ASA STARS National Tour
American Speed Reborn: A Saint Among Men
Oct 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.
By the end of the millennium, the American Speed Association had been established long enough that the stars of the 1970s and 1980s were starting to have their sons take their turns behind the wheel to close out the 1990s. In 1998, there were even two sons of an early ASA star racing as Jim Sauter’s sons Johnny and Tim both turned in solid outings.
Johnny, a raw but as talented racer as one could imagine, would focus on polishing his craft elsewhere in 1999, leaving Tim to continue his slow but steady climb up the ASA ladder. It would be Satuer’s second season driving for longtime racer Alec Pinsonneault and he had already bettered any moment of Pinsonneault’s 10 year ASA career with back to back runner-up finishes at Salem and Berlin near the end of 1998.
ASA started testing a new engine package - the LS1 - that they hoped would lower the cost to enter the series. After 5 successful races for test cars during the 1999 season, it would be part of the rules package for 2000 (Eric Bunn photo)
That promise did not take very long to fulfill in 1999 - a season-opening, career-first victory that would set the tone for a breakout season for Tim. That opening salvo also set the tone for a dramatic ASA season. Rick Beebe was actually in the driver’s seat for the win before a late caution forced a three-lap dash to the finish. Beebe’s worn right front tire only had enough in it to complete one circuit before going down entering turn one. Sauter slid by and had a two carlength lead in hand on Mike Garvey at the white. But the biggest obstacle Sauter would have on that final circuit would actually be Beebe’s tire carcass, which had rolled all the way near the entrance to turn three before Sauter’s car ran it over. Sauter held on to his machine and the victory was his.
Flipping places with Garvey the next week at Peach State, Sauter would then log another second place to first time winner Derrick Gilchrist at Pulaski County. Three races into the season with an average finish of 1.66, Sauter had an early jump on the points table. Three bad finishes in the next five races though would bring his rivals back into focus and of his rivals, two names were starting to pop out.
Short track wrench Bond Suss has in his collection this memento from a Mike Garvey win at MN State Fair in 1999 (Bond Suss photo)
53-year old Mike Miller was proving to be a late bloomer in ASA competition. Active in the series since 1977, it had only been since 1996 that Miller was a heavy hitter. Three wins a year for three years showed he had the speed, and he would up that in 1999 by upping his yearly win total to 5. That included a four-in-eight-race stretch that started with his first victory at the famed Nashville Fairgrounds and concluded with a late pass for the win in the prestigious Redbud 400.
Then there was a young shoe named Jimmie Johnson. As mentioned in our last installment, the former off-road truck racer had made a very good name for himself in ASA in 1998. But it wasn’t until 1999 that the next step was taken by very much factoring in the title fight. His made his biggest statement to that effect by grabbing that elusive first victory with a dominant showing at Memphis.
"I wanted a win so bad," Johnson was quoted in National Speed Sport News after the event. “We've had the potential to win, it was just a matter of everything coming together. [As the laps wound down], I tried to forget about what lap it was. I thought I saw [the white flag] one lap too early. The pressure is off with our getting this first win.”
Jimmie Johnson hands out autograph cards before his breakout sophomore season (Patrick Heaney photo)
Sauter - winning twice in the summer at Hawkeye Downs and Salem - got back within a few points of the points lead only to blow an engine on the very first lap at the series’ only ever visit to Dover Downs. (Worth noting of course is that the Monster Mile lived up to its reputation when the top three drivers crashed with three laps to go and defending series champion Gary St. Amant snuck through to win.)
Thus, the stretch run would shake out as following leaving Dover. Seven races were left on the season with Mike Miller 100 points ahead of Johnson with Sauter just a few points further back. If you looked at Miller’s last seven finishes, you’d probably assume he’d done enough to win the title. One bad finish (30th with a blown engine at Jennerstown), but otherwise 10th, 1st at Berlin, 6th, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd. With 100 points in hand and that solid finish, it would be enough to win the championship - and win it handily - most years.
But Sauter and Johnson were just as good and, when it mattered, better. Johnson, of course, would later earn a reputation for being a master down the stretch of a season. But Sauter’s line wound up being the best of all. His last seven finishes were 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 9th, 4th, 2nd, 4th.
Entering the season finale, the three drivers were tight. Satuer led Miller by 16 points and Johnson was about 75 points back, still within striking distance if both leaders had a mediocre day. Sauter indeed thought that was going to be the case for him, as mid-race handling issues pushed him back outside of the top-ten. Luckily for him, he hung onto the lead lap and let the race come to him.
“I had my doubts about the car," said Sauter. "But, we made the right adjustments and were able to stay close enough to the front. I knew I had to be there with 100 to go, and we were." But even having a top-five car would not be enough if Miller won the race. Miller sure seemed like he was going to do that for a while. But it changed on mid-race pit stop, when Gary St. Amant, backing out of his pits, ran into Miller’s fender. The damage Miller ultimately felt was just enough to take his car from a winning car to “just” a top-five machine. His frustration with St. Amant only grew in the final laps as St. Amant fought tooth and nail to keep Miller behind him in the battle for second. Johnson, meanwhile, ended his ASA career with a win. Miller, in third place behind Johnson and St. Amant, wound up falling to Sauter by just six points.
“I learned who my friends were today,” said Miller tersely after the event.
For Sauter, meanwhile, he had earned bragging rights in a family where there were plenty on offering. “My dad (Jim) and brother (Jay) both raced ASA and won races, but never something like this [an ASA title]. By far it tops my racing career so far.”
-Featured photo credit: Sherman Lafari Collection
1999 ASA ACDelco Challenge Series races
28 March 1999
10 April 1999
24 April 1999
1 May 1999
23 May 1999
5 June 1999
12 June 1999
19 June 1999
26 June 1999
10 July 1999
18 July 1999
24 July 1999
1 August 1999
8 August 1999
14 August 1999
29 August 1999
6 September 1999
12 September 1999
18 September 1999
2 October 1999