Opening day at any race track can be an educational, hectic, and terrifying experience for any promoter and L H. Williamson learned a valuable lesson on the opening day of his Five Flags Speedway. That was 59 years ago, on May 31, 1953, and the lesson was that opening on schedule may not be the most important consideration.
As the story goes, the paving had been delayed by inclement weather and the track had been sprayed with a preparatory coat of cut-back in preparation for the application of asphalt. Original promoters, Alf Knight and Ted Chester had dirt spread over the hastily prepared surface to cure it and soak up some of the moisture. When starting time rolled around, the sweeper was back-flagged to the pits and the action began. The result was a 14-car pileup caused by the dusty conditions on the first lap of the first feature. Thus ended the first day of racing.
Two weeks later, the only NASCAR Grand National (now Nextel Cup) race was held at the facility. The paving was now complete, the dust was gone, but rain was the spoiler for Lee Petty, who appeared ready to charge to the front before the race was red-flagged. As the Pensacola Journal reported the next day, “At the halfway mark Petty edged Dick Rathman (for second) only to fall back to third when the rain started, as he did not have windshield wipers.” Herb Thomas won after the event was called at 140 of the scheduled 200 laps.
A handful of others promoted the speedway before Williamson sold it to Ohio businessman Tom Dawson in 1968. One of those was Frank Bielarski, the grandfather of NASCAR Craftsman Truck driver, Rick Crawford. Another was Skip Wetjen, who headed up Speedway Incorporated, an organization that fielded the exciting Supermodifieds during the mid-late ‘60s. The group raced four to five nights a week at various tracks.
In a surprise move, Dawson declared that full-bodied Stockers would replace the Supermodifieds, figuring that the dwindling fields of cars could be beefed up with the cheaper Stock Cars. His intuition proved to be correct, and the Late Models have been the premier class at the sweeping half-mile oval every since.
A long-distance event run in December of his first year proved to be Dawson’s most rewarding promotion. The first Snowball Derby was only a 100-lapper compared to today’s 300 circuits, but it set the stage for one of the Nation’s most successful and prestigious events. Ageless Red Farmer claimed the pole for the inaugural Derby but perennial track champ, Wayne Niedecken came home the winner. On the first December weekend of the past 38 years, while much of the country prepares for winter, the Florida Panhandle has offered a last retreat for those snowbirds with racing in their blood. The race has a history of drawing many of the country’s top short track stars as well as veterans of the superspeedways and even the Indianapolis 500.