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Why Snowball Derby Inspection Took So Long

The complete engine tear down was something everyone endorsed


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About two hours into the Snowball Derby post-race inspection process, Chandler Smith found a lawn chair under the tech shed and pulled out a Whataburger bag that had been delivered for a late lunch or early dinner. Sometimes, you lose track of time in there.

Was he nervous?

"Nope," a steely cool Smith said, while offering fries that didn't come with ketchup, spicy or otherwise.

Neither was team owner Donnie Wilson, crew chiefs Jerry Babb and Bond Suss, car chief Gere Kennon or engine builder Jeremy Upchurch as technical inspector Ricky Brooks first stripped the No. 26 car down to the wires before moving onto the engine.

At first blush, what looked like the most comprehensive tear down in the history of the Snowball Derby seemed excessive, but there was ultimately a method behind the perceived madness.

There usually is with Brooks.

The complete teardown of the chassis by itself wasn’t out of place in recent years. It’s no secret that rumors of traction control technology has fluttered through short track pit areas across the country and Brooks has been on the lookout for that too.

But it was the thorough teardown of the Upchurch Performance powerplant that generated a lot of scrutiny on social media Sunday and Monday as Smith was not officially declared the winner until four hours after he took the checkered flag.

As always, context is key in such matters, and there were several reasons the engine was stripped down to the harmonic balancer and crankshaft. For one, Upchurch Performance was on probation for an undisclosed infraction from the previous year’s Snowball Derby.

That penalty report made the following declaration:

"The change in status for Upchurch Performance comes as a result of engine inspections of their (Southern Super Series Parts) Engine. The inspections revealed infractions where the builder significantly deviated from the guidelines established for engine builders."

The penalized engine came from the car driven by Smith in the Derby last season. It was a penalty that Upchurch accepted in January.

"We pushed the boundary on our engines," Upchurch said. "That’s what our customers expect of us. We pushed them and probably pushed a little too far. We accept the penalty and intend not to find ourselves in that area again. I pride myself on meeting that standard and that’s what I will continue to do."

Similarly, an infraction discovered after Noah Gragson won the 2018 Snowball Derby with an Hamner engine generated controversy and debate half a year after Kyle Busch Motorsports took the Tom Dawson Trophy back to North Carolina.

The resolution was the Hamner engine receiving a de-powering compared to its competition.

That infraction was found a month after the Snowball Derby when the top finishing engines from each manufacturer were sent to an independent dyno for additional inspection.

Further, the No. 26 lost its primary engine in testing the previous weekend and opted to use an engine that was close to its maximum optimal mileage. It was going to be torn down and rebuilt this off-season regardless of the results on Sunday.

Upchurch said he encouraged Brooks to tear down the engine as a statement to the industry that it was entirely legal. That the engine was carried away in bags after the results of the race were confirmed was of no consequence to the Wilson Motorsports team.

Lastly, Brooks personally sealed an Upchurch Performance engine earlier in the season because the Ford powerplants they use have tricky nuances, and Wilson Motorsports wanted to be entirely sure that it met Brooks’ approval before the first weekend of December.

What was a few extra hours to ensure the confidence of the industry? It was a process that Wilson himself took pride in being a part of.

"It’s all about being right and I applaud Ricky Brooks and all their guys," Wilson said. "We got caught here with a carburetor (in July when Sammy Smith was disqualified) that we didn’t even know had an issue and got thrown out.

"That’s their job. I think it goes to show everyone, when you come to the Snowball Derby, you better have aces, straights and flushes and you better be legal, and we proved that tonight."

That conviction that they were legal is why Smith casually ate a hamburger, largely stayed out of the way of the professionals, and cut jokes with everyone watching the so-called Room of Doom process.

He never had a doubt.

"I wasn't nervous at all," Smith said. "I knew we were right. We were talking about Whataburger and everyone knows I'm all about Panda Express. I didn't think about it because we had Whataburger last night. I asked my wife if someone could bring me something and that was the first thing that came to mind."

Beyond just playing the process out, any concerns about tech were the last things on his mind. Finding the nearest Panda Express was probably the first.