ASA STARS National Tour
American Speed Reborn: Reffner Pulls The Upset
Sep 2, 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.
When Tony Raines posed in front of his 1996 ASA-title winning Pontiac, featured prominently on the hood was his team sponsor “Clean Burn”. What an appropriate sponsorship it turned out to be - after a solid if unspectacular first three-quarters of a season, Raines absolutely caught fire and blew past a half-dozen competitors in the standings in the final quarter of the season.
Coming on late, though, was nothing new for Raines. He didn’t touch a racing steering wheel until his mid-20s. While many young drivers grew up wrenching their dads cars and having a clearly defined home track, Raines had a dad in the air force. He lived in places where race cars are not particularly common, most notably Greece. Finally settling in Indiana, Raines excelled in other sports. At La Porte High School, the 6’ 2” Raines played football, basketball and baseball.
La Porte High School’s baseball team is known as a powerhouse in Indiana. Raines played in the system under legendary coach Ken Schreiber who won more than 1,000 games and was named National Coach of the Year three times. But it was Raines’ fascination with cars and speed that got him in trouble with Schreiber.
“Coach Schreiber lived right next to the baseball field,” said Raines. “One day I was out in my dad’s 1957 Chevy and I was doing a little hot-rodding down the street and I don’t think Schreiber was too impressed. That pretty much ended my baseball career at La Porte.”
So by his mid-20s, Raines was working full-time as an aviation mechanic and finally getting to tinker with racecars during the weekend. “I started building a street stock car to start racing. It’s just something I thought might be kind of fun”
Obviously, he found it fun. And racing found him talented. Because by the mid-1990s, Raines had been hanging around the ASA ranks a solid competitor for years. He entered the 1996 season with three career wins and four finishes in the year end top-ten in points.
When Raines broke free of the pack starting at Race 16 (of 20) in the season, it ended what had been truly one of the best points battles in recent memory. The points lead didn’t just change hands often, it was amongst a multitude of names. Consider that by race 10, Gary St. Amant was at the head of the pack and Raines was 6th. By race 15, it was Scott Hansen at the top, a driver that would eventually finish 4th. Other names popped around the top of the standings at various points through the year - sensational rookie Kevin Cywinski would win thrice. Over-50 Wisconsin veteran Mike Miller also had a stunning breakout season with another three wins. ASA veteran Joe Nott emerged from a tough race at Lancaster that saw 11 lead changes with his only career win and at that point was only a few markers back of the lead. And, naturally, you had to throw in Bob Senneker, who also won three times and made sure the famous #84 was in the mix most races. Brad Loney won his first career race in 1996 and while Dave Sensiba couldn’t crack victory lane he was consistent enough to be in the 4th-8th place range of the points all season long.
Joe Nott and Bob Senneker had fine years in 1996 - Here they battle for position at Toledo (Bobby Jones photo)
But again … Raines. In case you had not noticed, he hadn’t even won yet in 1996. Competitive, sure. Three-times a runner-up, and ultimately he would finish in the top-five in 11 of the 20 races.
That winless streak was snapped when he slipped by Bob Senneker with 15 laps to go to win the September race at Hawkeye Downs. After a third place finish in the Toledo Glass City race, Raines romped again with a dominant effort and win at Salem. The Jennerstown race was a hiccup - running fourth with a few laps to go, Raines started losing power with a faulty alternator. St. Amant would close back in to 53 points heading into the final race.
Gary St. Amant greets fans before the Jennerstown race. St. Amant finished runner-up in points in his best season to date (Paul Fey photo)
The finale race would be at a new facility - the Southern National Motorsports Park in Kenly, North Carolina. The ever-consistent Raines just needed to finish 8th or better to clinch the title, regardless of what happened to St. Amant. But the consistent Raines nearly faced disaster early, blowing a right-rear tire just twenty laps in. But he was saved with a caution for an unrelated incident, and then Raines simply marched to the front with 90 laps to go and pulled away. Victory number three on the season would easily be enough to clinch Raines his first career title.
Raines won $131,000 in prize money in 1996, plus the $100,000 for the championship. Goodyear also provided the champion 10 free tires for each race in the following season, worth an estimated $20,000 and bringing Raines’ haul to 1997. He would not
"I don't know how we'll spend the money, but we can always use the money," Raines was quoted as saying.
But the free Goodyear tires would wind up being used by a famous Midwest short track legend, Steve Carlson. That is because Carlson wound up replacing Raines in the seat of the Clean Burn #87 when Raines graduated to the NASCAR national ranks in 1997. He would stick in NASCAR for the next 15 years, winning four times in the Truck Series and driving for owners such as Kevin Harvick and Troy Aikman.
-Featured photo credit: Tom DeVette
1996 ASA ACDelco Challenge Series
11 February 1996
5 May 1996
12 May 1996
15 June 1996
22 June 1996
29 June 1996
6 July 1996
20 July 1996
28 July 1996
4 August 1996
10 August 1996
17 August 1996
25 August 1996
2 September 1996
8 September 1996
21 September 1996
29 September 1996
6 October 1996
13 October 1996
17 November 1996