ASA STARS National Tour
Winchester 400 History Part No. 1 – ASA’s History in the Storied Race
Sep 28, 2023
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.
The ASA would celebrate its 25th season during the 1997 calendar year. The series had flawlessly served dual functions throughout its run - being the permanent home for all-time great drivers like Bob Senneker, Mike Eddy, and Dave Watson while also serving as a NASCAR launching pad for drivers like Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Johnny Benson.
But the name that would steal the most headlines in 1997 was one Kevin Cywinski. It was the culmination of a three-year blitz through America’s short track ranks that saw him topple one big name after another. In 1995, he had done a rare feat - besting Steve Carlson for an ARTGO championship. So 1996, he moved to ASA. The expectations had been reasonable for a rookie, but he exceeded those with a consistent first half of the season and then blew them away with a three-win back nine. He darn near won the whole title, finishing 3rd in the overall standings.
And so the ASA unknown 12 months before entered 1997 as a championship favorite. Ironically, the name many picked to compete against him was Carlson, himself running in ASA as a rookie. The ARTGO legend might be new to the circuit, but he was hopping in the ride Tony Raines had just stormed to a championship with. Gary St. Amant, the 1996 runner-up, figured to be strong, but if he wanted to be a true title contender he would need to find a way to win more races. Only once (1990) had St. Amant piloted his iconic #7 into Victory Lane more than once. And then of course there were the trio of Senneker, Eddy, and Mike Miller. The Over-The-Hill Gang was still stout and figured to factor into the battle every race.
And the great part of 1997 was that all of these drivers factored into the title race. While the final championship margin was north of 200 points, at no point did it feel like any driver had a true stranglehold on the competition. 10 drivers would split the winner’s laurels in the 20-race season.
The 25th anniversary season would start down South, with races in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida underscoring the growing national recognition of the tour. Three great storylines helped. Mike Miller won the season opening race at Kenly by holding off a driver half his age, a man by the name of Matt Kenseth. A few weeks later, Gary St. Amant dominated the Peach State show before a pit miscue put him in the back of the pack with 50 laps to go. Known as an emotional racer, St. Amant drove like a man possessed. But it would only be enough to get him 2nd as Steve Carlson proved to be a quick study in ASA with the win. Then the Five Flags race was an absolute thriller. Local hero Mike Garvey seemed like he could cruise to a win when he qualified first for the event. But his tires failed post-qualifying inspection so he started 33rd. He went to the front, went right back to the rear after a jack failed, and then went right back to the front late. All that passing seemed to wear his tires out, but somehow Garvey held off Cywinski and St. Amant for the last 50 laps in a race that we would definitely recommend you check out on YouTube.
ASA rookie Steve Carlson had a remarkable year with two wins and fourth in points (Robert Gill photo)
The 33rd starting position was the further back a winner had started to that point in ASA competition.
When the series started migrating back to the north for the spring, St. Amant and Cywinski started to grab more and more headlines. St. Amant, who remember had not won twice in a season since 1990, managed to win twice in three races. The second of those was a near gift, when leaders Rick Beebe and Bob Senneker crashed with just a few laps to go and St. Amant barely scraped by.
Cywinski, meanwhile, won three of five, racking up wins at Berlin, Kaukauna, and Hawkeye Downs. The Hawkeye Downs win marked the halfway point of the season. The second half of the 1996 season had been when Cywinski broke out, but the first half of 1997 had Cywinski showing the all-around form that would make him a true title contender. He had completed every lap but one and finished no worse than ninth to that point. While drivers like St. Amant, Carlson, and Scott Hansen, were stout, Cywinski's consistency meant that he was already nearly 200 points ahead of the pack.
This allowed Cywinski to focus on the points for the second half of the year – he would still factor in plenty of races, but the path to the championship for Cywinski was clear: log top-tens, avoid DNFs. If he could do that, it would be near impossible for anyone to catch up to him.
The churn of winners would continue in the second half of the year. Rick Beebe won the first race of his ASA career when he track down Eddy in the waning laps at Berlin and executed a clean pass with seven laps to go that had the crowd on their feet cheering. Beebe in fact nearly won the very next race in the Anderson Redbud, overcoming an early wreck that forced the crew to jettison the hood. But he fell half a carlength short against St. Amant, who set a new career mark for wins in a season (3). Senneker extended his ASA record mark with a victory in an ASA season for the 23rd time when he won at Milwaukee. Other winners in the second half of the year were Hansen (twice), Miller (twice), Carlson, and Brad Loney.
The second win for Hansen - a photo finish at Hawkeye - was ASA’s most dramatic of the season. Three-wide at the finish, Hansen was the meat in the sandwich. Clear at the stripe, Hansen was not clear a few yards later when he was slid across the nose of Steve Carlson. Sliding through the infield grass for a moment, it looked as though Hansen might flip the machine before all four wheels touched back down and Hansen - winning in more ways than one - was able to stop the car inches short of the turn one outside wall.
Three-wide at the finish for the Hawkeye Downs race with Hansen in the middle winning before spinning (Still from Michael McIntyre YouTube upload)
One driver that went winless was Mike Eddy, the first time since 1987. Two near misses at Berlin were the highlight of a fairly dreadful season that included 6 finishes outside of the top-twenty.
And through it all, Cywinski was steady. His only two 1997 finishes outside of the top-ten - 15th and 14th in consecutive races – were mild enough that the door never opened for his rivals. He clinched the title with a 7th place finish at Salem in race 19. It was the first time the championship had been won before the finale since 1990.
Without that points conservatism, Cywinski showed what he could do in the finale. Falling two laps down due to an early flat tire, Cywinski got back on the lead lap under 100 laps to go by getting past St. Amant. Then when a late caution bunched the field up, Cywinski did it again – this time for the lead. Leading the final nine laps, Cywinski became the only 4-time ASA winner in 1997.
"I didn't care what the other guys did at that point," Cywinski was quoted as saying in National Speed Sport News, "We just had to race our own strategy and come in when we needed tires. We had a great car and I knew that once we got back on the lead lap, it was going to be a shootout at the end."
At the ASA banquet that winter, Cywinski's team collected nearly $300,000 in bonus money for their title. But for the third straight year, the title team announced they would have a new driver for the subsequent season. Joe Nott would take over for Cywinski as he followed former champs Bryan Reffner and Raines to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
-Featured photo credit: Curt Davis
1997 ASA ACDelco Challenge Series Schedule & Winners
6 April 1997
20 April 1997
4 May 1997
17 May 1997
6 June 1997
7 June 1997
21 June 1997
28 June 1997
4 July 1997
11 July 1997
27 July 1997
9 August 1997
16 August 1997
24 August 1997
1 September 1997
13 September 1997
19 September 1997
29 September 1997
5 October 1997
19 October 1997