You most likely haven’t heard of D.J. VanderLey but you will soon.
VanderLey drives super late models in the Southeast where he most recently made headlines by finishing second to Chase Elliott in the prestigious Snowball Derby in Penscola, Fla.
It was the closest finish in Derby history with Elliott beating VanderLey to the line by .229 of a second. The two raced side-by-side for four of the final five laps off the last restart with Elliott inching ahead by virtue of his inside starting spot.
It could be argued that VanderLey had the fastest car nearing the end of the race but just couldn’t close the deal on the outside.
“That’s five of the hardest laps I’ve ever driven,” VanderLey said. “What you saw of me in that car, that’s all I know how to do. We made contact off of turn two coming to the white flag and it worked in his favor.”
That wasn’t the first time that the two made contact with Elliott putting the bumper to VanderLey with 15 to go while fighting for second. Vanderley chalked it up to a byproduct of short track racing and said he never thought about returning the favor while fighting for the win.
“I’ve seen too many races won that way,” VanderLey said. “[People] bring up last year’s Derby where Johanna [Long] spun out Landon [Cassill] on the final lap. That’s not how you should race. It sucks being that guy.
“I’ve been there too many times.”
Bob Dillner of Speed TV and Speed51.com has covered D.J. VanderLey races for over two years and has seen the 19-year old steadily mature as both a driver and individual.
“Here’s a guy with a lot of talent but a bit of a wild side,” Dillner said. “He doesn’t have a lot of late model experience and it’s led to some controversy in 2011. But we saw what he’s really capable of at the Snowball Derby and I really think you’ll start to see him evolve into one of the premier talents in short track racing.”
The Fairhope, Ala.-native was the consensus fan favorite during the closing laps at Pensacola and has raced at Five Flags Speedway for several years. Beyond that, VanderLey also collected the sympathy vote as he drove an engine that was built by his late grandfather, Paul who passed away on April 7.
Paul VanderLey is a NHRA Hall of Famer and engine builder and had begun construction on the engine in 2009. The engine sat dormant following his passing before D.J. lost an engine in May and replaced it with his grandfather’s.
That engine came less than a second short of winning D.J. the most prestigious late model race in the country.
“He went through a tough time after [Paul’s] passing,” Dillner said. “The VanderLey’s are a tight knit family that gives credence to the notion that ‘families who race together, stay together.’ There was a lot of heart and soul in that engine and D.J. raced with a heavy heart that day.”
Dillner added that finishing second might be the best thing to ever happen to VanderLey.
“This is only going to make him stronger,” Dillner said. “He’s going to learn from this defeat and only get better. He’s definitely an early threat to win next year’s Snowball Derby.”
VanderLey hasn’t completed his 2012 schedule but is committed to returning to Pensacola in December. He attends college at Auburn University and is looking to graduate next spring with a degree with honors in mechanical engineering