American Speed Reborn: The Polar Bear’s First Championship

Mike Eddy won his first ASA championship with unstoppable consistency.

Share

Top
hero image for American Speed Reborn: The Polar Bear’s First Championship

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.

You can say this for Salem Speedway: It certainly sets a tone for a season when it serves as your season opener.

The second season of the American Speed Association (ASA) Circuit of Champions began at the same facility as its inaugural. That first season, 14 races strong on some of the toughest bullrings in the Midwest, had quickly earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, talent-laden tour. Salem had proved to be the most dramatic of those races for the ‘73 tour and ‘74 followed suit. John Anderson prevailed when darkness overtook the track - the race having been delayed by a series of dramatic events.

First, James Hamm’s car ripped out 110 feet of guardrail, launched over the two turn banking, and wound up nestled 15 feet up in a tree. The ensuing restart saw 14 cars wreck, causing further delay. Larry Cope left the ballpark a hundred laps later. Then finally Anderson, controlling the field down to the start of the final heat, spun the tires and was able to course correct only to watch 12 cars crash behind him. From all of that, it was a calm last 50 laps for Anderson, a rising star in the Midwest who had just won the Mt. Clemens Speedway (MI) season title.

Legendary car builder Ed Howe set the track record in qualifying for race #2 on the season, a late March show at Louisville, KY. He was inverted to eighth on the grid, got into second on lap 13 when local stars LaMarr Marshall and John Sommerville made contact in front of him, and eventually vaulted into the lead on lap 35. Howe’s famous green machine had a Sunday drive after that, with Howe telling the local journalists that he never ran flat out the entire race.

Shorty Hinshaw won his only ASA career race the next week at Winchester as did Marshall a few weeks later at Salem. Continuing a theme from 1973, when springtime winner Jack Shanklin had similar thoughts, Marshall celebrated a win at a track that had stymied him for a long time.

“Eleven years and I’d never won anything. Lots of seconds and thirds and lots of bad luck, but no wins. I figure it was time something fell my way”, he told the Courier-Journal. “I feel sorry for the guys that had trouble, but I’ve been there and I’m not so sorry that I won’t take the win.”

One of the contenders that had trouble that day, but bounced back to finish second was a Michiganer named Mike Eddy. Eddy, who had yet to win to this point in ASA, had recorded his 4th runner up finish in his first 11 appearances on tour.

His season to that point had been solid but unspectacular - 11th, 8th, 6th, and now 2nd.

But just a few races into his young career, Mike Eddy was becoming what everyone would come to appreciate (and dread when facing him) in the ASA circle. Incredibly, unstoppably consistent.

Mike Eddy made 470 starts in his ASA career. He won plenty - 58 times. But he could point you to death more than anything - 207 career top-fives (44%), 293 career top-tens.

“My dad owned a salvage yard, so we were always around cars,” Eddy told the Midland Daily News a few years ago before he joined yet another Hall of Fame. “And he owned race cars that different drivers drove. That’s how I got started (in racing) — between being around cars and fixing cars. I started racing when I was old enough to start, which was at (age) 17.”

In his rookie season of competition, he managed to win races at Tri-City and Berlin. He caught the attention of famed Midwest racing paper Midwest Racing News, who named him their Rookie of the Year.

He caught his fellow drivers’ attention in other ways - within a few years of racing he had earned a nickname - The Polar Bear.

“I guess it was because I was from up north, and I had long blondish hair and was kind of heavy.”

The first win of the Polar Bear’s ASA career came in race 5 of the 1974 season, when he piloted his Camaro to a victory over legendary Midwest racer Albert Arnold at Louisville. It was about the most Eddy-esque way you could win a first race. The race was in three 100-lap segments. And unlike other similar races in the region at the time where the last segment was for all the laurels and points, the “final” finish was calculated by taking the average finish between those three segments. Eddy didn’t win any of those three segments - he just consistently logged segment finishes of 6th, 5th, and 2nd to win.

“The fan belt came off with 10 laps to go”, Eddy told the Courier-Journal, “and the engine temperature really shot up. I was worried, especially with three laps to go. I figured every lap it was going to quit. When the engine gets that hot, they don’t run for very long. Two seasons ago, I had the season championship won at Tri-City and my engine blew with two laps to go in the season championship race. I ended up second in the points. But that didn’t happen tonight.”

Surviving the Louisville test likewise improved his championship outlook for ASA. Despite a rough rest of the season that would see him record a singular top-five, Eddy was now far enough ahead in the points that nothing - fan belt or competitor - would stop him from winning the title.

The points battle seemingly wrapping up early did not mean the second half of the season was devoid of intrigue. Dennis Miles, winner of the 1971 Winchester 400, claimed his only ASA win in August at the same facility, and then the next week saw three races in three days with three of the biggest names in 1970s short track racing taking the checkered flag.

Tiny Lund would win the 1974 Redbud 300. Don Gregory beat dirt late model standout Rodney Combs a few days later in the ASA’s inaugural appearance at Indianapolis Raceway Park. And the next day Darrell Waltrip returned to ASA to win yet another show at Salem.

The IRP race had been a particularly rough affair for the stars - ASA had promised the Salem fans that Lund, Waltrip, and former Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton would be in attendance, but IRP had damaged Waltrip and Lund’s cars and Hamilton’s machine was so roughed up he dropped out. The ASA offered to refund any fans who wanted to leave when Hamilton didn’t show. Seven took them up on the offer - the remaining 3,819 watched Waltrip take a borrowed car from fifth on the grid to second, back to sixth after it died on the caution, and then right back to the lead by lap 13.

John Vallo won the Labor Day Winchester race and then in the big “400” to close out the year there came another first-time ASA winner. Unlike Eddy, Bob Senneker had already made a regional name for himself before coming to the ASA. In fact, the 1974 Winchester 400 was Bob Senneker’s only start of the year, having hopped around the region to compete in the big-money shows, a la Bubba Pollard or Derek Thorn today.

But Senneker, who came back from a five-lap deficit to win the Winchester 400 and the largest ASA winner’s purse of the year, clearly enjoyed his first foray into ASA. He decided to make the tour more of a priority in 1975.

Fans who left the Indiana half-mile that day had no idea as ASA wrapped up their second season, that the themes that would define short track racing’s crown jewel circuit for the next 25 years had been written for the first time - Eddy, ever consistent and a prolific season titlist versus Senneker, often victorious but sometimes snakebitten. Eddy had just won the first of his record seven tour championships. Senneker had just won the first of his record 85 race wins.

STARS logo TM 300

ASA STARS NATIONAL TOUR ON RACING AMERICA

November 5 - All American 400 - Streaming Live on Racing America

Nov 5, 2023