Super Late Models
How the Snowball Derby Qualifying Format Works
Dec 2, 2022
D.J. VanderLey nearly snatched the big one for the little guys.
With former Snowball Derby champion and Pensacola, Fla., legend Eddie Mercer between his ears, VanderLey piloted the No. 4 Super Late Model machine—a grassroots team owned by Pensacola’s Eddie Craig—to one of the closest finishes in Derby history against a teenage Chase Elliott. Elliott would capture the 44th annual Snowball Derby, his first of two career Derby titles, but the then 19-year-old VanderLey battled tooth and nail during the final five laps—officially leading three—with the future NASCAR Cup Series champion before recording a runner-up result.
“I need you on the radio,” Dan VanderLey, D.J.’s dad, told Mercer on that glorious 2011 Sunday.
“Dan, I’m not a good spotter,” Mercer replied.
“No, I got a spotter. I need you for situational awareness,” Dan VanderLey said.
“I’ll do that,” Mercer affirmed.
Eleven years to the day, Mercer is once again providing awareness for VanderLey, as the 30-year-old Mobile, Ala., native races the fight of his life.
VanderLey sustained severe injuries after a horrific flip during a Micro Sprints race on Sept. 22 at Lil’ Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. VanderLey—the race engineer for Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 98 Ford Mustang in the NASCAR Xfinity Series—continues to make progress and undergo rehabilitation as a quadriplegic at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
“Our hopes and prayers are that he gets some nerves firing back, muscle movement and control,” Mercer said. “It’s all about how well the spinal cord heals.”
Mercer is providing awareness to VanderLey’s needs in several ways at this year’s 55th Annual Snowball Derby. With a long, costly future ahead, Mercer is encouraging friends and fans of VanderLey and the VanderLey Family—D.J. and wife Jordan are expecting their first child next year—to make a tax-deductible donation to Motor Racing Outreach in VanderLey’s name at www.go2mro.com/donate to help with medical bills and other unforeseen financial expenses.
Mercer also had “VDL Strong” stickers made for every racecar in every division. Fans coming through the gates tonight and Saturday will also receive the decals to show their support.
“Every fan that wants one will get one. Every car,” Mercer pauses, as emotions stop him in his tracks. “I don’t want support for the kid to fade way. They are the best family there is. It hurts me.”
The lump in his throat testifies to the earnest of his words. Dan VanderLey, proprietor of VDL Fuel Systems, worked underneath the hoods of Gulf Coast racecars well before son Daren—known to most as “D.J.”—came around.
When Dan VanderLey asked for “situational awareness” on that Sunday afternoon in 2011, Mercer delivered it from his perch between Turn Nos. 1 and 2.
“I tell you something, D.J.: There’s grip up top,” Mercer said over the radio late in the 300-lap race. “I’ve been watching cars, and there’s grip up there. Our only shot is you’re gonna have to run the top.”
It was a surprising thing to hear from the 2005 Derby champion and Pensacola legend.
“Everybody knows at Pensacola, the main goal is ‘go to the bottom,’” Mercer acknowledged.
“If we hadn’t done the outside, Chase would’ve been gone. That was our shot. It was a big leap of faith for D.J. And we almost pulled it off.”
Mercer often watches YouTube replays of VanderLey’s final five-lap battle against Elliott.
“It’s my favorite video in the world,” Mercer said.
From 2010-2011, VanderLey won back-to-back PLM track titles at Five Flags and his home track of Mobile International Speedway. He won the Pro Trucks Snowball Derby in 2017, which helped ease some of his past Derby heartbreak. VanderLey has been a successful NASCAR engineer since breaking through with Richard Childress Racing in 2015 and Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. A graduate of Auburn University’s respected mechanical engineering program, the 30-year-old VanderLey joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 and currently works with driver Riley Herbst.
“The thoughts of everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing are with VanderLey and his family during this difficult time and all are praying for his recovery,” Stewart-Haas said in a statement after the September accident.
In addition to prayers, Mercer hopes the racing community—and anyone moved by VanderLey’s story—will make tax-deductible donations at www.go2mro.com/donate.
“I know it’s sometimes hard to donate, but if 10,000 of us average 10 bucks, we can help them,” Mercer said.
-Story by: Chuck Corder