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.
If the American Speed Association had lacked anything in its first six seasons of intense competition, it had been a true down-to-the-wire championship battle. In the early years of the tour only a handful of drivers had committed to the full circuit, meaning the championship wound up more as an attendance award than a true reflection of dominance. And in years where there the touring contingent was strong always seemed to feature one driver getting far ahead early and coasting to the title.
1979 was the year in ASA that would finally change. And it would be a battle between the two biggest young talents the series had at the time. Mark Martin, “The Kid”, an invader on the circuit from down in the Ozarks, would go head to head with “The Polar Bear” Mike Eddy. They would push each other to the limit and post some of their best statistical seasons in the series.
For Martin, winning the 1979 title would mean a successful defense on the 1978 crown. And like all champions who try for a repeat, fighting complacency and finding ways to improve would be key to another run. He would be more than up to the task. The first thing he changed was his base of operations. His ‘78 run had been out of a Batesville, Arkansas base far from the ASA hub of Ohio and Indiana. He borrowed John Dillon’s shop in North Liberty, Indiana for the balance of the spring and summer, getting extra hours to prep his machinery that would otherwise be spent in transport. He also decided to try his hand down South at the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing in New Smyrna, testing his equipment against the best drivers nationwide. While he failed to win a race, he nabbed five podiums in the nine-race miniseries and won the points title.
Eddy, meanwhile, had a brand new Howe Chassis mount of his own, one of the larger investments he would make in this stage of his racing career. He likewise went down to give the World Series a full go after a few appearances in 77 and 78. He mirrored a lot of Martin’s success - nabbing a handful of top-fives, but missing a feature after a wreck the night previous meant Eddy would finish 4th in points.
The two left little down they would be the top dogs once the ASA calendar got going. Martin, whose luck had been hit or miss at Winchester, would claim the opening day victory, simply stating “I didn’t expect to ever win here.” Eddy, meanwhile, had led the race at various points in the first 50 laps, but a crash damaged his clutch and he would retire to a 16th place finish.
That would ultimately be the tale of the spring - Martin running near the front and collecting consistent top-ten finishes while Eddy would usually be leading a race and have disaster befall him. In the first five races, Eddy had finishes of 16th, 24th, 28th, and 17th. The one other race was victory at Salem by a full lap. Martin was 1st, 2nd, 7th, 5th, and 4th. Martin had scooted away to an early season points lead with Eddy nearly 100 points back of him.
Eddy would crawl back, slowly but surely. Back in his home state of Michigan, he won race #6 on the season, a 100-lap affair at Owosso he paced for 93 laps. A few weeks later, he came home third in a grueling 300-lap behind a dominant John Anderson. Anderson became the first driver to win all three 100-lap segments in an ASA segment-formatted race, while a new youngster named Alan Kulwicki grabbed his first ASA top-ten in sixth. The next week Anderson slipped by Eddy again coming to take the white flag and win the Ozarks race. Martin was by no means bad down this stretch - 5th, 4th, and 3rd - but Eddy had chipped away a handful of points and was now clearly number two in the points.
Mike Eddy was hot on Martin's trail all the way to final race of the season (Midwest Racing Archives photo)
The ASA’s first trip to the Great White North came on a visit to Cayuga on Canada Day. If it was a late model race in Canada, you probably don’t need to be told Junior Hanley figured into the equation, leading 214 of the 300 laps en route to a fairly easy victory. Eddy fourth, Martin ninth, a few more points whittled away. End of July, Eddy slips by Martin with 25 laps to go to win a 300-lap contest at I-70. Another few points. Chip, chip, chip. A few weeks later in the Redbud, Ricky Knotts won with Martin 3rd and Eddy 4th. Not really any difference in the points.
With five races to go, Martin held a still healthy points lead. Eddy had not finished worse than 5th in two months. Martin, though, was cool under pressure. The points battle was going to come down to if Martin had one clunker of a race that could finally allow Eddy to make up one batch of points.
Martin did everything he could to give himself some breathing room, finding an extra gear in the autumn contests. He took advantage when Dick Trickle faded late at St. Paul to win the prestigious Labor Day Minnesota Fair race, then finished 6th to Eddy’s 9th at Salem. But Winchester giveth and Winchester taketh away, and a 14th place finish in the 400 - a career-defining win instead for Don Gregory - proved to be Martin’s worst finish of the year. It was not quite the clunker to pull Eddy even, but it was enough to open the door. Martin would have to be perfect in the last two races.
Martin responded with the most dominant victory in his career to this point. In the World Cup 400 at I-70, Martin paced 237 of the 400 laps and won by a full lap on Bob Senneker and Eddy. Simply needing to avoid disaster in the finale, Martin would finish 3rd to Senneker and become the first back-to-back champion in ASA history.
Martin and Eddy had put down some of the best seasons in ASA history. In 32 starts between the two, they had 6 wins, 22 top-fives and 27 top-tens. Martin’s 14th place at Winchester was his only finish worse than 9th in the season.
One other thing about the 1979 ASA season. It was fast. Every single track the ASA visited in 1979 saw a new track record in qualifying, perhaps highlighted by Randy Sweet’s 16.142 second trip around Winchester’s high banks.
-Featured Photo Credit: Brian Norton