Five Flags Speedway

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12/4/2011

12/4/2011

Five Flags Speedway


Settling for Second Not a Bad Consolation Prize for VanderLey in Snowball Derby Debut

By Chuck Corder

Track officials could have turned the lights out.

Linda VanderLey’s beaming face was illuminating all of Five Flags Speedway early Sunday evening.

Her boy, 19-year-old D.J. VanderLey, had done her proud. The Auburn honors college sophomore, who has a differential equations exam this morning, passed his first Snowball Derby test.

“He’s gonna be up all night studying,� Dan VanderLey, D.J.’s father, said, choking up himself several times. “I’m not sure he couldn’t go to sleep anyway.�

VanderLey was wide-eyed, leading briefly late before settling for a runner-up finish to 16-year-old Chase Elliott in the closest Snowball the prestigious short-track race has witnessed in 44 tries.

Linda VanderLey, eyes welling up with tears, hugged her son.

“I’m so proud of you,� she whispered between joyous sobs, as she squeezed his face in her hands.

She wasn’t the only one. A strong Pensacola contingent had reason to puff their chests, too.

If you thought the hometown’s shot at winning another Snowball was history when Johanna Long’s day ended with a hard crash on Lap 97, you were sorely wrong.

VanderLey might be from Mobile, but he’s as “P’cola� as an Alabama boy can get.

Both his car owner and main parts supplier are based here.

Eddie Craig, a local businessman, has a trophy-case full of hardware after a long short-track career. This moment Sunday, though, topped them all after his No. 4 ended up on the podium.

“I couldn’t be happier,� Craig said. “He earned that spot.�

Earned it thanks, in large part, to tireless help from Donald Long’s crew at Panhandle Motorsports.

Johanna’s father was patient while VanderLey and his family scraped money together to buy necessary equipment.

Mike Williamson, Donald Long’s son-in-law, provided plenty of blood, sweat and tears getting the car just right.

Oh yeah, there was another prominent Pensacolian in VanderLey’s ear Sunday.

“Eddie Mercer in the grandstands with a radio,� Dan VanderLey said of the 2005 Snowball winner. “That was priceless. He kept Daren calm. Without Eddie Mercer, Eddie Craig, Mike Williamson and Donald Long, D.J. wouldn’t have had any chance.

“To have all those people backing him and to do his best, it was the perfect marriage.�

They all got to say their vows at short-track racing’s altar Sunday.

VanderLey started fifth and never fell out of the top 15 all day. He led a few laps before an lengthy pit stop under caution moved him back to 10th around Lap 220.

“We came here with a new, young team, they’re all my friends,� VanderLey said. “They were competing with pro crews and it was really tough.�

VanderLey made his buddies look good, fighting tooth and nail to deftly maneuver around cars and reach Elliott’s bumper.

When the 12th caution of the day waved in the final 10 laps, VanderLey saw his opportunity for immortality. Restarting on the outside, he ran past Elliott’s door to lead four of the final five laps, but never executed the pass.

VanderLey settled for second while 18-year-old Ross Kenseth snatched third. No one in Victory Lane was old enough to enjoy a champagne celebration.

“For us, in our first Derby to finish second, all thanks to Eddie Craig,� VanderLey said. “Mike Williamson and (crew member) Sammy McMullen poured their hearts into it.�

That allowed Linda VanderLey to pour hers out Sunday.

 

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