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American Speed Reborn: The Batesville Boy

1978 would be the year Mark Martin would hit it big in the American Speed Association.


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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.

On The Third Turn, we keep track of a driver’s notable and widely-used nicknames throughout the years. Mark Martin has two - “The Kid” and “Old Man”. This simple contradiction highlights just how long Martin’s racing career stretches across the history books. While many of today’s NASCAR fans have memories of Martin from his duels with Jeff Gordon in the late 90s, his close loss to Kevin Harvick in the Daytona 500, or his role as an elder statesman who flashed to numerous poles in the “Aaron’s Dream Machine”, short track fans know that Mark’s racing exploits stretch all the way back to the 70s.

Maybe even further back than that, to sitting in his dad Julian’s lap steering the wheel while his father mashed the pedals of idle big rigs in the trucking yard Julian owned in Batesville, Arkansas.

Whenever exactly Mark calls the “start” of his racing career, there is no doubt his rise to the top was quick. After graduating high school, he had moved to Springfield, MO to work under the tutelage of legendary driver Larry Phillips and car builder Larry Shaw. With help from both, Martin started dabbling in the dirt track scene. Success started to follow and Mark decided it would be worth trying his hand at asphalt. The 1977 ASA Rookie of the Year title proved his quick aptitude.

1978 would be the year Mark Martin would hit it big. He had a Howe chassis, a year of asphalt experience, and something to prove.

Dick Trickle would win the first two races of the 20-event schedule. He was the beneficiary when leader Rodney Combs wrecked out with 24 laps to go in the Queen City opener and then cruised to the victory two weeks later on a chilly day at Hartford. Martin, who had been second in the opener, crashed out on the first lap at Hartford and spent the rest of April trying to repair his wrecked racer.

He recovered nicely with finishes of 5th and 6th behind winners Bob Senneker at Winchester and John Anderson at Salem.

The 5th race of the season was possibly the crowning achievement of the ASA in reaching the “big time”. For the first time ever, the series was invited to compete at the Milwaukee Mile, at that time the preeminent track in the Upper Midwest. USAC and its asphalt late model series (the USAC Stock Car Series) had had a stranglehold on that circuit for over two decades, but it was starting to fall apart and nothing showed more that ASA was threatening it in notoriety than having the two sanctioning bodies splitting the stock car calendar at the track.

Fifty-four cars attended the event. Martin won the pole, led the first 12 laps, but then began to fall back. That left his mentor Larry Phillips as the leader for most of the afternoon before (who else) Bob Senneker took control over the final third of the race. Senneker had not yet ventured to Milwaukee, so this victory was one of the more meaningful ones in a career that already had plenty of crown jewels. Like many years to come, 1978 might well have been one that “got away” from Senneker in his quest to become an ASA champion. After competing fully for the title in 1977, he scaled back in 1978 and only ran 14 of the 20 races. The 14 races he did compete earned him some gaudy statistics - 6 wins and 11 top-fives and it’s not hard to think that a full schedule with even mediocre finishes in those missing six races might have been enough to take the title. As it was, he would finish 4th in the 1978 tally.

Two weeks later back at Hartford, another youngster who we will have plenty more to say about in columns to come by name of Butch Miller took the lead from the Ray Young at the halfway point to claim ASA victory #1.

Senneker grabbed another Winchester victory the next week at Winchester before narrowly being runner up to Randy Sweet at Owosso in early June. Senneker now had 20 ASA victories and somehow 14 of them came at the impossibly tough Winchester oval. He also had the points lead despite missing two races already. Martin sat third after an up-and-down spring. But he was about to go on a run. Between the end of May and the end of September, Martin would finish no worse than 7th. Even that seventh would be a bit fluky, as it was a Louisville race run in three segments in which one bad segment kicked Martin out of the top-five in the final “aggregate” running order.

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ASA promotional picture from 1978 Yearbook highlighting series stars (Series PR)

July would prove to be a great month for the Ozark contingent. First, the ASA traveled to the region for the first time to compete at the fairgrounds in Springfield. Senneker and Trickle proved their skills were just as poignant down “south”, trading the lead early before Senneker gave Trickle the slip and then fended off Martin the closing laps (Phillips would have surely figured in this race but he had been injured in late May and was out of commision for a few weeks). Ten days later another new ASA winner emerged. Rusty Wallace had followed right in Martin’s footsteps, being mentored by Larry Phillips on the Missouri short tracks and finding fairly quick success in limited asphalt forays. But even he must have been surprised when he found himself winning at Baer Field. Even though his fellow Ozark driver Wallace had beaten him to getting an ASA win first, Martin now had the points lead.

Martin kept pushing for that first ASA win and as the summer kept rolling it was clear it was not far off. He and Senneker had a whale of a battle on a grueling 300-lap affair at I-70 at the end of July, with Martin coming short by just half a carlength at the checkered. The result was practically mirrored two weeks later at little Tri-State Speedway sitting on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. This time Joe Shear got the better of Martin.

Finally, on the bullring at Anderson in the grueling Redbud race, Martin would finally have luck smile on him. Mike Eddy and Trickle had dominated the race until the final 100 laps. Trickle, up front, watched a piston go. Twenty laps later, Martin, running third, limped into the pits with a flat right rear tire just as a caution flew for oil coating the track. He managed to get back on track before losing a lap with fresh tires and a properly-working engine. He gave Eddy a little pop to claim second with twenty-five to go and sailed by Trickle ten laps later. Trickle’s car then lost a ball joint, wrecked, and set up a final five lap dash to the checkered. But Eddy just didn’t have the car to muscle past Martin and, as Midwest Racing News reported, Martin “flawlessly wheeled his Camaro through the final mile of competition to record his first-ever ASA victory; a triumph which was highly popular with the nearly 4,000 fans on hand for the race”

Critically, Martin was now so far ahead in the points he was not realistically going to be headed. Mike Eddy had come on strong in the second half of the season including a September win at Salem - a race that featured five cars hurdling over the wall - but a miserable first half of the season had put him so far back he never could make up any major ground on Martin through the summer. The fall 400 lap specials at Winchester and I-70 were not kind to Martin, but the title was ultimately his by 200 points on Eddy.

Senneker won Winchester and Trickle won I-70 to keep the goliaths on top, but Martin capped the season with a win at Queen City Speedway off a bold pit stop for fresh tires that set him back with just 30 laps to go before roaring back. His second ASA victory gave him 16 top-tens in the 20-race season.

To this point ASA had earned a reputation for bringing together the stars of the Midwest late model scene - Trickle, Senneker, Anderson, Eddy. But now, in 1978, it had its first champion that was going to make it big nationally. The next few years were going to prove that ASA was The Kid’s playground.

-Featured Photo Credit: Jack Kalwasinski

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