When the average person hears the name “Pensacola,” they probably think about white sandy beaches and the Blue Angels flying overhead. Since you’re reading Speed51.com right now, chances are when you hear “Pensacola” you think of Pensacola’s historic short track – Five Flags Speedway. And who can think about Five Flags Speedway without thinking of the Snowball Derby?
Well when it comes down to this time of year, just a few short weeks away from the ultimate short track racing event, the Snowball Derby at the top of the minds of everyone in and around Pensacola, Florida as well. And nothing gets those Florida panhandle fans more excited than seeing their own out there on that historic half-mile.
The first Snowball Derby was run in 1968 and it was none other than the Florida Panhandle’s own Wayne Niedecken that went to victory lane that afternoon for his first of two Snowball Derby wins. And after spending his formative years at the racetrack, Niedecken’s son Wayne Niedecken Jr., better known simply as Junior around these parts, has since been trying to bring home a Derby trophy of his own to Pensacola.
“In my younger days I was always very excited about the Derby coming,” said Niedecken. “It’s a big race and it brought in everybody, I mean the big names. In that day and era it brought in all the NASCAR flavors. You know, you’d have Darrell Waltrip, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett – that era.”
As much as Niedecken would love to add his name to the esteemed list of winners of the prestigious event, he knows he going to have to go about it in a much different way than his father did.
“In today’s era, racing has changed so much,” explained Niedecken. “The drivers have gotten younger and younger and younger, but it’s still an equally great race and still very hard race to make. The competition level is so extreme that just qualifying for the race now is a race in itself, and to make that show you’d call it a feather in your hat.”
As he watches his competition getting younger and younger, Niedecken knows that now is his time to add his name to that list of previous winners as the second Niedecken to win the Snowball Derby.
“At my age and with my racing career getting towards the end, I really want to excel and run good,” said Niedecken. “I would love to win the race before I retire. I have come very, very close to winning it several times and that’s what I’m shooting for now. I’m shooting for an excellent car, make the show and have another good run and a chance at winning the big one.”
Niedecken isn’t alone in his quest to keep the trophy in Pensacola. Car owner Tracy Goodson has also been after the Snowball Derby champion’s title for many years and will again compete with the best of the best this year to take his shot at bringing the trophy home to Pensacola.
Goodson is a staple of the Pensacola community not only as a car owner, but as a business owner as well. His local Bingo Paradise and Beef O’Brady’s locations invite drivers, teams and fans alike to sit down and enjoy themselves every night while they’re in town. But he doesn’t want them to get to comfy. After all they are still the competition.
Although he’s no longer behind the wheel himself, Goodson will have short track veteran Mike Garvey in the seat of his familiar yellow #1 machine this year to take his shot and the win in the prestigious 300-lapper.
“It’s a race I’ve always wanted to win,” said Goodson. “The best I ever got to run in it was third and it’s just everybody’s dream. I feel like we’ve got as good of a shot as ever this year. We’ve got a new motor, new car – every piece of it, so who knows, we’ll hope for the best. But it means a lot. I always said when I was racing that if I ever won that race I would retire and I’ve known a lot of people who’ve won it and didn’t retire and keep coming back. I mean, it’s a big race and it would be so exciting for our organization just because of the past history of the event and what it would mean for us to be the champions.”
When discussing what scoring a Derby win for the home team would mean to him, Goodson almost had a tear come to his eye just thinking about the possibilities.
“It’s a big deal when a local driver like Johanna (Long, 2010 winner) or Eddie Mercer (2005 winner) wins,” said Goodson. “Everybody wants to support the locals. We’ve been around here for 20-something years racing, so we’ve got a lot of those fans from just down the street that want to see somebody they know and they’ve watched race all year get it done. Everybody loves to see a local win it – whether it be Johanna, my team or anybody from down there who’s racing at Pensacola. It’s a special race for me.”
Speaking of Long, it was just one year ago that Pensacola’s own princess laid one on the big boys and took home the trophy in just her third Snowball Derby start.
In Pensacola, Florida it’s been said that you can’t even go to the local Wal-Mart without running into at least one person wearing one of those now infamous “Jo” shirts. And to say that Johanna Long has won over the hearts of the local fans would be a vast understatement. When Long takes to the track at Five Flags Speedway, it is local news and a cheering section appears.
Now coming off a year of learning in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the Pine Forest High School in Pensacola graduate Long is ready to come home to her local fans and take a shot at becoming one of only two other back to back winners of the event (Augie Grill [2007,2008] and Rich Bickle, Jr [1990,1991,1998,1999]).
“It means so much,” said Long. “I’ve had a lot of bad luck this year and when I need a confidence booster I always go back and watch the video of me winning the race. It just always keeps me up on my feet and knowing that I do belong out here and I just can’t wait to go back to the Derby. We’ve had a lot of tough luck there too this year, but I think we’re going to have a really fast car and hopefully we can do it again.”
Long acknowledges that in a field of competition as strong as the Derby’s, it’s not just talent that gets you to the front. It’s also a whole lot of luck
“Everything played out in our way,” explained Long. “The Snowball Derby is all about luck. You also have to have a good car but it’s not going to happen without luck on your side. And we had both the car and the luck. Winning the Derby is special for anyone but it was great for me because my Paw-Paw that just passed away was able to be there with all of my family. It was just honor to just win that race for him because he’s been watching my dad run that race for 13 years.”
Long’s father, Donald Long, spent many years in Super Late Model competition at Five Flags Speedway. Like Niedecken and Goodson, he made many attempts at the Derby trophy but it always went home with someone else. It wasn’t until he stepped out of the seat and put his daughter in that the trophy went back to the Long house.
“He won the race,” said Johanna Long. “It’s me and him together and that’s how all of our family looks at it. We’ve been running this race all together for 14 or 15 years now and we finally got one under our belt. Now we’re hoping we can get another one.”
Although it resided in Pensacola for a while, Long brought her most prized possession – the Snowball Derby’s Tom Dawson Trophy - with her to North Carolina when she moved there earlier in the year to pursue her NASCAR Camping World Truck Series opportunities.
“It’s the first thing I see in the morning,” said Long. “It’s sitting right on my desk and my picture of me kissing it is right beside it. When I moved to North Carolina, the one thing in my front seat was my Snowball Derby trophy and I had it strapped in a seatbelt. It wasn’t going anywhere.”
So maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have another one to keep in the Sunshine State?
“It’s so awesome to go down there and see all of those fans,” said Long. “They really are the greatest in the world. And they love to see a regular, a Pensacola native I guess you could say, win it. All my fans and all of my family come out and sit in turns one and two and it’s so great that they are all able to be involved like that. I love everyone in Pensacola and I’m just so excited to go back home to race in front of that crowd.”
As we close in on the 44th Annual Snowball Derby just a matter of days away, you really can’t help but get excited about seeing the best Super Late Model drivers in the country coming out and put on a show, fighting for the title of Snowball Derby champion in front of some of the most loyal fans in racing - the fans of the Snowball Derby.