Thorn Puts Past in Rearview, Wins PLM Opener; Texan Luza Notches First Five Flags Victory

By Chuck Corder

Derek Thorn won’t ever escape his past at Five Flags Speedway.

Going airborne at the 2011 Snowball Derby isn’t a memory you easily forget.

But on Friday, the 29-year-old California late model driver was bound and determined to give Pensacola fans something positive to remember him by.

Thorn did just that, setting the fast time during qualifying and then capturing the 20-lap Pro Late Model opening featuring Friday night.

Thorn, who finished third at last year’s Snowball Derby, was driving the Kurt Jett-owned PLM out of the Jacksonville area.

Brett Holmes settled for runner-up honors while Texan Ryan Luza, the PLM series points leader, rounded out the podium.

Luza capped the night off with his first career Five Flags victory in the 30-lap nightcap. Junior Niedecken finished second after he finished fourth in the opener.

“It’s always enjoyable coming here,” Thorn said. “I can’t thank Kurt Jett and his family for this awesome opportunity. Coming to Five Flags is always an honor. It has some of the best fans I’ve ever seen in the country.”

Thorn nearly missed his chance to put on a show for those loyal and rabid fans.

During hot laps on Thursday afternoon, something broke on the rear end of the No. 9 he was driving for Jett.

The fast friends made a road trip to Augie Grill’s shop outside of Birmingham to get a new rear end and make additional repairs to the car.

They made it back to the Gulf Coast late Thursday night.

“I guess it was a sight-seeing tour more than anything,” Thorn said.

The last-minute, late-night adjustments paid off, as Thorn led every lap despite Brett Holmes breathing down his neck all night.

At the drop of the green flag, Thorn looked like he was shot out of a cannon and blew the doors off an unsuspecting 13-car field.

But while Holmes narrowed the gap when Thorn battled tire issues, he could never quite time a move to get around Thorn.

In the 30-lap finale , Luza took the lead from Anthony Cataldi on Lap 10 and withstood a late caution to earn a well-deserved milestone victory at the famed half-mile asphalt oval.

“It feels great,” Luza said. “We were able to get through traffic really well, and earn track position. That’s all we needed.”

Thorn did his best to pull off the doubleheader sweep Friday. After winning the opener, the field was inverted, pushing Thorn back to 10th.

He was all the way up to third midway through the race, but was still some 11 car lengths behind Luza and stuck behind Anthony Cataldi for second.

Thorn struggled mightily to get around Cataldi despite numerous peeks to the inside. A persistent Thorn kept trying the inside lane, time after time, but Cataldi did a marvelous job to block the attempts, time after time.

Thorn made one-last ditch effort to get under Cataldi on Lap 27, but ran out of room. The pair collided and both spun between turn Nos. 3 and 4, effectively ending any hope of back-to-back wins in one night.

 

Faith Chapel Super Stocks

For five decades, Dave Mader III’s name has been synonymous with Five Flags Speedway.

The 1978 Snowball Derby champion and a feature winner in five decades at the famed half-mile continued to write more history Friday.

Mader set a track record during qualifying and then torched the Super Stocks field in the 25-lap feature.

Pace’s Todd Jones put up a valiant charge but finished second. Cantonment’s Randy Thompson was third.

“That was fantastic,” Mader said. “I tell you, ol’ Todd gave me a run for my money. I hope we put on a good show for the fans.”

 

Sportsman

Steve Buttrick never misses a chance at a golden opportunity.

And, when Buttrick sensed the door opening in the Bombers’ 25-lap feature Friday night, he didn’t blink.

Running second behind Brannon Fowler on Lap 21, Buttrick pounced when Fowler got loose coming out of Turn No. 2.

Buttrick overtook the lead and never looked back.

“It was a good evening,” he said. “I was just riding back there, waiting for anybody to make a mistake. Brannon made a little one because otherwise I don’t know if I could’ve passed him.”

Fowler took the lead from Connor Okrzesik on the second lap, but Buttrick climbed through the ranks and was all the way up to third on Lap 7 with the leaders in sight.

 

Butler U-Pull-It Bombers

Geno Denmark likes posing for photographs.

Especially when he’s hoisting the checkered flags and the winner’s trophy. But, despite three wins in 2015, it had been a while since Denmark had enjoyed the spoils of a victory.

He ended that mini-slump Friday at Five Flags Speedway by dominating the 20-lap Butler U-Pull-It Bombers featre.

Fellow Alabamian Robert Loper, he of two victories this season in Pensacola, finished as runner-up and John Kevin Merritt took home another podium finish thanks to a respectable third-place.

“It’s been a pretty good (season) so far,” Denmark said. “I missed Victory Lane. I’m just glad to be here.”

Denmark shot out of the fourth turn on Lap 3 to swipe the lead from Pensacola’s Robert Balkum.