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American Speed Reborn: A Saint Among Men

Gary St. Amant’s title run was one of the more low-key storylines of what turned out to be a fascinating 1998 season.


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This year the American Speed Association (ASA) returns to the short track racing world in a big way with the launch of the new ASA STARS Late Model Series. For over thirty years, ASA was the national late model tour, and its return is understandably being met with excitement across the industry. To commemorate the ASA’s return, Racing America is partnering with The Third Turn to release a weekly column called “American Speed Reborn”. Each week we’ll examine one year of the ASA’s history, following along race-by-race as legends are made and stories are written.

A few weeks after Mike Eddy won his seventh and final ASA championship in 1992, he was approached by fellow driver Gary St. Amant and asked a tricky question. What would it take for St. Amant to win even one title? St. Amant had just completed his seventh full season in the series. He had a handful of wins to his name, but he seemed mired in a wide group of drivers labeled “promising but unproven”.

Eddy’s response was simple - “He told me I had to want it more than he did. I took what he told me to heart and realized you have to focus on that title and work toward it every week.” On September 19, 1998, as Eddy stood in victory lane at Hawkeye Downs he was able to turn to St. Amant and congratulate him in turn. St. Amant had just finished well enough to claim his first ASA title a race early. “That [congratulations] was the highlight of the season,” St. Amant told National Speed Sport News.

The popular and gregarious St. Amant’s title run was one of the more low-key storylines of what turned out to be a fascinating 1998 season. It wasn’t the most dominant season in ASA history - just two wins in the 20-race season. But it was consistent enough to put a stranglehold on the championship quickly. After an engine failure in the second race of the season, St. Amant finished no worse than 12th the rest of the way.

But at least he had a worthy rival hanging in the rearview most of the season. Scott Hansen had had a St. Amant-esque career to this point, winning a decent chunk of races and hanging around the top-ten in points most years. But 1998 was his breakout year - he won 7 times. And he had some memorable moments with St. Amant.

The only last lap pass in 1998 came courtesy of the duo - Hansen executing a clean pass on St. Amant exiting turn four at DeSoto after breathing down his tailpipes the final ten circuits.

“I was concerned about Scott and the way be was coming off the corners. especially tum four," St. Amant said after the race. "I protected my line through every corner, except the last one.”

Other points throughout the year, most notably at Berlin - where St. Amant and Hansen went hammer and tong for the final 30 circuits before St. Amant prevailed - and the Anderson Redbud race - where Hansen got by a dominant St. Amant with just a few circuits to go - the two provided plenty of in-race drama. But they raced cleanly and Hansen just couldn’t keep up the consistency. Three subpar finishes in the first five races had buried him early before the wins started to buoy him back up the standings. But a 22nd place finish due to an engine failure at Pikes Peak finally gave St. Amant meaningful separation heading into the final five weeks. St. Amant never cracked the door back - five straight top-five finishes to end the year left him 242 points ahead by year’s end. The two were so dominant that third place Mike Miller, even with three wins, wound up another 200 points in the rears.

Fans pack the stands to watch ASA action (David Reynolds photo)

The rest of the storylines belonged to the ultra-young and the grizzledest of veterans. On the young side, most of the headlines were taken by fourth-generation driver Adam Petty. The grandson of NASCAR’s king Richard, Petty invested his first season in stock car racing with a full-time ASA ride.

There were early flashes of speed - a pole at Orange County in race #5, a solid 6th place finish at the tough Berlin oval for race #8. But then came race #10. Qualifying third on the famed I-70 Speedway surface, Petty was running with the leaders when a rear tire went down on lap 33. Losing two laps for the change, Petty put his car into high gear and quickly earned his way back onto the lead lap. He then worked his way to the lead on lap 195, was one just a handful of drivers to pit for tires during a caution, and then used the new rubber to quickly march his way back

The 18-year-old became the youngest winner in ASA history with his triumph. In a year NASCAR celebrated its 50th Anniversary, it seemed as though its most famous name had a new prince.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Petty would die in a NASCAR Busch Series practice crash under two years later. And that would not be the first tragedy tied to Adam Petty, as the darkest moment of ASA came during a pit stop of his during the Minnesota Fair race. Crew chief Chris Bradley had come down off the pit box to adjust the swaybar under a caution period. The crew accidentally dropped the jack early and Petty, as all drivers would, mashed the gas to pull away on that cue. Bradley was still under the car and would ultimately die of the resultant injuries. The team decided to skip the next race as they emotionally recovered from the incident and Petty wound up 14th in points with the one win and 7 top-tens.

Petty’s name power and I-70 win stole the headlines from another rookie who had a very successful season. A Californian named Jimmie Johnson had been highly thought of by Chevrolet after running in their off-road truck program. So when Johnson expressed an interest in trying stock car racing in mid-1997, Chevrolet started helping line up some rides. A 7th place finish in the 1997 finale ultimately helped sell his promise to a fledgling team named Herzog Motorsports.

1998 was an instant success for the combination. He was 8th in the Gresham opener and then third in the third race. Johnson would not win in 1998, but was the runner-up to Petty at I-70 as well as in Nashville. He also tacked on a pole in the Redbud race and dominated the first half of the season. Johnson would be back for 1999 and most observers knew the 1998 Rookie of the Year would be a name to know in the future. Though even the most optimistic observer probably had very little idea at the time they were watching the ascendancy of a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion.

On the other side, the two most famous names in ASA history ended the 1998 season with a bang. ASA’s own Seven-Time, Eddy, had been winless for over two years until he slipped by St. Amant with just five laps to go at Jennerstown. The very next week was the Hawkeye triumph we alluded to at the top of this piece. Sixth in points, Eddy was still very much a force to be reckoned with.

So too was Bob Senneker. 53 years old, Senneker won at Milwaukee in August for career victory #84 - a fitting number considering that was the famed number he had used through his entire ASA career. He then very inconsiderately messed up that bit of trivia for fans by taking the season finale at Southern National as well for career win #85.

Bob Senneker works past Mike Eddy and Gary St. Amant to win his 85th and final ASA race (Fortner Photo for NSSN)

Senneker had already announced he was going to retire as a car owner at the end of the year and decided to go all out for the finale, bringing in a NASCAR pit crew that helped consistently get him in front of the normal ASA crews after every pit stop.

“Maybe I’ll change my car number to 100, so I can race for more years,” Senneker joked after the race. No one knew it at the time, but 85 was as far as Senneker would go in ASA. He never could find a full-time ride for the 1999 season after liquidating his own equipment. He came back for just three races the next season - running very well with a 5th, 5th, and a 9th. But those three races were it for the Bluebird.

Even if he didn’t dominate the headlines in 1998, St. Amant left as champion. He wasn’t going anywhere and still had plenty of chances to win both the headlines and points in the years to come.

-Featured photo credit: Miami Valley Racing Review Collection

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