Story By: CHUCK CORDER / 5 FLAGS SPEEDWAY – PENSACOLA, FL – Eight years ago, Derek Thorn barrel-rolled his way into the hearts of Snowball Derby fans.
On Saturday night, a capacity crowd at Five Flags Speedway witnessed Thorn outduel Augie Grill, Bubba Pollard and the most dazzling Pro Late Model drivers in North America to win the Allen Turner Snowflake 100 at the 52nd annual Snowball Derby.
The spectators roared when the California driver climbed out of his car in Victory Lane, and the celebration certainly wasn’t muted. But everyone – be it drivers, teams, fans, or officials – still was swept away in the aftermath of one of the scariest incidents in the iconic track’s long history.
A dropped fuel cell ignited a streak of fire across the entirety of Turn No. 3, and 26-year-old Alabama driver Justin Bonnett was caught in the raging flames before first responders arrived on the scene quickly. Bonnett was transported to a local hospital briefly before being moved to a Mobile hospital to treat his injuries, according to his racing’s Facebook page.
The win marked the third career victory for Thorn at Pensacola’s high banks, but none bigger than the “Flake,” a race won three times by Grill (2009, 2011, 2016) and twice by Pollard (2014, 2017).
“This car was lightning quick,” Thorn said. “It hasn’t sunk in, but (darn) this feels good.”
While he won PLM features in both 2015 and 2016 at Five Flags, Thorn dubiously is remembered for the wild ride he endured at the 2011 Derby. Battling for position in the sport’s biggest race, Thorn went airborne, spiraling like a football before landing in Turn No. 2.
Fast-forward to the present and the 33-year-old from Lakeport, CA, couldn’t have dream of a better weekend scenario in Pensacola. Thorn’s Derby was already a memorable one before Saturday night rolled around. He set the fast time (16.277 seconds) for Derby qualifying Friday, earning the right to sit on the pole for short-track racing’s main event today.
Thorn will attempt to accomplish what no driver has done before him and sweep the weekend. Since the Flake’s inception in 1999, only a handful have been lucky enough to try.
“If you told me we’d win the pole this week in the Derby race and have this win in our first Snowflake 100, I can’t believe it,” Thorn said. “If I could only rub my crystal ball and (predict a sweep). I don’t know. This has been an awesome weekend already, and this is icing on the cake.”
Grill took home the runner-up finish while 15-year-old Sammy Smith impressed with a spot on the podium in third.
The veteran Grill qualified on the pole (16.662 seconds) and didn’t relinquish the lead until Thorn got him on a Lap 64 restart.
“Derek caught me napping there on that restart and got a nose under me,” Grill said. “I think we had about dead-even cars, but I needed to be in front of him, not behind him. Hats off to him, he had a great run.”
Thorn qualified second and stayed there all night before finally making his move.
Here is the unofficial finish: