ASA STARS National Tour
American Speed Reborn: Before the Circuit of Champions
Jan 27, 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.
Here’s just a sampling of what transpired on November 5, 1972 on the high banks of Salem Speedway:
The race, which was run in three 100-lap heats, saw the first heat end on 99 laps after leader Bobby Watson blew a tire exiting turn 4 and eight cars piled in. The original heat winner, Dirt Late Model hall of famer Larry Moore, was penalized to fourth in the rundown for passing Dave Wall with the caution lights on.
The second heat also ended early after John Sommerville left the racetrack by flipping over the turn two wall. Local hero Dave Sorg appeared to have won that second heat, but he too got penalized for jumping ahead under caution.
The last heat, the final 100-lap dash for all the money and points, ended after only 80 laps due to darkness. But it only took 44 of those laps for a Nashville hot shot named Darrell Waltrip to come from 32nd and last on the grid to shoot to the lead and the win.
Waltrip had brought two cars to the track - a 1969 Chevelle and a 1965 Chevelle. Waltrip actually planned to run the ‘65 Chevelle - for good reason, as it had won in his last five visits to Salem. But the transmission conked out 19 laps into heat one and then Waltrip watched Walter Wallace pull the ‘69 model out of the second heat due to a tire rub.
With the high degree of attrition in the event, Waltrip and Wallace fixed the ‘69 up and Waltrip was granted entrance to the final 100-lapper as the final alternate.
“That’s why I didn’t want to run it (the ‘69 model)”, Waltrip told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “We’d just gotten it out of the body shop and it looked like it was going to be a rough day. I didn’t want to get it torn up. It’s an unreal car.”
As the Courier-Journal dryly noted, maybe Waltrip was just an unreal driver.
Now, how’s that for a grand entrance?
That event resides in the record books as the first ever race of the brand-new ASA Circuit of Champions. Having a NASCAR Hall of Famer win the inaugural proves the tour’s penchant for developing talent. Having all those details surround it proves the tour’s penchant for developing some good stories.
The inaugural ASA Circuit of Champions consisted of 14 races across some of the toughest tracks strewn across Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. And the new tour attracted plenty of firepower - Sorg, Bill Kimmel, LaMarr Marshall, Denny Nyari and Sommerville were the biggest names of the region at the time. Add in names that would become legendary nationally: Waltrip, Ed Howe, and Mike Eddy, and you had an inaugural season a promoter can only dream of.
Sorg finished on the podium four times to win the championship, including his lone win in the series’ next race, an April 1973 race at Louisville, Kentucky's Fairgrounds Motor Speedway. Sorg piloted his '72 Chevelle 100 laps around the famed fairground track in just 27 minutes and 39 seconds, a record we believe that stood until the track closed.
Sorg, generally liked and considered an honest racer by his peers, found the victory sweet vindication for what had happened just two weeks prior that jeopardized that opinion. He had finished 2nd in an ARCA event at the facility, only to have the officials pop open the trunk and discover 250 pounds of ballast sitting there in post-race inspection.
“I’m plenty heavy this time. I made sure of that,” Sorg said dryly to the Courier-Journal. “I didn’t want to drive my heart out for nothing again.” But really, inspection was the only thing that could touch Sorg after he passed early leader Carl Smith on lap 40 when Smith ran into a slower car piloted by Shorty Hinshaw. Smith made one late run at Sorg but had to back off when his tires started to go.
Jack Shanklin won race three at Winchester in May, while Sommerville took the next race two weeks later. Sommerville’s win was the first wire-to-wire win in ASA history.
A week later, the series ran twin 50s back at Salem. Dick Freeman started sixth in the first feature, was up to third by lap three and then slipped by Jack Shanklin and John Sommerville on lap four to coast to victory. Shanklin avenged a mid-race spin in the first feature to storm back to win the second feature. Shanklin estimated he had ran about 50 races at Salem; yet that day would mark his first victory.
“I told everybody I might as well hang it up - another typical day at Salem.” 50 years later, Salem still leaves many racers shaking their heads and calling it a “typical day.” Shanklin became the first driver to have two wins in the record books, but this would ultimately prove to be his last.
Tom Colella won the first visit to Ohio on June 3, 1973. Colella himself was a successful promoter, running the half-mile Heidelberg Raceway that was one of the crown jewels of Pennsylvania’s racing landscape in the 1960s and 1970s. Colella won three big races in 1973 - this ASA race, an ARCA show at Sharon, and a NASCAR Grand National East race at his own facility. This ASA victory was a bit of a gift, however, as three leaders faced mechanical problems in the final 30 laps, with Colella grabbing the lead just in time for the white flag to wave.
Ed Howe, who would of course go onto start a famed chassis company named Howe Racing Enterprises, piloted his famed green car to the Baer Field win in race #8 of the campaign, beating Tiny Lund and Don Gregory in what may have been his podium of the year.
John Sommerville won race nine, a race at Louisville that featured three 100-lap segments and the final rundown calculated by the best average finish. Dick Freeman won the July show at Winchester and then Nyari captured the Redbud at Anderson in August.
While Mike Eddy would not win a race during 1973, it is important to note how he was already becoming a contender during this summer, as he recorded three runner-up finishes.
Waltrip took the drama out of his return to Salem a few days later, taking the lead on lap 13 and winning by over a lap on the field. His winning streak at Salem had come to an end earlier in the summer, but it still marked his sixth victory at the track in his last seven appearances there.
The last two races of the year came at Winchester, and by now it was clear Sorg was going to be the inaugural champion. Bill Kimmel was his closed competition and watched his chance at the title slip away during the Labor Day show when he fell out on lap 77. Jerry Mitchell had an even worse day that day, leading the first 95 laps only to fall out with five to go and hand John Vallo his first ASA triumph.
That left the fourth annual Winchester 400 to tie up things for the year. Vern Schrock inherited the lead on lap 293 when Eldon Byler, fresh into the lead himself, had an engine blow. From there, he went on to a one-lap victory. 17 of the 40 starters finished the race, an impressive number considering the attrition rate that routinely sees less than 10 cars finishing the Winchester 400 to this day.
The 1974 season would again start with an early autumn race at Salem a few weeks later. In just under 365 days, the ASA Circuit of Champions had gone from a novel concept from promoter Rex Robbins to a regional juggernaut that would attract 80 cars for that first ‘74 race. The ASA was now humming and 1974 would see two new faces triumph for the first time and start a rivalry that defined the series for decades to come.
On a personal note, most of the box scores for the ASA are known and documented on The Third Turn, but a handful of races from the first few years of ASA remain with incomplete and partial rundowns. If you possess or have information that can help find the complete and official box scores for any races on this list linked here, we would ask you contact The Third Turn on Facebook or send an email to [email protected]. It would be an incredible accomplishment to mark ASA’s return this year by finding the last pieces of the old ASA to save for the next generation of race fans.
-Photo credit: William Michael