50 for 50: Nobody Better at Finishing the Derby Than Ridley
Let the debate begin. Sure, Rich Bickle won five Snowball Derby races, but Jody Ridley has him beat in two other categories. As a result, some people consider Ridley the best driver to ever run the Snowball Derby.
To put it simple, Ridley was the Dick Trickle of the south. While chasing down All Pro titles and NASCAR Southeast titles, Ridley found himself on the Florida Panhandle often.
The Chatsworth, Georgia driver had a love affair with Pensacola. He could run well and finish races there, but winning was hard and the Snowball Derby was one that stuck out to him as a race that sometimes seemed unwinnable.
Ridley first ran the Derby in 1970 and finished second in 1980 and 1983. At that time, it seemed like his day would never come at the Snowball Derby.
“I remember the first year we went down there we were in the mix to win the race and we got messed up with 15 to go,” Ridley remembered. “It took me 15 more years to win that thing.”
Ridley was on top of his game after waiting all those year. At the end of the 1985 season, he finally made his way to victory lane at Five Flags Speedway in December.
“We went back to Ford that year in 1985,” Ridley explained. “From 1979 to 1984, we were running GM. We were always competitive, but something always happened and we let the car get away from us. Flat tire or something. It was special to finally win the thing in 1985.”
Ridley got to race with the best of three generations, and in 1985 it was no different as he beat out ASA ace Rusty Wallace for the win.
“He (Wallace) was tough and our primary competition that year,” Ridley said. “Mader ran third, Mark Martin and Butch Miller were all in the top five. It was a good field that day.”
The relief of winning the Snowball Derby is still felt today.
“It sure was a struggle to win that thing. That’s the premier short track race in America and it was big then and it’s big now. It was a really hard race to win.”
What was the secrets to his success? Well, back then he might not have told you as clearly as he did in 2017.
“I would just try to save tires,” Ridley stated. “Other guys would attack the race track and I would let them go until the end. That was the story, waiting around till the end. It didn’t mean anything to lead early. Race the five or six who were left at the end.”
By our records, Ridley ran 51 touring races at Five Flags Speedway and won five of them. He finished on the podium some 22 times.
In the mid 90s, Rich Bickle showed up and won five times in the Derby leaving some of the regulars wondering what to do.
“Jody walked up to me one time and said, ‘isn’t it about time you went home?’” Bickle said with a laugh.
Ridley kept on running the race. After a few years off, he returned in 2000 to run it again.
“I quit for a few years and then I started back and I got back into it and ran second,” Ridley commented. “We were so fast. I was saving stuff all day waiting for the end. I got four tires late and went fell back to fifth after the pit stop. I ran (Gary) St. Amant down and the motor went sour late in the race.”
Little did he know at the time, it would be his final Snowball Derby. The crew wasn’t the same and the car was still good, but Ridley felt it was time.
“We run Greenville and I got out of the car and said that’s it.”
Since he got out of it, Ridley has not been at the track much. However, he plans on making the trip to Pensacola this week for the 50th running of the prestigious race.
“I have only been back once since I quit, but I am looking forward to it this year.”
The Rap on Ridley at the Derby
Top Fives: 12
Top 10s: 16
1970 – Jody runs his first Derby and finishes 13th.
1975 – Finishes ninth for first career top 10.
1980 – In the fastest Derby ever run, Ridley is second to Gary Balough for his first Derby podium.
1983 – Time runs out as he chases Mickey Gibbs across the line. Ridley is second again.
1985 – In his 14th start, Ridley finally wins the Snowball. His record of most starts before a win has only been broken by Eddie Mercer.
1988 – Ridley finishes off the race with his sixth-straight top five at the Snowball Derby.
1990 – A third-place finish results in his 10th top-10 run at the Derby.
1995 – This time Ridley logs his 10th top-five finish with a third-place run.
2000 – Finishes second for the third time in his career. It’s his 12th top five and 16th top-10 finish at the Derby. Ridley did not know at the time that it would be his final Derby.
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent