KENTUCKY (12/11/12) - Snowflake and Snowball…
Not to brag but there really hasn’t been too much in racing that hits me as new. I’ve been very lucky in the years I’ve invested in racing to do and see so much in the round and round world. When you’ve ate breakfast at and with Junior Johnson (ask an old-timer how exclusive that is) and when every photographer is scrambling all week to get a picture of Tom Cruise during filming of Days of Thunder at the Daytona 500 and right in the middle of the 500 miler you are wondering around pit road and all of a sudden said Cruise winds up in your face after filming crews just shot a sequence of him walking thru the pits and being able to snap a couple photos all the others have sought out all week to little luck, and when you are in a tiny little room with Bill Elliott, his brothers Dan and Ernie and ex-wife Martha, Sterlin Marlin and one of his Nashville crew guys from his Late Model team and two representatives of Coors Brewery at a hospitality event and a week later the Coors reps call and ask you who their first ever NASCAR sponsorship should go to… well it’s been a full life of that round and round.
I’ve seen racing at over 125 different race tracks in the country, it’s my life, it’s my job. So when the opportunity comes around to encounter something new to me, I’m as excited… well as all the little five year olds writing out their Christmas wish list this month.
A trip to Pensacola and the Snowball Derby weekend of racing at Five Flags Speedway two weekends back was one of those new opportunities for me. The Snowball Derby is now a 45 year tradition and has become the biggest short track racing event as far as prestige in stock car racing. Its win can send you to the NASCAR leagues in a matter of seconds of taking the checkered flags. It’s become a bench standard in the sport due to its longevity, and mainly in part to the list of notable winners over its 45 years.
But with no local drivers racing, only a couple of close by Nashville –area racers and one Louisville area racer going the search was on for a story angle to fill four days of practice and racing during my time there.
Thanks a to a Facebook friendship and my love to showcase polar opposites to tell a story sometimes, I decided to shadow crew member Nick Sokoloski during his first ever Snowball weekend. Polar opposites of weather, Sokoloski was making the trip from Kent City, Michigan with driver Weston Griffith of Crown Point, Indiana for the Snowflake portion of the Derby weekend.
The Snowflake is a 100 lap race around the half-mile track for Pro Late Models, cars with crate motors that are more affordable, than the bigger, more powerful and expensive Super Late Models that compete in the 300 lap Snowball Derby. The Snowflake goes green on Saturday night, prior to Sunday’s main event the Snowball. But for the teams competing in the events, their at track experience begins on Wednesday evening as the trucks and trailers with their cars are meticulously lined up in the infield of the race track where the teams will work from all weekend. It makes for a long five days for crew members such as Nick, who along with another crew member were responsible for getting the #33 Ford Fusion bodied Pro Late Model ready for its Florida trip and race.
For Nick, and for the world of short track stock car racing, the Snowball is the last race of the year and once last chance for a northerner like Nick to enjoy the sun and fun of racing until a long winter is over, unless one ventures back to Florida in February for Speedweek activities in and around Daytona Beach.
After shadowing Nick Thursday thru Saturday night it stuck out in my head how little time he or I, either one, had for fun in the sun. He noted on his Facebook page the last night he got to go out on a deck over the ocean bay and enjoy the sounds of the water and the nightlights of Pensacola Beach. I myself didn’t get a break basically until Sunday night and taking an extra day on Monday to come back to this wintery feel of Madisonville, KY.
It struck me no matter crew guy, racer or reporter there at the Snowball Derby or any major event for that matter, the pressure to perform is all the same on each and the enjoyment of the event is something different than those sitting in the stands experiences.
Nick spent the majority of his time hidden from view in tires stacked up over his head. As the tire specialist for the 33 team, he was in charge of matching tires to give the car its best handling characteristics first for qualifying, then a qualifying race and finally the 100 lap race itself. Practice time on the track gives the team the chance to change all the angles of the car as to how it fits on to the track via those four round patches of rubber we take for granted each and every day. Throw in all kinds of variables and it’s a pressure cooker for those inside the circle trying to go as fast as they can.
A tape measure, a pencil and a notepad became Nick’s best friends. He saw little racing from his view inside the tire mounds, race car trailers and all the back and forth required from the tire compound to the teams pit area behind their trailer. With the pits full and a flurry of activity, not only Nick but any of us in the infield doing our jobs only seen a small 100 feet of action. For reporters up on the outside of the track they can see and absorb nearly all the activities, but those inside often miss out on a lot of the action and sometimes enjoyment of a race. The enjoyment comes from, like for Nick, having a hand prepping a car and seeing how fast it can go and the desire to be a part of a winning entry.
The 33 team had its ups and downs, often being quick in the several practice sessions. But putting new tires on the car for a simulated qualifying effort sent the 33 spinning and in to the wall. It sent Nick and the other crew members in to a rush to repair the slight front end damage and to get the car presented for qualifying. A slower than anticipated qualifying lap put Weston in the position of having to race a 50 lap qualifier event to make the 100 lapper. Gaining a starting spot thru that qualifier he joined three others at the back of the Snowflake field. Getting caught up in someone’s wreck during the 100 lapper, the 33 finished the race but without being a factor in the top ten.
Watching the team over the days in Pensacola, it reminded me no matter if it’s the Daytona 500, the Snowball Derby or a local race say at one of our area quarter or 3/8th’s mile dirt tracks, it’s all the same. And no matter if it’s the 124th different track I’ve went to or the 125th, it’s an excitement each and every time to see the race cars on the track, even if for some of us at times it’s in little portions, it’s the teamwork, the desire to see and be a part of something successful and love of cars that takes us to the track each chance we get.
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