Caleb Burkett hit the jackpot this season.
After two years of earning his short-track stripes, the senior at West Florida High School — just a few miles from Five Flags Speedway — took a giant leap forward this season at the Pensacola, Florida raceway’s high banks.
Burkett won twice and had 11 other top-five finishes in 13 races to finish second in the point standings to eventual track champion Robert Balkum.
Nothing compared to Wednesday night, though. Nothing will ever compare.
On Opening Night of the 51st annual Snowball Derby, the 17-year-old Burkett won the Lloyd’s Glass Pure Stocks Snowball Derby. His milestone victory came 19 years after his dad, Wayne Burkett, won the same race.
“We’re gonna party all weekend long,” Burkett said. “We won the Derby and the bounty (on Balkum) earlier in the season. I’d say we won the two biggest races of the year.”
Long after the fans had cleared out of the grandstands, Burkett, along with his friends and family, posed with the winner’s trophy just short of the start-finish line.
Burkett was crowned Derby champ after an eventful evening at technical inspection disqualified Chance Imel and Michael Moody, the 50-lap race winner and runner-up, respectively. Burkett, who had a hot ride all night, finished the race third before the cars headed to the tech shed.
“People always told me if you don’t win it on the racetrack, you could still win it in the tech shed and I never really believed that,” Burkett said. “This is a dream come true.”
With the DQs, Darrell McDonald officially finished second and Tony Boyd rounded out the podium in third.
Imel dominated the race, taking the lead from pole sitter and new track record holder T.J. Thompson (21.289 seconds) on lap 4 and distancing his No. 325 from the other 21 cars with perfectly timed restarts.
Imel had only run four times at Five Flags this season and only one top-five to show for it.
For those reasons, one had to wonder if Imel would pass tech, especially after he said, “This is my first victory and it’s the Snowball Derby. I’m on cloud nine.”
About 45 minutes later, Imel came crashing back to the earth. Moments later, Moody was thrown out for illegal rocker arms. Burkett was more than happy to pick up the pieces.
“We had a game plan of what we wanted to do, and it worked out in the end,” Burkett said. “The biggest part of 50 laps is having tires that are in good shape. You gotta be there at the end to win it.”
Even if it meant waiting around an hour after to be crowned king on this night.
“Hey, Caleb, ya won the Derby,” a friend called out to Burkett during the impromptu post-race party that broke out on the front stretch.
“Is that what I won?” a sarcastic Burkett shot back.
The only question now is how many will the teenager ultimately win.
NOTES: There were eight total cautions in the Pure Stocks Snowball Derby … As is often the case with the Lloyd’s Glass Pure Stocks division, the field was comprised solely of Pensacola and Mobile area drivers … T.J. Thompson’s track record of 21.289 seconds eclipsed Robert Balkum’s old mark (21.315) that was set in 2017 … Alabama driver Thomas Norman provided the first fireworks of Derby week when his No. 121 car caught fire with just six laps left in the race. Norman escaped from the car almost immediately and was unharmed despite wheel-hopping the outside wall before his ride was engulfed in flames.
Action continues on Thursday, as the Sportsman and Outlaw Stock divisions compete in a pair of 50 lap features, while the Late Models get their first crack at the track of the week with several practice sessions.
On Friday, drivers will compete for the pole for Sunday’s race with qualifying for the Snowball Derby. The Modifieds will also be on track for their 50 lap feature.
On Saturday, the Pro Late Model drivers take center stage for the Snowflake 100. Also, the final qualifying spots for Sunday’s Derby will be set with a 50 lap last chance qualifying race, along with a 50 lap feature for the Pro Truck division.
That all leads up to Sunday’s 51st running of the Snowball Derby, set to take the green flag at 2 pm CST.
For more information on the Snowball Derby, visit 5FlagsSpeedway.com.
5 Flags Speedway – Pensacola, FL
Snowball Derby – November 28, 2018
1. Caleb Burkett – Pensacola, FL
2. Jimmy Hollingsworth – Mobile, AL
3. Matthew Jackson – Citronelle, AL
4. Daryl McDonald III – Theodore, AL
5. Tony Boyd – AL
6. Corey Boddie – Theodore, AL
7. John Kevin Merritt – Pensacola, FL
8. Thomas Norman – Semmes, AL
9. T.J. Thompson – Grand Bay, AL
10. Robert Suarez – Pensacola, FL
11. Brandin Sidner – Cantonment, FL
12. Sarah Dority – Pensacola, FL
13. David Johnson – Mobile, AL
14. Cameron Leytham – Mobile, AL
15. Robert Balkum – Pensacola, FL
16. Jay Whalen – Pensacola, FL
17. Corey Pitman – Cantonment, FL
DQ: Chance Imel – Irvington, AL
DQ: Michael Moody – Mobile, AL