Well, I've been back in Pennsylvania for nearly a week now and I'm still recalling the week's events from the Pensacola, Florida area. I apologize that I didn't get a chance to post any sooner, but I've been so busy with work that it has taken me all week to get around to posting photos, videos and typing this. Over 300 photos can be found at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2064408&id=37801386&l=2fad6e2f6a and http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2064439&id=37801386&l=2d91f346c3, and over an hour of videos can be found at http://www.youtube.com/ajcrdstr24.
The trip started off a little bit sluggish. Due to the dreary weather, my connecting flight from Charlotte to Pensacola was delayed about an hour and a half. Once I arrived in rainy Pensacola and got my rental car, I was ready for some dinner and headed straight to Beef O' Brady's where Speed 51 was doing a Internet radio show. Guests included Snowball Derby competitors Mike Garvey, Dan Fredrickson and eventual winner Johanna Long. From there, I headed back to the hotel to get some much needed rest. The good news was absolutely no inclement weather was expected for the remainder of the week.
When I woke up Wednesday I did my first of three days of sightseeing. After all, an advantage of traveling to races is seeing some great parts of the country as well. I headed west into Alabama for the first time in my life and into downtown Mobile. It's a very nice little historic city with good food. I then headed a little further south and checked out where Mobile Dragway and Mobile International Speedway were located. On the way back, I saw Hank Aaron stadium, which includes his childhood home and museum. Little did I know that I was only 15 minutes away from entering Mississippi. There's always next time!
Wednesday evening I headed to Five Flags Speedway for their Green Flag Party. As a spectator, I have never experienced anything like this! The pit area was opened to the fans for FOUR hours, with live music on the frontstretch part of pit road where fellow fans, drivers, crews and staff mingled and had a great time. I had a chance to talk to Chase Elliott about the Pro Late Model the team was working on right in front of us. The highlight of the night is when I got my picture taken with NASCAR driver David Ragan. Afterward, a guy nudged me and told me to look at the picture that was just taken. I looked up and it was Rusty Wallace's son Steve, and in the picture he was making a goofy face behind us. Priceless stuff right there! Before the evening came to an end, I made sure to thank the track general manager Tim Bryant for all him and his staff do and that as I fan I appreciated them making me feel welcome.
Thursday morning it was time for some more sightseeing. I headed down towards Pensacola Beach. Since the high temperature was only around 60 degrees the beach and area around it were fairly empty, but it was nice to see the Gulf looking very nice again. After my brief experience at the beach, I drove back to downtown Pensacola. I really like downtown there because it didn't really feel like much of a big city at all. There were very few one way roads, there was ample free parking available in lots of areas and there was plenty to check out. Following this it was finally time to head to the track to see some racing, even though it only consisted of Snowball Derby and Snowflake 100 practice sessions during the afternoon. Even at that hour in the middle of the week, the track parking lot was full. It would be that way the remainder of the week, but there were free parking and shuttles available about a mile down the road every day and night.
After practice concluded, I could have stayed to watch two of the local races at the track. However, I decided that I wanted to do some racing (or so I call it). Down at the Fast Eddie's Fun Center there were affordable go-kart races being held, in which some drivers and members of the media were competing too. It was a small slick track so you had to have some ability to handle your kart, although many of the races turned out to have quite a bit of beating and banging. I purchased a pass to race in one of the normal races they do as practice and I finished 3rd. This wasn't too bad because later on the top two finishers from each heat race would transfer to the next round. Following the media and Snowball Derby drivers races it was time for the Snowball Showdown heat races. I was in the first heat race, and I must say it was pretty neat hearing SPEED's Bob Dillner introducing my name prior to the heat race! It was even neater getting to rub fenders with him and drivers like former NASCAR Southeast Series champion J.R. Norris and Revolution Racing development driver Rebecca Kasten. Unfortunately, I did not transfer in either of the heat races I competed in. I was knocked around like a pinball and came home 7th in the first one. Then for an additional fee they allowed you to enter more heat races. I didn't do too bad in the next heat race, finishing 4th a few seconds behind three guys that are actually race car drivers. Overall, it was a fun experience and even though I hadn't seen an actual feature race at Five Flags Speedway I already had a spectacular week so far.
Friday morning was my last stint sightseeing and then later that day began the main reason I came to Pensacola. I drove down to the National Naval Aviation Museum. Prior to walking in I thought this will be something I can walk around and tour for about a half hour to an hour. I was totally wrong. I spent at least two hours gazing at all that the museum had to offer. Even if you are like me and don't have much knowledge about the subject matter, I would highly suggest learning from everything available in this museum. It was simply breathtaking and a privilege to walk around a building like this.
After a bite for lunch it was time to head to the track. Up first were practice sessions followed by Super Stock, Modified and Snowball Derby qualifying sessions. Cale Gale tied the all time track record set by Gary Balough in 1980 for the Snowball Derby! Qualifying was so competitive that big names such as Jeff Fultz, Mike Garvey and Clay Rogers were forced to take provisionals for Sunday's race. The night's Super Stock and Modified feature races were complete mayhem. I seriously lost count of how many red flags were flown during the evening. The modified winner took the checkered flag at 11:59PM, concluding a long, cold and probably expensive night for some.
Saturday turned out to be a much more pleasant day weather and racing wise. The late morning began with the final Snowball Derby practice session and then Snowflake 100 qualifying for the Pro Late Models. Then followed the Snowball Derby last chance race where Scott Hantz beat out Ryan Sieg for the win. Top drivers such as David Rogers, Stephan McCurley and Ryan Blaney were sent packing. Next up were the Snowflake last chance races. Chase Elliott qualified 2nd for the race, but his time was disqualified due to a minor technical infraction. Him and Daniel Hemric, who was DQ'd prior to qualifying, marched to the front and transferred into the feature. During the Snowflake 100 race it looked like Augie Grill was going to run away with the race, which surprisingly only had two cautions. However, Chase Elliott steadily moved towards the front all while saving his tires and came from 31st starting spot to win the 100 lap race. I was listening to the radio on my scanner and there is probably no one better than his dad and spotter Awesome Bill to calmly coach him to the front. The evening's festivities were over by 8:30PM, a full three and a half hours prior to the previous night. Now it was time to get some rest and get set for the big race on Sunday!
Sunday morning, the streets and the track were packed. It was finally time for the 43rd Annual Snowball Derby! The race started off very clean, with some great battles and passing for the lead positions. It seemed like no one could hold down the lead for more than ten consecutive laps. The first caution was a heartbreaker, because Eddie Mercer in his last Snowball Derby was involved and done for the day. The next 200 laps saw some great green flag racing with some cautions and multi-car wrecks peppered through. The first 250 laps showed me that these are some of the best short track racers in the country. It seemed like just about every driver in the race took their turn at running in the top five or top ten. Lots of pit strategies occurred and near the closing stages it looked like my dark horse pick Donnie Wilson was going to be the car to beat. He had already passed by such talents as Chase Elliott and Landon Cassill and had his sights set on leader at that time Bubba Pollard. Then the two got together sending Pollard spinning and the first of many cautions near the end of the race. I still thought that Wilson had this race won, but when crash after crash occurred it was apparent that Johanna Long had the car to beat on fresher tires. Making things a little more confusing for the fans and competitors was Five Flags Speedway's rule about finishing under green. Their rule is once lap 295 is complete they must run five non-consecutive green flag laps. It took them until about lap 325 to do this, which perhaps cost Wilson the win. After some controversial battles for the top positions Long ended up taking the lead and pulled away during the last two green flag laps of the race. The local girl from Pensacola secured the popular win! Even if the rules may have been confusing it was still quite the exciting finish, which is what I'm sure each and every fan went there for.
So now my time vacationing is over and it's back to reality. I would definitely like to go again, but even as a spectator the cost of traveling on my own to an event like this starts to escalate. I highly recommend experiencing the entire week's festivities and what Pensacola and the surrounding areas have to offer. If anyone reading this has an interest in going in the future, please let me know and maybe as a group we can all cut some of the travel costs for transportation, lodging, etc.
Next up will be the Motorsports 2011 show followed by the Atlantic City Indoor Races in mid to late January once again. Until then, I hope everyone has a great holiday season! Thanks for reading!
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