Wild, Wild SpeedFest Becoming a Super Late Model Major

"All the cars you want to beat are here (and) it's a great place to race."


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Speedfest at Watermelon Capital Speedway always delivers.

Perhaps it’s because this is the first marquee race of the year and there is a degree of January Jitters, or it can be blamed on the close confines of racing on a tight 3/8-mile bullring but you can almost bank on a dramatic conflict or a photo finish.

It’s just what happens here:

2020: Pollard vs. Nasse leads to Heim/Plott photo finish
2019: Connor Okrzesik outduels Kyle Busch
2018: Smith wins, Pollard furious with race control
2016: Pollard wins after Byron, Nemechek spins behind him
2015: Elliott wins, Pollard confronts Nemechek
2014: Elliott wins after contact with Sauter

READ MORE: Memorable Races in the History of SpeedFest


Now the defending Snowball Derby winner, Chandler Smith won Speedfest in 2018, his first victory in a Super Late Model, and remembers immediately adding it to his bucket list. A Georgia native, Smith had attended races at Crisp Motorsports Park since Speedfest moved there from Lanier International Raceway in 2012 and watched Bubba Pollard win the Super Late Model portion in 2016.

Before that race, Smith had walked over to Pollard and essentially called his shot.

"I said, I'm going to beat you in my No. 26 and let you know that I'm the real No. 26 that’s going to win all these races," Smith recalled. "I wonder if he remembers that."

Pollard said he doesn’t entirely remember the exchange but …

"That sounds just like him though, doesn’t it?"

But buried in his youthful exuberance, Smith had a point. Even though Speedfest doesn’t get listed amongst majors like the Snowball Derby, Winchester 400, All-American 400 or Redbud 400, it’s become a race that everyone wants to win.

Further, everyone drives like it in the final laps too.

"Chase Elliott won it. John Hunter Nemechek won it. Bubba's won it. Kyle Busch," Smith said. "A lot of big names have won it, and everybody wants to add their name to that and say they've won that race, too."

That's arguably what makes this race so much more chaotic at the end than the regular season Southern Super Series events held in March and August.

"It's because all the good cars are here," Pollard said. "I mean, you might not get 30-plus cars, but all the cars you want to beat are here. It's a great place to race. The Pro Late (Model) race is always good. It just generates great racing."

But it does generate controversy.

Corey Heim defeated Kyle Plott in a photo finish in the most previous Speedfest back in 2020, but only because Pollard and Stephen Nasse exchanged bumpers, leading to both being sent to the rear of the field. The two exchanged words and needed to be separated after that race. Pollard previously had run-ins with Nemechek and William Byron in previous iterations of the race.

It’s not a reflection of Pollard and Nasse, but rather what happens when you consistently run up front at Watermelon Capital Speedway. Nasse believes that everyone is trying to set the tone for the coming season and that’s important to get a win as early as possible.

"I do feel like it takes the edge off and the next ones come a little faster and easier," Nasse said. "So, I think that’s what we’re all trying to do every year. So, you get to Lap 180, and everyone is going to get a little more aggressive and do whatever it takes."

This is just the second time that Carson Hocevar has entered Speedfest. It’s the first time Derek Griffith has made the trip to South Georgia. Between them, they’ve won every Super Late Model major east of the Mississippi short of the Snowball Derby, All-American 400 and Slinger Nationals.

They view Speedfest as on that level, but they also recognize what could happen if they’re in the mix near the end of the race on Saturday afternoon.

"It's actually kind of cool how the race has like this myth or reputation around it," Griffith said. "I watched last year on Racing America and saw Bubba and Stephen get into it a little bit. It's hard racing, but I'm excited for Saturday. I don't know if it's good excited or nervous excited but I'm happy to be part of it."

Hocevar finished ninth in his only start back in 2018, and he totally embraces what he expects the finish to become on Saturday afternoon.

"It's entertainment right," Hocevar said. "It's good fun. That's why we all do this, even if we take it seriously, and want to perform. I love racing and this is a racer's race track where you have to race hard and expect it back.

"It's a track where you have to pour your heart and soul into it, whether it's for first, fourth or 15th. But there are a lot of good cars, here from first to 15th and that's what make it a big deal.

"I think it will definitely be chaotic, and I just hope I'm on the good end of the stick."