ASA STARS National Tour
American Speed Reborn: The Closest Title Fight Yet
May 12, 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.
Throughout its history, the American Speed Association served two duel functions - a stepping stool for young talent to get their first taste on a major big league racing series before moving up the ladder to NASCAR, never to be seen again. To complement that were a bevy of drivers who made their bread and butter racing in ASA pretty much their entire career, grizzled veterans who could teach the youngsters a lesson or two.
And then there was one driver for whom ASA was something neither one nor the other - For Mark Martin, ASA was the land of his second chance.
The kid had won three straight ASA championships from 1978 to 1980 and his star had been purely on the ascendent. By 1982, he seemed as though he would be the first driver to go the ASA-to-NASCAR star route. He moved his team straight to the NASCAR Cup leagues fresh off a limited 1981 season that saw him win two poles. And that 1982 season, stats wise at least, was very impressive for a rookie team and driver. He had 8 top-ten finishes and finished 14th in points.
But things fell apart. In every which way. I’ll link here to a very well written story from David Newton on the period of Martin’s life from 1982-1987 so as to not rehash all of the details. But by the time we pick up our ASA story in 1986, Martin had been through the ringer. Too proud to close his family team until he was out of money. Fired and grifted by a huckster owner in J.D. Stacy. Living far from his Arkansas home by way of Wisconsin to try to save his career. And, bluntly, drinking way too much alcohol.
Things had started to turn around in the winter of 1983 when Martin met his now-wife Arlene. Between her and family friends, Martin began to work on a fitness routine to replace the idle time drinking, even if the latter would still be an issue in his life for a few years to come. And by 1985 he had met a smart young wrench named Jimmy Fennig who was starting to turn Martin’s equipment back to winning shape.
Martin had raced almost exclusively in ASA since his fall from grace, this time not piloting his own equipment but a machine owned by Jim Gunderson. The results had been mixed. In 1984, he probably entered as a favorite but only won once and had a particularly dismal summer. He had then won a decent amount in the 1985 campaign but a feast-or-famine stats line had left him fourth in points. Martin was clearly still a very talented driver, but he was kind of stuck.
There’s no telling what would have come to Mark Martin if the 1986 ASA championship season had not occurred. It was only his sheer dominance of the circuit that earned him a winning Busch Series ride in 1987 that gave Jack Roush enough confidence to tap him for a 1988 NASCAR Cup ride.
Martin’s stiffest competition proved to be two-time defending ASA champion Dick Trickle and Michigan star Butch Miller. Trickle would not win a single race but incredibly was the runner up in eight (50%) of the sixteen races in the ASA circuit. Miller, meanwhile, was more of the winner - starting the season off with two dominant wins at Queen City and Cayuga before ticking on three more victories through the rest of the campaign. But mechanical gremlins - often while leading - were Miller’s downfall. Five engine failures and an oil leak accounted for every finish outside of the top-ten.
Martin had both Trickle’s consistency and Miller’s speed. He won five times and only finished worse than 12th twice. His triumphs included two of ASA’s crown jewels - taking the Redbud 400 and the Winchester 400.
Mark Martin holds off Dick Trickle down the stretch for a Winchester 400 win (Bill Minjoe photo)
It was one race in between those two long-distance triumph that moved the title in Martin’s favour. Trickle’s runner-up penchant had everyone else fighting for runner-up in points and with four races to go, he did it again with a 2nd place finish at St. Paul. But Martin could have lost the championship in that race had his team not repaired a broken axle quickly, only losing four laps in the pits and allowing him to salvage a 10th place finish.
He finished right behind Trickle the next week before nipping Trickle for victory at Michigan. In another testament to his crew, Martin managed to take five pit stops and change 14 tires without ever losing a lap and that was ultimately what gave him the edge over Trickle. The next week, that same crew kept Martin firmly in the lead in the Winchester endurance fest while a late wreck doomed Trickle to 15th place, his worst finish in nearly four months. The result was a flipping of the points lead.
The Nashville event should have been a drama free affair for Martin - simply finish the race in a decent position and the title would be his regardless of Trickle’s outcome. Trickle held up his part with a fifth place finish while Martin sweated out the last 40 laps due to a developing mechanical issue. “We were lucky to finish the race,” Martin said afterwards. “The battery went dead at the end. If it had been a 500-lap race, we would never have won the championship.”
Maybe it was fitting though. After years of having all the big things fall apart, perhaps there was a beautiful irony in that one of the small things coming through is what catapulted Martin back to the top of racing glory. As we alluded to, he was back on the national radar and within three years he was a winning NASCAR Winston Cup driver.
Not everyone gets a second chance, but a legion of diehard NASCAR fans today must remain glad Martin took the most of his.
-Featured Photo Credit: Billy Palmer Collection
Bob Senneker had a rough 1986 season, only recording a single victory at Cayuga (Bill Minjoe photo)
1986 ASA National Tour Results
13 April 1986
1 June 1986
22 June 1986
28 June 1986
6 July 1986
12 July 1986
19 July 1986
3 August 1986
9 August 1986
16 August 1986
24 August 1986
1 September 1986
21 September 1986
28 September 1986
5 October 1986
9 November 1986