Craig Murto: Champs crowned, Derby awaits

Craig Murto

Local and regional track champions have been crowned, so it’s a good time to take a look at the names that took home the big trophies at the end of 2014.

Winchester Speedway’s Late Model champion was J.T. Spence, a deserving racer and veteran of the weekly battles on the Winchester clay.

At Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro, Greg Roberson grabbed the Late Model laurels. Farther south at Natural Bridge Speedway, Joe Leavell took the title.

On the east side of Interstate 95 in Saluda is Virginia Motor Speedway, owned by the Sawyer family which once promoted NASCAR Cup races at the Richmond Fairgrounds. Justin Williams won the Late Model track title at Saluda in 2014.

On the pavement at Shenandoah Speedway we saw a resurgence in 2014, with car counts in the Late Model division better than they’ve been in recent years. Doug Liberman, a former champion at Old Dominion Speedway before it closed, grabbed the Shenandoah title with six wins.

The local short track season is over, but racing is far from finished. Whereas there are big dirt Late Model races around the country throughout the year, the annual season-ending 300-lap Snowball Derby on the pavement at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., is by far the biggest event in short-track racing.

The list of winners of the race reads like a who’s who of short track racing, many of the winners accomplished on both dirt and pavement. In no particular order, since the first race in 1968 winners have included Pete Hamilton, Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Jody Ridley, Gary St. Amant, Jeff Purvis, Bobby Gill, Gary Balough, Rich Bickle, Ted Musgrave, Freddy Fryar, Clay Rogers, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliot.

Two women have won the Snowball Derby. Tammy Jo Kirk became the first. Best known for racing in the NASCAR Truck Series for Geoff Bodine, Kirk raced Super Late Models for a number of years. She actually started her career on two wheels and was the first woman to have a national number in flat track motorcycle competition.

More recently, Johanna Long won the Snowball Derby. Hopefully, Long can get funding to show her talents in NASCAR competition again; she is certainly better than any equipment she’s driven in the past.

Driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM), Erik Jones will try to make history by winning the 47th running of the Snowball Derby on Sunday and becoming the first racer to win three in a row. Jones got his big break when he outraced Busch to win the Snowball Derby a couple years ago. Busch realized Jones’ talent, and Jones has been driving for KBM since.

And if you can’t be in Pensacola for the Snowball Derby or the support races — which start tonight — offers a pay-per-view package for the entire Derby weekend.

Of course, nothing beats actually attending a race in person. If you have the time and inclination, tickets and reserved camping spots are still available, but going fast. To order tickets or to reserve a camping spot, call the Five Flags Speedway box office at (850) 944-8400. The full 47th Annual Snowball Derby weekend schedule is available at; it promises to be a great racing weekend.

The new Formula E championship has a lot of promise, but there are issues that need to be sorted.

The open-wheel electric car series is lucky to have world-class drivers such as Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld, Bruno Senna and Nelson Piquet Jr. That’s the positive.

But in similar fashion to Formula One, the series regulates power flow, in this case kilowatts per hour. In the last race Trulli received a penalty for exceeding the maximum. What does it matter if total power is limited by the batteries anyway?

Which brings up another point; instead of pitting to change battery packs, the current formula has teams pitting to swap cars. And each race includes a “fan boost,” where the driver voted by the fans gets an extra boost of power.

Such gimmicks take away from what should be a promising new series that helps develop new technology. Hopefully as the series evolves and manufacturer involvement increases, it will become more viable. Otherwise it’s just a circus with big-name drivers.

Hopefully it’ll be a long time before local tracks award champions in an electric Late Model division.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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