ASA STARS National Tour
American Speed Reborn: Polar Bear Roars Back
Apr 7, 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.
Growing up as a young NASCAR fan, the 1992 NASCAR Cup finale at Atlanta held almost a mystical designation in my mind’s eye. A season of 30 races coming down with six drivers still mathematically alive for the title. A race that saw one contender wreck out early and have a heroic pit crew effort get him back in the race even with the title chances gone. A championship battle that came down to the top drivers running 1-2 with the most important number being a single lap that one driver led over the other. And a champion named Alan Kulwicki for the biggest upset in modern NASCAR.
The 1982 American Speed Association season - its tenth of operation - is the closest analog you’ll ever find to that moment in short-track racing. A scorching three-way championship battle, even featuring Kulwicki at that, that came down to a wild, unpredictable final few laps at a famed Southeastern oval.
Neil Bonnett got it all started when he became the first member of the Alabama Gang to win in ASA, taking the season opener at Nashville. Trickle hounded him for the last twenty-five laps, but never got a chance in lapped traffic to pass him. The win also handed Ford its first ASA win since 1974.
ASA was then scheduled to make their first-ever appearance at Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks later as support to a CART race, but rain pushed that off after qualifying. But the damage was already done to Senneker, who had made it about 50 feet on the first lap before getting crashed out at Nashville. During the Atlanta qualifying session, he would have an oil filter pop off on his car, erupting his new mount in a gulf of flames.
But Senneker would bounce back the way he often did - winning two straight to start off May. Neither of them came easily, as young Alan Kulwicki at Milwaukee and Trickle on fresh tires at IRP would be able to draw even with Senneker within the last ten laps, with Senneker ultimately prevailing on corner exit.
Eddy, who had led plenty at IRP before settling for third, struck next with two straight victories of his own - taking the series’ debuts at Bristol and Lonesome Pine. Despite being a three-time titlist to this point, this was the first time Eddy had ever won successive ASA contests.
But what was not new was Eddy’s consistency. Even though those two wins would be his only in ASA in 1982, in the first 9 races his worst finish would be 6th. While Trickle and Senneker completely monopolized the winners circle with three wins apiece the rest of June and all of July, Eddy kept on ahead in points.
Senneker, despite 5 wins in the first 11 races, was never poised to keep up in the points battle. 27th, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 15th, 19th, 1st, 1st, 18th, 38th, 1st. That’s a record of his first 11 finishes that might better resemble a roller coaster. Trickle, though, was proving to be built differently. Having only one bad springtime finish had kept him within shouting distance of Eddy, and when Eddy broke a ball joint halfway through the July Milwaukee race, it allowed Trickle to win the race and take a two-point lead in the standings.
Eddy took it back the next race at Cayuga and then finished 2nd to Trickle’s 3rd at the Lonesome Pine return (race 12 on the year) to keep a narrow margin. The problem both these drivers now had was the driver who was the 1st place finisher at Lonesome Pine.
Alan Kulwicki had taken a rather unconventional path to racing. Like many young drivers, he grew up immersed in the sport, but he spent most of his adolescence with his dad under the hood versus watching his dad behind the wheel. USAC’s Stock Car Series, the series in the Midwest before ASA began to steal its thunder in the late 70s, had seen a superteam formed when Norm Nelson brought on crew chief and engine builder Gerald Kulwicki. The pair had won 13 of 33 USAC races during title years of 1966 and 1967. A few years later, when Norm McCluskey had much of the same success, it was largely due to Kulwicki’s mechanical wizardry.
The younger Kulwicki began to drive himself in the early 70s, but full-time racing would have to wait until he finished his collegiate degree in mechanical engineering. Today, if you look at the roster of many Cup or XF teams, you’ll see a litany of short track stars who used the engineering chops they learned to keep moving up the ladder even if not behind the wheel. But Kulwicki was the vanguard in this regard - in a time when mechanical grip unlocked speed more than aero, he could build AND drive a racecar.
And drive he clearly could. In 1981, he had run well in his first full ASA season and was clearly improving with each and every race in 1982. So when he went out and won Lonesome Pine, it wasn’t really much of a surprise when he won again two weeks later in the tough 300-lap contest at Anderson. What was a bit of a surprise though was how much Kulwicki was now in the title race. The first half of his season had been unspectacular but consistent, often finishing right behind Eddy and Trickle in the rundown. But now having two wins highlighting a summer hot streak, Kulwicki now the points leader.
Heavy hitters at the front for the 1982 Berlin show - Ed Howe (188), paces Eddy, Senneker, Trickle (Steve Green Collection)
With five races to go: Kulwicki led Trickle by 36 points and Eddy was just one point further back. Trickle would win St. Paul, Eddy was 3rd, Kulwicki 6th. Now the top-three were separated by just 16 points.
Trickle then seemed as though he gotten a big break in the next race at Michigan. Trickle and Eddy had been running nip and tuck for the last 15 laps of that race, when Senneker spun from fourth with just a few laps to go. Third place Gary Balough then got into second place Eddy, sending Eddy into the turn two wall. Balough then got ahead of Trickle on two subsequent restarts before being told by ASA officials he had jumped Trickle and had to give the lead back. Trickle won race 5 on the year while Kulwicki and Eddy both finished just outside of the top-ten. The three leaders were now within 12 points, Eddy barely ahead.
One more youngster would interrupt the championship battle to shine on his own when the series came up to its antepenultimate race in the Winchester 400. Rusty Wallace, who had run most of the ASA races in 1981 and 1982 (but not the full schedule), finally broke through in a crown jewel triumph. He already owned a spectacular runner-up finish in his NASCAR Cup debut in 1980, and 4 USAC triumphs on the famed Milwaukee Mile. But his inaugural ASA triumph was equally impressive, as he won by three whole laps in the grueling 400-lap contest.
Don Gregory (7) and Harold Fair (81) race on the high banks of Winchester (Gary Ponzani photo)
Eddy, meanwhile, finished ninth with his other two rivals in the top-five. Now it was Kulwicki back in charge of the standings, 12 up on Eddy with one more point back to Trickle.
Senneker won the October IRP race that did little to change the points outlook. Heading into the final race of the year, the All American 400 at Nashville, it would be Kulwicki on top of Eddy by five points and Trickle by 11.
Qualifications for Nashville made things even tighter as ASA awarded points for time trials at this stage in their history. Trickle set fast time to erase most of his deficit and Eddy’s 5th place effort was enough to take the unofficial points lead by one on Kulwicki (11th) and two on Trickle.
Kulwicki would be the first to falter. On lap 183, his engine let go while running fifth. Usually, in pretty much any circumstance, that would be “game over”. But Kulwicki was wired differently. The crew had gone ahead before the race and pulled out a backup engine and had it ready. ASA rules permitted an in-race engine change. And so, in the middle of the title-deciding race, Kulwicki got out of his car and with his entire pit crew changed the entire engine in twenty-two-and-a-half minutes. He rejoined the race and would finish, 21st, thirty-seven laps down. It would not be enough to win the title, but has to be considered one of the most impressive efforts in the annals of racing lore.
Despite getting the pole, Trickle was unable to lead at the drop of the green. Eddy would wind up himself getting 113 laps led in his column, which earned him some valuable bonus points. Trickle, unable to pass Eddy, saw Senneker get by him and then to the lead with just over 100 laps to go. For Trickle, Senneker taking the lead was the best possible outcome as if Senneker could take the points for leading the most laps, all he would have to do is finish one position ahead of Eddy to take the crown.
After a restart on lap 362, Trickle found himself out of the pits ahead of Eddy but behind Senneker. It put him in a strange position - if he went and passed Senneker, then Eddy would wind up with the most laps led and a second place finish could still be enough to take the title. But if Trickle got past Senneker, he’d win the race and would just need Eddy to remain in third place. A few times in the next run Trickle would pull alongside Senneker, but he never led a lap and seemed as though he might just stick for second - at least until Senneker got to Eddy’s lap led number.
This all proved to be a moot point. As they were about to lap Don Gregory on lap 381, Gregory had a hub break, spinning in front of the lead duo. Senneker skirted by by inches while Trickle was not so lucky. His car, his race, his season was over in turn three.
Eddy, with little left to play for, ultimately fell back to fifth in the final laps. Senneker won race 7, but Eddy was now a four-time ASA champion. A fifty-seven point margin in the final standings would obscure what was one of the greatest battles to the wire in short track championship history.
-Featured Photo: Gary Ponzani
1982 American Speed Association Races