American Speed Reborn: Eddy As He Goes

The 1976 ASA Circuit of Champions season marked the continued transition of the series from a regionally-respected tour to a nationally-known circuit.

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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.

The 1976 ASA Circuit of Champions season - the fourth in the tour’s history - marked the continued transition of the series from a regionally-respected tour to a nationally-known circuit. As we mentioned in the previous article, for the first three seasons the tour mostly saw a hodgepodge of local track experts picking up the checkered flag, with the championship battle mostly coming down to whatever drivers made it a point to follow the tour around.

Media coverage of the tour was a huge boost to the series. In these days, racing trade papers were the main source of information for news about racing across the country. The first few seasons might see an occasional feature in the Midwest Racing News with the occasional mention thrown in National Speed Sport News. NSSN was the granddaddy of them all - Chris Economaki’s paper could literally make or break a driver or series. Getting a mention in the 60-odd pages during any given week would draw thousands of eyeballs. By the end of 1976, ASA went from that “occasional coverage” to the “full-blown article and box score”.

Bob’s dominated the 1976 spring. Wichita, Kansas’s Bob Schippers whooped the field at the Louisville season opener, leading 99 of the 100 circuits en route to the victory. Bob Senneker swept a pair of 30-lap sprint races at Winchester a few weeks later. The real drama during that day came in qualifying when Don Gregory ran 17.254 to set a new world record for a late model on a half-mile. This marked the third time in the last year that the ASA cars had set a new mark. John Anderson, who entered the race with a personal seven-race win streak, nearly set the record on his first lap before wrecking trying to better it on his second. So Senneker lost his chief challenger on his own win streak as he managed to win his 7th straight Winchester start.

1974 champion Mike Eddy did not look like a championship contender in ‘76 by the time the 4th race of the year occurred at Salem. He had fallen out 6 laps into the Louisville opener and did not attend Winchester. A Salem victory would turn his season around as he paced the field for all but five laps. It marked the first time Eddy won an ASA race under the checkered flag - his first and to that point only ASA victory had come by being the best average finisher in a three 100-lap segment race, an event he didn’t win a single segment.

The summer stretch saw some of the greatest names from outside of the traditional ASA region sneak in and steal victories. Larry Phillips may only have one ASA win in the record books, but it came on the high banks of Winchester, snapping Senneker’s win streak. Phillips won hundreds of stock car races in the Ozark region of the country, including 5 NASCAR Weekly Series championships. Senneker saw his win streak stopped, but found something to salvage from the Winchester race by yet again setting a new world record half-mile track record with a 17.209 second tour.

Midwest racing legend Larry Phillips celebrates his only career ASA victory (Richard Barnhouse photo)

Next up was Jerry Makara. “The Bear” may not have been as “polar” as Mike Eddy, but he was still just as tough. Cutting his teeth on the figure 8 tracks of Flat Rock and Toledo, Makara learned some mechanical wizardry and towed his Sportsman far across the country to any place he thought he could win. He beat Phillips on his home turf at I-70 in the first World Cup. A few months in 1977, he would make some modifications to his Sportsman machine, tow east to Trenton, and pull off one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR Modified by winning the Dogleg 200, one of the most prestigious races in the country at the time. The ASA win would come at Louisville, in another “average of three” race - Makara won segment 1, Bobby Allison won segment 2, and Eddy won segment 3. At the end, Makara was the overall champion.

7 24 76 Makara wins I 70 Speedways 300 on Last Lap

"Bear" Jerry Makara had his most successful ASA season in 1976 (Unknown source)

John Anderson was another Flat Rock graduate who would dominate the Midwest racing scene - winning over 200 features in a variety of vehicles - for a number of years. Unfortunately, he would retire early after a bad crash at Daytona and then tragically be killed in 1986 by a traffic accident. By then, he had won 200 races with his back-to-back July 4th weekend wins at Salem and Winchester being the highlight of his best ASA season.

And then last was Tom Maier. Maier had just begun to race for previous ASA winner Ed Howe and pilot the famous green Camaros. While he was an absolute terror in Michigan - winning numerous state championship races as well as winning track titles at Owosso, Auto City, and Tri-City - Maier’s lone ASA victory came in the inaugural visit to Sandusky Speedway (OH). The top-ten that day was absolutely incredible: Maier, Joy Fair, Joe Ruttman, western Pennsylvanian champion Kenny Hemphill, Makara, Allentown’s Kris Radio, Randy Sweet, Eddy, Donnie Allison, and Neal Sceva. That top-ten alone probably won about 1,000 short track races combined.

Ellis Herbert scored one for the “local” heroes in race #11 at Salem, while Eddy finally got his second win in a second the following week at Salem. These two had begun to separate themselves from the pack in the championship battle.

Eddy’s bumped his points lead up a bit in the next two races. He was the runner-up to Makara in the Redbud and then led a chunk of the Labor Day Winchester show before falling out with a rear end gear failure. Still, Herbert hadn’t qualified for the main event at Winchester. Despite watching Rodney Combs inherit a victory that looked to be within Eddy’s grasp, Eddy left with a big enough points lead that practically assured him the title with two races to go. Herbert kept him honest with solid top-tens in the next two races, but a 6th in the finale meant Eddy would become the first two-time champion in ASA history.

Those two races went to the dominant drivers of the year - Senneker and Makara. Senneker would avenge some recent Winchester losses with one of the most dominant Winchester 400 wins in the proud history of the event, outpacing brother Terry to the checkered flag by over 4 laps. Senneker now stood at 9 career ASA wins, more than double anyone else to this point. Makara, meanwhile, won a chilly November show at Salem to close out the year.

At least 122 drivers competed in the 1976 ASA season, and we would be remiss if we didn’t point out a trio of new names. Dick Trickle, Rusty Wallace, and Junior Hanley all made their ASA debuts during this season though Wallace was the only one to prove competitive. They would all make their marks plenty in the years to come.

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