ASA STARS National Tour
American Speed Reborn: The Polar Bear’s First Championship
Feb 10, 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.
Before we dive in, a fun historical note! William Byron won the first points-paying ASA-sanctioned race in 19 years when he won the Clyde Hart Memorial for the ASA Southern Super Series race during the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway. When he pulled the #24 into Victory Lane, he did an unexpected bit of ASA history. Never before had any driver won in the #24 in an ASA-sanctioned late model race.
1975 was the third season of the ASA Circuit of Champions, but in a sense, it already marked the end of an era - the era where ASA was a secondary priority for many of the top stars, not the first. Nationally-known drivers like Bob Senneker, Ed Howe, Tiny Lund, and more ran selected starts here and there, choosing to race in ASA only when it was a bigger-money race or came during a weekend where they were otherwise free.
By the time the calendar switched to ‘76, the ASA purses and points fund would rise to the point where the top drivers were making it a point to run the full schedule. The only future ASA superstar to be with the tour full-time to this point was the 1974 champion Mike Eddy. Senneker, Butch Miller, Rusty Wallace, and Mark Martin were names that hadn’t really come on the scene yet.
So that leaves us with 1975 being the last year of the local superstar without a touring budget being at the top of the pecking order. Three such drivers would win their only career ASA race in 1975 - Neal Sceva, Moose Myers, and Don Higgins. Other names like Dave Sorg, Carl Smith, Dennis Miles, Gene Prosser, Gene Christie, Shorty Hinshaw, and Ray Fullen finished in the top ten of points.
While these names would soon be supplanted by the heroes most short track fans know to this day, it is always good to step back and appreciate the undersung heroes who helped lay the foundation for the greatest late model tour in American history. It was their wheelmanship on some of the toughest short tracks in the country that attracted the biggest names to travel more and more to ASA’s part of the Midwest.
Sceva’s win came in - to no surprise if you’ve been reading this column all the way thus far - a wild season opener at Salem Speedway. As described by National Speed Sport News:
“Exiting the final corner racing at the checkered flag, Sceva and Joe Ruttman crashed together a final time and spun against the inside wall, sliding across the finish line backwards amidst clouds of tire smoke and a hail of race car pieces. Although Ruttman went backwards several inches ahead of Sceva, officials rules that Ruttman was guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct and rough driving, by blocking and swerving against Sceva's car during the final two laps. Ruttman was penalized five laps, dropping him to eighth position in the final rundown.”
Ruttman, in fact, would wind up being suspended for the whole ASA season.
Senneker won the next race at Winchester with the real drama coming in qualifying. Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer Larry Moore had set a new “world record” in qualifying for the Winchester 400 a few months prior, timing in at 17.282, which to that point had been the fastest a late model had ever gone on a half-mile. Don Gregory then lowered the bar more, timing in a 17.254. A few cars later, Senneker laid the exact same time down on the stopwatch. Gregory got the pole tiebreaker but Senneker got the last laugh, as he cruised to victory in the first heat of the event, went back to 15th on an invert, and then took the lead back with 4 laps to go in the final laps of the main. It was Senneker’s seventh straight victory at Winchester.
Ed Howe and his bright green Camaro won race 3 on the season, a 100-lapper at Louisville before Moose Myers won race 4 at Anderson.
Myers shared a trajectory remarkably similar to previous champion Mike Eddy. He started off on the bullrings around Ft. Wayne in 1961. He certainly didn’t start with much - he and fellow local racer Tom Wible didn’t have enough money to buy a racecar solo so they pitched in together to buy a $275 machine and took turns driving. By the late 60s, his career was humming along - after his first Baer Field championship in 1966, he wound up winning 13 more titles between Baer Field, New Bremen, Bryan, and Avilla Speedways. A Fort Wayne News-Sentinel feature on Myers noted he would wind up winning late model races in six states.
His first ASA campaign - in 1975 - was the first time he wound up on the regional stage. Again like Eddy, an early season victory combined with a series of top-fives would propel him atop the standings where he would have little serious challenge despite failing to make the final two features of the year. (And even more Eddy similarities would be found in their nicknames - Eddy the “Polar Bear”, Myers - real name Conan - “Moose” because of their stocky builds).
Unlike Eddy though, Myers was on to greener pastures. The next year he moved up to ARCA, winning a total of 10 times in the late 70s, including the 1977 championship.
Back to 1975, John Vallo won race 5 at Winchester besting a field that included Bobby Allison and Wisconsin legend Joe Shear. Shear was actually leading when he crashed out on lap 23, and Vallo led the rest of the way. Three weeks later at Louisville, Charlie Glotzbach became the first driver to have won a NASCAR Cup race by the time he won in ASA. Dirt Late Model racer Rodney Combs won at Winchester and then it was the Bob Senneker show.
Senneker won four of the next five races - thrice at Winchester, including the Winchester 400, and once at Salem. He wound up going 5-for-5, the only driver to post a “perfect” ASA season with more than 2 starts in a season. In a reflection of how competitive ASA was to this point, Senneker had the most wins in tour history at 6 three years into the tour. At no point onward would anyone ever hold that record other than the “Bluebird."
Bob Senneker went a record 5-for-5 in ASA competition in 1975 (Brian Norton photo)
That left two other races unclaimed on the 1975 schedule. Don Higgins won the prestigious Redbud 300, besting Dave Sorg. That wound up being an ironic finish, since Higgins had won the 1972 Redbud only after letting Sorg drive for him in relief. Allison was again in the field and had set a new Anderson Late Model track record in qualifying at 13.26 seconds.
And Darrell Waltrip, fresh off his breakthrough NASCAR season that saw him win his first 2 Cup races, won the season finale at Salem. Waltrip, on the rocketship to superstardom, had cut his teeth at the Nashville Fairgrounds and Salem. At one point in the early 70s, Waltrip won 8 straight races at Salem. So much was the desire of the Salem crowd to see Waltrip that the finale, originally scheduled for October 12th got moved to October 26th for the sole reason of making it possible for Waltrip to attend. It wasn’t just the ASA race - the popular “Frostbite” sprint car race that was scheduled on the 26th got moved to the 19th and promptly was rained out.
The scheduling inconvenience for others turned out to be a win-win for Waltrip - literally. He won the Capital City 500 NASCAR Cup event at Richmond on October 12th and then cruised to the Salem victory on the 26th. The rescheduling even had the extra benefit of messing up potential rival Senneker’s plans. He had entered the initial date on the 12th but forewent the 26th because he was focused on helping Howe develop a Late Model Sportsman car for the autumn Southern shows and wound up racing instead at Martinsville.
And so with Salem drama to start and Salem drama to close, season 3 of ASA was in the books. More and more drivers were finding their way to ASA - Randy Sweet, Harry Gant, Ed Hoffman, Tom Reffner, and Jody Ridley were some of the notable new names appearing on the circuit for the first time. More notable names will be dropped when we return to ASA next week for the 1976 season.
Featured Photo Credit: Jim Hehl