PENSACOLA, FL ‑ The roar of three dozen super late model race cars crescendos every 15 seconds or so as they round turn one at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. This track, where the green flag has launched the 53rd Annual Snowball Derby on Dec. 6th, is a draw for some of the best race car drivers in the country including Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.
And with every successful driver comes a pit crew team that springs into action changing tires, refueling, cleaning the windshield and making adjustments to the suspension.
Campbell Motorsports #43 super late model car is considered to be the fastest car on the track.
That’s why the crew team is set up at spot No. 1 on pit row.
Driver Derek Thorn, 34, of Bakersfield, California where the team is based, is one of the top 10 short track race car drivers of the decade and the all-time winningest SRL Southwest Tour driver.
With a time of 16.258 seconds, Thorn won his choice of spots in the race and that pit position at turn one at the edge of the track.
Car owner Byron Campbell said before the race that, “A win comes down to timing of tire changes and a lot of luck.” Campbell knows his car is the fastest. Thorn continually proves it with wins like the one that gave him the top pole spot for this race.
“It takes a lot of money to get back here,” Campbell said about trailering cars and crew members across the country. “And a lot of preparation and time.” It’s his seventh try at the trophy that brings a $25,000 purse. “It takes a lot of luck, the best car doesn’t always win,” he said.
Crew Chief Mike Keen had been working with Thorn for 11 years now. As crew chief he says his job is to listen to what Derek says about how he wants the car to handle. “Then we make decisions based on that,” Keen said.
His pit crew team is made up of a tire guy, “And three other guys who can do basically everything else,” Keen said.
Thorn was steady and focused before the race it seemed, but he said he was a ball of nerves.
“Last year I lost the initial lead right off the bat,” he said before the race. “There’s a lot of good guys behind you.”
His car has been through a lot recently. “We ran Nashville a month ago and dominated the race,” Thorn said. “And ended up getting wrecked.
“We fixed it all, but brought a back up car,” Thorn said.
In the pits before the race Tire Guy Matt Philpott, who grew up with Thorn but is now based out of North Carolina with Joe Gibbs Racing, is measuring the 12 tires lined up in sets of four.
He’s preparing them to accommodate the stagger. “The right side tires are a little bigger than the left sides because they are making left turns,” Philpott said.
Philpott’s father David Philpott was a late model driver, so Matt been around racing most of his life. His job is to listen to what the driver tells him he is experiencing on the track and to make adjustments based on that information. He also keeps track of other variables such as air and asphalt surface temperatures.
Winning the coveted pole position not only got Thorn the first space on pit row, but also a chance to accept the “Back to the Front” challenge. If Thorn chose to start from the rear of the race, he would earn an extra $25,000 if ended up winning.
After driver intros, Thorn was brought up on stage to announce the team’s decision.
“We’re gonna pass,” Thorn told the crowd after much deliberation by the car owner and racing team.
That decision led to Thorn breaking Chase Eilliott’s 2013 record for the most laps in the lead. Thorn led the field of cars for 252 laps out of 302.
On the big screen fans watched Thorn’s car blast around the track. The pit crew calmly watched every move. They were prepped with tires lined up and fuel at the ready.
During each of the three pit stops the pole with a bright yellow 43 on it was extended out signaling for Thorn that the crew was waiting for him. Jacks started pumping up the car as lug nuts were being removed. Four tires came off and were replaced in minutes. A total of 27 gallons of racing fuel went into the tank during those three stops. Twelve gallons on the first stop, then 10 on the second and a final topper of five gallons.
The windshield washdown made for a clean view and was the last touchup during the pit stops before the pit crew stepped back and sent Thorn on his way.
The secret to a well-honed pit crew was that they have worked together for years, car sponsor Dave Reeves said. Reeves started backing Thorn with a personal endorsement in 2018 and added his name to the car this year.
“It’s the best team I’ve ever been with,” Reeves said.
But just as Campbell said before the race, it’s not always the fastest car that wins the Snowball Derby.
It was a final restart with five laps to go that led to Thorn getting outrun by car No. 91 Driver Ty Majeski, a 26-year-old Wisconsin native.
Thorn and his team took home second place, a $12,500 check, a 4-foot tall trophy, a list of 34 drivers that finished behind him including NASCAR champs Elliott and Busch, and a Snowball Derby all-time track record as a leader in laps.
Watch the pit crew in action below: