Monday, December 3, 2018

Derby Days: Sunday is Derby Day

Noah Gragson, in a plume of smoke after a victory burnout, celebrates winning the Snowball Derby. (PixelatedSPEED Photo) 

Sunday is Derby Day. After an intense week of practice, support division features, and a monsoon, the time finally came. The 51st Annual Snowball Derby was set to go!

Well, almost. The day started with lingering wet conditions from the previous night’s storms. As the track officials continued to facilitate drying efforts, Derby Day began to roll.

That started with the Driver’s Meeting. Tim Bryant, Dan Spence and others took their turns giving their speel about how the day would be run. As that went on, I snapped as many candids of drivers and crew members in the crowd as I could.

After the driver’s meeting, I met up with fellow photographer Brad Newman. I wanted to take my own “class photo” on the backstretch as a keepsake of the weekend. Since PixelatedSPEED doesn’t have a fancy logo painted on the wall like a certain other media outlet, we both took a turn posing in front of the “Five Flags Speedway” lettering on the backstretch.

Once we got the class photo done, I began working pit road, taking candids and chatting with various people. I also got some journalism out of the way, interviewing a handful of drivers and posting the subsequent stories.

After the Saturday postponement, the Snowball Derby Last Chance Qualifier was moved to noon on Sunday. That start, however, was pushed further still by the continuing wetness left by the previous storms.

With nothing else better to do, and a very long day ahead, I grabbed some pizza from the concession and had lunch with Mr. Dave Pavlock, track announcing legend.

Then I met up with some friends from South Alabama Speedway… oh… did I mention that PixelatedSPEED is planning on attending the 2019 running of The Rattler? Yeah, that’s going to be a thing.

Roughly 45 minutes to an hour later than planned, the track was ready for action. The last chance cars made their way onto the speedway for a 30 lap dash to see who the final four drivers to transfer into the Snowball Derby would be.

Steve Wallace didn’t even get to take the green flag, as a mechanical issue sidelined him during the pace laps. The race itself proved, as usual, to be a crash fest, wiping out several cars before race’s end. Yes, I wanted to get good shots of the LCQ because it’s race, but I mainly used it as a raceday practice session for myself.

As the last chance race drew to a close, the field of Snowball Derby cars were pushed onto pit road.

Finally, the time had come. Pre-race ceremonies were underway. I got a few shots, but chose to forego the Derby class photo and introductions. Instead, I spent this time chatting with Wayne Okrzesik and some close friends that were in attendance. I also talked a little business with my colleague Brad Newman.

The race itself was pretty straight forward from my point of view. I’ll save the details of the actual racing for other articles, and focus on a couple of experiences I had.

I started on the frontstretch at the green flag, and slowly made my way around the infield, taking car shots and candids along the way. I go the opposite way of the traffic so I can pay closer attention to what’s coming at my on pit road. I’d rather not get run over.

Not long after I made it to the middle of turns one and two, the track started coming up. I guess the water did a little more damage to the track surface than what had been thought. Inevitably, this caused a yellow, and the track crew spent several laps filling in the pothole with asphalt. I didn’t think it’d last, but it did… some how.

I continued to make laps around the speedway, shooting cars, fans, pit road, the infield, and even some shots into the stands. I stopped periodically to check the standings, and checked with a few crews after accidents or other issues. Typical pit road journalism.

As the evening turned into night, and the laps drew down, I switched to flash photography, the area of photography I am worst at. I kept practicing, knowing that most of the shots I took were not going to be useful. Still, I prepared to get the best shot I could of the winning car crossing the finish line.

At some point, for some reason, I looked down and noticed that the diffuser on my flash was down. I flipped it up and wouldn’t you know it… my photos instantly got better. Just goes to show that I have a long, long way to go with this stuff. I reset myself, now knowing I could get a better shot, and got it! Given the lens I had, and the knowledge I had, I thought it was a pretty nice shot of Noah Gragson crossing the line.

After he took the checkered flag, Gragson did a burnout on the frontstretch, climbed out, and then climbed the fence! It was awesome, but I was in the path of the smoke. I didn’t get clear shots. I’ll have to work on them a little to get the good out of them.

Then we lined up for victory lane photos… doing the hat dance and such.

It was during this time that what I’m sure will become a long told story in the years to come occured. Noah Gragson went in to kiss Miss Snowball Derby, Helena Ciappina. At first, she turned away. After a couple of seconds, and with a smile, they kissed. No big deal from my perspective, but that didn’t stop a flood of negativity on social media the following day from it. Especially considering that Noah and Helena talked a great length about an hour later outside the tech inspection area, with Noah coming away with Miss Snowball Derby’s phone number! Oh yeah, I was standing right there for that too.

Speaking of tech. Technical inspection took a while, as it always does, but on this day it was perhaps the smoothest post Derby tech I’ve ever witnessed. While the crews tore down the machines for inspectors Ricky Brooks, Nick Rogers and the rest of the Room of Doom, I gathered interviews from the top three drivers, and chatted with others in the area about the night’s events.

After all was said and done, and no issues at all in tech inspection, the night had finally come to a close. The 51st Annual Snowball Derby was in the books. Time to wrap things up, head home and sleep well.

Unlike every other year, this year Derby Week doesn’t end on Sunday. After the postponement of the Snowflake 100, Derby Week is kind of morphing into Flake Week as the postponed Flake, and two support races will be held on Saturday, December 8th.  So that means there is one more weekend of racing coming, and I suppose a few more Derby Days to go.

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