ll be back next year. I wanna win this one.”
He and everybody else will have to catch up to Thorn, who will regroup to pursue other Late Model opportunities while mentoring and coaching young drivers as part of his racing team.
Position always matters at the Derby and Thorn has been exactly where he wants to be for four straight versions. Only on this first Sunday in December, Thorn wasn’t going to let any adversity keep him from staying in that preferred position.
“The whole from the drop of the green was to get clear of them,” Thorn said. “If they can’t get to your bumper in (Turn No.) 3, you know you’re in pretty good shape.”
1 43 Derek Thorn, Bakersfield, CA
2 22 Sammy Smith, Johnston, IA
3 51 Stephen Nasse, Pinellas Park, FL
4 26 Casey Roderick, Pulaski, MS
5 53 Cole Butcher, Porters Lake, NS Canada
6 24 William Byron, Charlotte, NC
7 35 Jake Garcia, Monroe, GA
8 8 Jase Hansen, Evans, CO
9 16 Jacob Gomes, Manteca, CA
10 91 Ty Majeski, Seymour, WI
11 48 Preston Peltier, Brighton, CO
12 32 Carson Kvapil, Mooresville, NC
13 26 Bubba Pollard, Senoia, GA
14 69 Michael Hinde, Hernando, FL
15 43 Daniel Dye, Deland, FL
16 2 Gio Ruggiero, Seekonk, MA
17 18 Ryan Luza, Cypress, TX
18 54 Matt Craig , Kannapolis, NC
19 9 Derek Kraus, Stratford, WI
20 30 Noah Gragson, Mooresville, NC
21 4 Luke Fenhaus, Wausau, WI
22 33 Dustin Smith, Mobile, AL
23 44 Jeremy Doss, Upper Lake, CA
24 51 Albert Francis, Zanesville, OH
25 26 Josh Berry, Statesville, NC
26 18 Hunter Robbins, Pensacola, FL
27 21 Jesse Love, Redwood City, CA
28 21 Corey Heim, Marietta, GA
29 98 Blaine Rocha, Oakdale, CA
30 1 Michael House, Columbia, TN
31 65 Tyler Tanner, Mooresville, NC
32 14 Austin Nason, Roscoe, IL
33 4 Erik Jones Byron, MI
34 51 Jake Finch, Lynn Haven, FL
35 44 Conner Jones, Fredericksburg, VA
36 112 Augie Grill, Hayden, AL