Few are more respected when it comes to enforcing racing’s rule book than Ricky Brooks.PHOTO BY CHRIS CLARK
SHORT-TRACK AND TRANS AM SERIES OFFICIAL HAS DISQUALIFIED THE BEST OF ‘EM
BY: MATT WEAVER
Ricky Brooks is perhaps the most interesting man in grassroots racing.
In a sub-discipline populated by former professionals, emerging prospects, gentleman drivers and the politically incorrect, Brooks has a personality that stands tall above the rest.
The outspoken 48-year-old has served as the technical director at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, and its showcase Snowball Derby event for well over a decade. He has since expanded his résumé to include such prestigious races as the Florida Governor’s Cup, All-American 400 and the Winter Showdown.
Born the son of Gulf Coast racing legend Rex Brooks, Ricky carved out an impressive niche for himself as a driver, winning a track championship at 5 Flags and even competing in four Snowball Derbies, with a best finish of eighth back in 1994.
Those were simpler times, with the Brookses building their own equipment before costs spiraled out of control in the early 2000s. Unable to outspend big-budget teams, the younger Brooks took on several mechanical consultant jobs in North Carolina for a few years until longtime friend and Pensacola track promoter Tim Bryant offered him the job in 2004.
“I’m completely self-taught,” Brooks said. “I enjoyed my time behind the wheel, and those memories with my dad were the most fun I’ve had in racing—but the costs just pushed me away. But with that said, I really enjoy what I do now.”
During his decade-plus as the most respected official in asphalt short-track racing, Brooks has lowered costs to the best of his ability as an inspector, generated widespread parity and was instrumental in the creation of a universal SLM (Super Late Model) compliance system that was adopted from coast to coast.
Ricky Brooks’ Snowball Derby tech line is affectionately knowns as the “Room of Doom.”
Having cemented his legacy in asphalt short-track racing, Brooks has begun to spread his reach to road racing as the new technical director for the Trans Am TA2 division, whose cars have similarities to Late Models. Brooks’ reputation made him the No. 1 hiring target for Trans Am president John Clagett.
“We did not want someone who could just maintain the status quo or simply handle the work,” said Clagett. “We wanted a true expert for the class—someone who knows the ins and outs of this car and was capable of instituting a technical program that upholds the value that TA2 was founded under: cost control and driver competition.”
But Brooks, while praised for his mechanical expertise, has earned a degree of criticism from some within the industry for his zero-tolerance policy that doesn’t provide much leeway or indulge those operating in the “gray area” of his rule book.
In his eyes, cars are either legal or they get disqualified—there is no middle ground.
The detractors accuse him of making the inspection process about himself. The Snowball Derby tech line has famously been called the “Room of Doom,” with Brooks and his staff wearing bright neon shirts adorned with the moniker.
There’s a bold-lettered, all-caps sign as cars approach the shed that reads “IT IS WHAT IT IS” to dismiss whining or excuse-making, with fans coming down from the stands to the inspection area to see who might get tossed next.
It’s the greatest spectacle in short-track racing.
But Brooks has always said he doesn’t enjoy disqualifying drivers. He would much rather see the story play itself out naturally on-track rather than during the inspection process. But he believes integrity is the most important element of motorsports.
Ricky Brooks has an eye for detail in his job as inpector for the Trans Am TA2 class.
“I’ve never made it about myself,” Brooks said. “If that were the case, I wouldn’t give teams so much pre-tech. I give them every opportunity to pass. In fact, we do so much tech now just to make sure folks don’t get thrown out. You have to be pretty damn stupid or careless to get thrown out with this much tech.”
Yet, racers continue to do what racers are prone to do. And they get no leniency from Brooks. He has received the majority of his national attention from disqualifying the flagged winner of the Snowball Derby four times in the past 11 years. The most recent example was Christopher Bell’s weight-infraction disqualification in 2015, which handed Chase Elliott his second Tom Dawson Memorial Trophy. Ironically, two years prior, it was Elliott that crossed the line first but was found to have an illegal piece of tungsten in his car. That gave fellow NASCAR youngster Erik Jones his second consecutive victory in the biggest short-track race of the year.
Despite running afoul of Brooks in the past, Elliott appreciates the meticulous nature of his process and hasn’t been deterred from competing in his events in recent years.
“He’s always been consistent, and I respect that,” Elliott said. “Back when we failed tech in 2013, that was our fault. That was a mistake, and it shouldn’t have happened. And the bottom line is that if the shoe were on the other foot and someone else won the race but ddn’t pass, I would want the same thing to play out for them.
“I respect Ricky and the fact that he is consistent with everything he does. He writes the rules and expects us to stick to them. It would make the entire sport look bad if he let something slide.”
Brooks isn’t afraid to throw out the biggest names in the industry, either.
Brooks keeps the TA2 field on a level playing field.
Both Elliott and Bell were in the genesis of their respective careers when they ran afoul of Brooks, but 2007 was the first time the Room of Doom was introduced to a national audience. That was the season Brooks banned Kyle Busch and Steven Wallace from the weekend after both qualified their way into the 40th running of the event.
Each driver had made the show through time trials, but Busch was tossed for failing to meet the minimum ride height requirement for the event. For Wallace, his car was found to be underweight when crossing the scales, but, per standard procedure, Wallace was given two more attempts to make weight. He only made the predicament worse when, during his second attempt, he was found to have stuffed sockets in his pockets, leading to an immediate dismissal from the event.
“I was pissed because we gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Brooks said. “But that’s why we have to take these rules so seriously. If you don’t, there’s someone there to take advantage of them.”
The story made national headlines and legitimized Brooks as a straight shooter who won’t make exceptions for two NASCAR national touring notables. Popularity alone has never earned drivers a free pass in the Room of Doom.
Ironically, Busch told officials that he would never come back, but he did in 2009 and outright won the race. He passed tech, too. Wallace has been back several times since, as well. Driver grudges don’t seem to linger long against Brooks in the face of admitting that they failed for a reason.
“We’ve heard this story so many times,” track promoter Bryant said. “There have been so many drivers that have told me that they’ll never come back when they get tossed. And after a few years, they’re usually the ones to tell me that they’ll only come back if Ricky is performing tech. They demand accountability.”
At the end of the day, this is what Brooks believes he was hired to do. He isn’t going to loosen his policies.
“I don’t think my critics are the racers,” Brooks said. “It’s usually people on Facebook or Twitter. They think I get a thrill from tossing cars, but racers generally get it and respect what we’re trying to do there.
“Ask any racer and they’ll tell you they want it this way. Richie Wauters, Kyle Busch, Augie Grill or whoever. They want it to be fair and consistent. They tell me that when they’re not pissed at me for something in the moment.”
So would Brooks, with his growing portfolio and penchant for disqualifying illegal cars, ever want to work for NASCAR?
“I won’t say that I wouldn’t but I won’t ay that I want to, either,” Brooks said. “I’m not going to work somewhere that I would have my hands tied by politics. I’m not going to be a puppet. I made that clear to Trans Am when they reached out. If we’re doing this, we’re going to do it the right way.”
To Ricky Brooks, it’s about his way or the highway, and it’s a matter of integrity.