Steward of the Derby: Five Flags Speedway’s Tim Bryant continues to build on Snowball Derby’s legacy

(Photo: Susan Wong/NASCAR)

PENSACOLA, Florida – Tim Bryant stood in the main office of Five Flags Speedway on Saturday morning watching it rain.

Only an hour before, he had been forced to postpone Saturday’s Snowball Derby activities, including the Pro Late Model Snowflake 100, to Monday due to torrential rain that had inundated Florida’s panhandle.

The decision wasn’t one Bryant wanted to make, especially not during his biggest race weekend of the year.

“It’s very challenging, for one thing,” said Bryant, who works as the general manager and co-owner of Five Flags Speedway. “At the end of the day, we can’t control the weather and we have to make the best decisions we can as far as rescheduling.

“We’ve got race teams that are from all over the country and they want to stay until they do race.”

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Despite Mother Nature’s untimely interference, the 56th running of the Snowball Derby remains on track for Sunday afternoon.

Reserved seating for the event sold out the day before Thanksgiving, leaving just general admission and standing room only tickets available for race fans hoping to watch arguably the biggest Super Late Model race in the country in person.

It’s a testament to how big the Snowball Derby, which was created by former track owner Tom Dawson in 1968, has grown in the last 30 years.

“There is just a lot of electricity from the time you come through the gate,” said Bryant. “We don’t take a whole lot of credit for that. We’re trying to orchestrate all the chaos that goes on here the best we can. But the fans are just awesome. They’re having a good time, many of them are here for a week.

“We’re motivated by people and the loyalty that people have shown the event. I feel an extreme obligation to them to try and continue to improve it.”

William Byron during Snowball Derby qualifying at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, on December 1, 2023. (Photo: Susan Wong/NASCAR)

The Bryant family have been the stewards of Five Flags Speedway since the 2004 season, when they initially leased the track before purchasing it a few years later. Prior to becoming owners of the facility, Bryant and his family were trackside vendors at the half-mile oval, selling tires and race parts to competitors.

“We leased it for the first three years and obviously put a lot of heart into it and we were kind of stuck there at that point,” Bryant said. “In our third year we had the option to purchase and we were able to do so. We’ve owned it ever since.”

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Even before Bryant and his family acquired Five Flags Speedway, the Snowball Derby had a long history of drawing in the best competitors from across the country. You need only look at a list of Snowball Derby winners – and a list of those who haven’t won – to truly understand that.

In the early years, drivers like Wayne Niedecken, Friday Hassler, Dickie Davis and Ed Howe claimed Snowball Derby victories. They were followed by men such as Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton, NASCAR Hall of Famer Donnie Allison and three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip.

Through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, short-track racing stars like Freddy Fryar, Butch Lindley, Jody Ridley, Rich Bickle, Gary St. Amant, Bobby Gill, Jeff Purvis and Tammy Jo Kirk also found their way into Victory Lane at the Snowball Derby.

In recent years the event has served as a launching point for young NASCAR stars like Erik Jones, who used back-to-back Snowball Derby victories in 2012 and ’13 to catapult himself to NASCAR stardom.

The Tom Dawson Trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the Snowball Derby, sits in the office at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, on December 2, 2023. (Photo: Susan Wong/NASCAR)

When you consider the list of drivers who have won the event during the past decade, which includes Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, John Hunter Nemechek, Christian Eckes and the most recent winner Derek Thorn, you also must consider the list of those who haven’t won it.

Bobby Allison, Red Farmer, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Neil Bonnett, Jack Ingram, Harry Gant, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Dick Trickle, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte, Ken Schrader, Johnny Benson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Petty, as well as current stars like William Byron, Christopher Bell, Ryan Preece, Josh Berry, Brad Keselowski, Corey LaJoie and Harrison Burton have all tried and failed to win the Snowball Derby.

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“The best of the best is how people look at this event,” Bryant said. “Most of these drivers knowing, that if they can pull off a win here, or even in some cases just a good run here, it raises their status up a notch. I believe that’s true. In fact, we’ve had some young guys come in and win the event and go on to bigger and better things in the NASCAR world. I think that’s in the back of a lot of these driver’s minds, especially the young guys who are looking to work their way up.

“They know if they can notch a Snowball, then it has the potential to open some doors for them. Your diehard short track guys, your Stephen Nasses and your Bubba Pollards, guys like that, your Derek Thorns, they thrive on that. Number one, they like to beat the NASCAR guys. They just kind of thrive on being able to beat the best.”

Situated in his office on a gloomy afternoon at Five Flags Speedway, Bryant continued to watch it pour, now harder than it had all morning.

Despite the disappointment that came with postponing Saturday’s on-track activity, he was confident that what Five Flags Speedway has in store for fans and competitors on Sunday would make up for it.

“We feel like we dodged a bullet yesterday. We got qualifying in, which is vitally important to the Snowball Derby,” Bryant said. “We got that done on a day when Mother Nature said we really shouldn’t be planning on racing. She said she was going to rain all day today and she was right on that.

“If she continues her pattern then maybe she’ll be right again tomorrow hopefully because it looks like it’s going to clear out. We’ve got some work to do as far as preparing our facility after all this rain and we hope it clears out sooner than later, but our plans are to be ready to go tomorrow morning.”