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American Speed Reborn: Star-Studded 1977

The 1977 ASA Circuit of Champions season might be the greatest season in history.


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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.

Let’s cut to the chase - The 1977 ASA Circuit of Champions season might be the greatest season in history. Not just greatest in the history of the ASA, but greatest for a short track tour. Period. (Sorry for the spoiler for the remaining 27 seasons of ASA history; they were pretty great too, we promise!)

The season started as ASA had gone for most of the last two years, with Bob Senneker laying waste to the field. The Bluebird had not yet committed to running the ASA tour for the first time but after winning 4 of the 6 six races - sweeping twin features at Queen City and Winchester in April - he upped his commitment to full-time and it certainly seemed like he would be the champion. But in a storyline that would dominate the decade to come, Senneker proved to be boom or bust. The next double-feature races at I-70 saw Senneker finish outside of the top-ten and his push rod would fail 45 laps into another I-70 show a few weeks later . He blew from the lead in a spring Winchester feature and missed three subsequent races, Senneker would finish 3rd in points - 8 wins, 11 top-fives but 8 finishes outside of the top-ten in his 19 appearances.

Bob Senneker won a remarkable 8 ASA races in 1977, including this Salem champagne bath (Roger Price photo)

Eddy was the next man up, winning race four on the season over Junior Hanley in the series only ever visit to Indiana’s Chase Speedway. He was strong in the spring months - collecting six straight top-fives. But, as he had in both championship seasons before, his consistency started to falter in the final races. After finishing 2nd in the Redbud, a third-place finish in the Winchester 400 would prove to be Eddy’s only finish better than 17th in the closing quintet of contests. And this time, a challenger he was running neck-and-neck with was able to capitalize.

Here’s a résumé - see if you can match it up with the driver. He was a Midwestern short track who raced primarily in the 70s and 80s. He won championships in ARTGO. In ASA. In the Western States Series. The Red, White, and Blue Series. He won races at the Smyrna World Series. The USAC Stock Car Series. He won the Redbud. The LaCrosse Oktoberfest race. The Rockford National Short Track Championship. He ran NASCAR Modifieds, Trans-Am machines, and competed in the Daytona 500.

A lot of good guesses might be had - from Mark Martin to Dick Trickle, Joe Shear to Butch Miller (and you might well have guessed Senneker and Eddy too, but you’ve figured out already it’s not them).

The answer is Dave Watson, perhaps the most forgotten short track star to today’s readers. His accomplishments - most of which came within a five-year span - in some cases dwarf some of the other Hall-of-Fame names we just mentioned. Yet, for whatever reason, he just didn’t stick in the collective memory bank those names did.

Watson compiled an incredible 13 top-fives and at least 18 top-tens to go with three victories and wound up wrestling the points lead away at the halfway mark. Even missing the final three races of the year, Eddy’s troubles meant Watson would be crowned the champion.

All this said, trying to keep track of all the superstar names that visited ASA Victory Lane in 1977 is hard. 24 races would be contested during ASA’s fifth season and here are the 11 winners: Watson, Senneker, Trickle, Mike Eddy, Larry Detjens, Joe Shear, Jerry Makara, Ricky Knotts, Randy Sweet, Joe Ruttman, and Junior Hanley.

Oh, and the winless Rookie of the Year was that Mark Martin kid. Don’t worry, his career turned out okay.

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Mark Martin won the 1977 ASA Rookie of the Year at 18 years old. (Mark Martin photo)

Here are some interesting moments from the 1977 season:

  • July 4 - Bob Senneker won the ASA 101-lap feature at Winchester. Brother Terry finished second - the second time in half a year the brothers finished 1-2 in a Winchester contest.

  • August 20 - Watson won the 1977 Redbud in his first ever visit to the tricky quarter-mile oval at Anderson.

  • August 28 - Junior Hanley became the first non-American driver to win in ASA, coming from sixth to the lead by lap three. This would be as close as Martin came during his rookie season to winning, starting 1st and keeping up with Hanley and Senneker all day before settling for third.

  • September 4 - Watson crashed out of the lead with ten to go in the Labor Day race at Winchester, gifting Randy Sweet ASA victory number one. After breaking a motor in his other car the next week in a USAC show at Milwaukee, Watson’s championship season was done a few races early with a torn-up race car the last fans to got to see of him.

  • September 11 - A new crown jewel emerged in the ASA books with the first sanctioned World Cup at I-70 Speedway. Three lead changes occurred in the final 10 laps with Detjens sneaking by Senneker coming to take the white. Years later, ASA promoter Rex Robbins said this was the best race in all of his years running the series.

Featured Photo Credit: Doug Schoebel