Every pavement Super Late Model racer has aspirations of winning one of the sport’s crown jewel events. Among those most coveted of races, and likely at the top of the list for most drivers and teams, is the Snowball Derby. That event is held each December at Five Flags Speedway in what many consider the ‘Super Bowl of Short Track Racing’. Now, the time has come for teams to make their yearly trek to Pensacola, Florida for the 52nd annual version of that storied short track race.
Stephen Nasse is one of those drivers whose efforts have been pointing toward this race throughout this season, and indeed, throughout much of his racing career. And the 2019 Snowball Derby is particularly special as the 24-year-old driver believes this time around provides one of his best opportunities to capture the glory that would come along with winning this prestigious event. After having scored victories in the U.S. Short Track Nationals at Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway and the Winchester 400 at Winchester(IN) Speedway already this season, the Pinellas Park, Florida native has shown that he can indeed win the sport’s biggest events.
Nasse believes that the momentum built from his October win in the Winchester 400 crown jewel event will be beneficial leading into the Snowball Derby. At the same time, the driver of the No. 51 Fury Race Car isn’t going into this coming weekend dangerously over-confident.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” Nasse admitted in an interview with InsideCircleTrack.com. “My last run at Pensacola was pretty good but the one before that we just struggled. Like I’ve said, when it comes to the end of the regular season, we just pick it up so going into the Derby I’m hoping everything falls into place. I think we’re going to be great.”
The Snowball Derby is renowned for being tough on competitors who might try to find the “gray areas” within the rule book. However, the Jett Motorsports team believes their car will be up to the challenge posed by the ‘Room of Doom’ technical inspection station at Five Flags Speedway.
“It puts a big stress on us, but at the same time, if we go with what we’ve been doing all year, we don’t try to change up and do any funny business, that’s what it’s all about,” the driver remarked. “We’re pretty confident that we go with what we’ve been running. That doesn’t seem to worry us too much.”
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Feeling confident regarding his team’s preparation and ability to get the car though technical inspection does not mean the stress of pre-race activities is over. Qualifying runs for the Snowball Derby are among the most intense and worrisome laps any driver in short-track racing will ever face. The top-30 in time-trials are locked into the field for the main event with all others having to make it onto the starting grid by virtue of a Last Chance Race held the night before the Derby.
Nasse has made it into the Sunday feature through the Last Chance Race before but would very much like to avoid that potential pitfall this weekend.
“The biggest thing come Derby time is qualifying,” Nasse declared. “I don’t know what it is but in my younger years, I say that being only 24, but when I was 16 I feel like I was qualifying on the pole everywhere. Qualifying was never an issue, the issue was racing. For some reason lately, I’m really good racing but I can’t qualify. I mean I can qualify but we just haven’t hit the setup right. I know we’re working hard and it will come to us but that’s the biggest worry going into Derby time. You don’t want to have to deal with last chance stuff even though it doesn’t end your Derby weekend, I think I’ve proven that, but that puts some extra stress on you that you don’t need.”
Despite the fact that Five Flags Speedway is located in his home state, Nasse does not necessarily regard the track as one of the most comfortable environments at which he races. The driver explains that he has spent relatively little time in the panhandle portion of the ‘Sunshine State’ compared to his home region further south.
Nasse has competed in the Snowball Derby since 2011. And despite showing speed in Pensacola at times, the best finish the No. 51 has accomplished in this the biggest race in this form of the sport has been a sixth back in 2014. A winning run in 2019 would certainly improve this driver’s view point regarding this half-mile speedway.
“I’ve spent more time in south Florida,” Nasse pointed out. “People think with me being from Florida that Pensacola is more of a home track type situation but that’s not really the case. I’ve only been to Pensacola a handful of times. Even though I am fairly comfortable there and I feel like we have had good runs there, I haven’t been there as much as places like New Smyrna Speedway or somewhere like Punta Gorda(4-17 Southern Speedway), DeSoto Speedway or Showtime Speedway. I am comfortable there, but at the same time, it’s not my home track. I haven’t really picked up a big win there, or as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve picked up any wins except for the last chance race in the year I almost won. It’s tough because the guys that run there are really good so maybe when we get that win, the first one can be the Snowball Derby and that would be sweet.”
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A major part of the story in the 2018 Snowball Derby was the fact that Nasse was making a strong run through the field before a loose wheel caused a crash that ended his night. Following the incident, the emotional racer walked back to his pit area and engaged in a confrontation with the pit crew that had been performing the tire changes on his car.
In past years, teams were called upon to perform live pit stops during the course of the race. As a result, many car owners “rented” pit crews from NASCAR organizations feeling that it would be necessary to keep pace with the competitors who already had ties to those crews. Nasse and his team employed a crew from Roush-Fenway Racing and he believed they failed to tighten the lug nuts during one of his pit stops which led to his eventual demise on lap 212 of 300.
The 2019 version of the Snowball Derby will feature controlled stops under caution and will not require teams to pay for professional NASCAR crews.
“Of course I’m happy with it,” Nasse said of the rule change eliminating live pit stops under caution. “That hurt a lot of people, not only me, but I feel like I’m the one that showed out about it and actually did something that brought it to light. Multiple, multiple, multiple years, not only in the Derby, you go back to all kinds of races like Winchester, the World Crown, and all those things, those pit crews have affected those races. It hurts the good guys because there are good pit crews that you can rent, I’ve had them, but it’s a 50/50 shot.”
Nasse insists that the crew he hired last year did not take their responsibilities seriously.
“When you’re spending that kind of money like I did that weekend and those guys didn’t even care,” Nasse claimed. “They just dropped their bags and went on. I had people to compare them to like my teammate now, Jeff Choquette. His guys got there and they’re working and looking over the car like they wanted to be there. If all of them could be like that, pit stops wouldn’t be an issue. But you get those guys who just come for a paycheck or come just because it’s the Snowball Derby but they really aren’t that great. Even though it’s Late Model racing, we still need the best of the best especially in those situations because we’re forking out a lot of money.”
The Snowball Derby will be contested on Sunday, December 8th. It will be broadcast live on a PPV basis by Speed51.com.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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