NASCAR Needs More Racers Like Those Who Came Up Through the ASA
How many t-shirts, caps, seat cushions, flags and other items do you think were sold for Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Alan Kulwicki and Dick Trickle during their NASCAR careers? They had a lot of fans in their day, right? Add a few more for Ted Musgrave, Johnny Benson, Butch Miller, Scott Wimmer, Tony Raines and the entire Sauter clan – as well as others – and you’ve got a decent impact on NASCAR’s touring divisions.
The common link is that all came out of the American Speed Association – ASA – a Midwest sanctioning body founded by Anderson, Ind., native Rex Robbins in the late 1960s. Helped by the demise of USAC’s once-powerful stock car tour, ASA boasted considerable national media attention, including cable television broadcasts of some races. Its top touring series was the breeding ground for future NASCAR stars in its heyday. (The headline touring series closed up shop in 2004, and while ASA still exists, its current sanctioning activities do not receive the national coverage of years past.)
Two of the ASA’s best, Bob Senneker (84) and Mike Eddy (88), never seriously tested the NASCAR waters, and sticking with the ASA, they combined for eight championships and 143 feature victories (plus accomplishments with other groups and tracks).
I mention all this as another piece for my continuing argument that NASCAR needs to return to finding new racers via the proven talent in established lower competition levels, either weekly short tracks or regional series. When Wallace, Martin, Kulwicki and Trickle came to Cup racing, they weren’t household words like the older stars they were challenging, but fans generally knew who they were and recognized their achievements.
Wallace, Martin and Trickle were all former ASA champs, while Kulwicki had finished in the top five in points three times. That’s a little more “cred” and fan-building time than a couple of years in Legends and a couple in K&N cars.
Martin spent a lot of time doing this before moving up. That made him a better driver and gathered a fan base.
Unfortunately, changing media habits have meant less exposure in general-reader/viewership media for racing overall, but especially for anything other than NASCAR and maybe IndyCars or Formula 1. If non-NASCAR racing got the coverage today that it got 30 years ago, people like Christopher Bell would be better known upon arrival in NASCAR (same for Kyle Larson). There’s plenty written about racing in all forms today, but you have to seek it out on narrowly-targeted websites and search for specific video content on YouTube. That makes it a lot harder to reach those who aren’t yet fans.
I’m hoping that this is changing a little, more because fans are realizing that there’s life and speed beyond NASCAR and are seeking out coverage of it. Maybe it’s just me, but groups like PASS and major races like those for late models at Martinsville, Nashville and Pensacola are receiving a little more exposure than during the NASCAR-or-nothing period. (These are primarily asphalt; dirt has a slew of sanctioning groups, headed by DIRT/World of Outlaws, the Lucas Oil tour and Tony Stewart’s All Star circuit, which seem to get decent exposure.)
A PASS Series championship race from 2016.
Now we just need to get teams and sponsors to understand that a 26-year-old with some lower level championships and wins under his/her belt stands as good or better a chance of success as a 17-year-old who won two K&N races last year – and will bring some fans along to the party as well. Then maybe one of the foundation blocks that fell away and caused NASCAR to start falling over can be replaced.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Some good ideas came out of responses to last week’s article. “TruthInSpending” laid the blame for NASCAR’s fall on the decline in short-track racing, where many fans become fans. Good point, and NASCAR did its part by hogging more and more Saturday nights for Cup racing. Up my way – South Central Pennsylvania – weekly racing seems to be doing OK, although it’s all dirt and mostly open-wheel. Dirt tracks in other areas seem to be struggling, and paved tracks all over seem to have more minuses than plusses. I blame a lot of the latter on NASCAR’s failure to take the lead in finding common rules that reduce costs and make it affordable for more people to build/race that first car.
The cost of short track racing is a big problem, as is the change in the car culture, and the latter seems our ultimate threat. How many shade-tree mechanics do you see working on Hondas or BMWs? How many shade-tree mechanics do you see, period? Today’s cars just don’t lend themselves to that. When Dave Fulton, Chris Young and I bought a ’57 Olds to convert to a Southside Speedway hobby car, we could have done it, had we had a little more collective mechanical knowhow. I don’t that it’s so easy, anymore.
The article about ASA racing (above) was inspired by a reply from ex-ASA racer Tom Harrington, to whom I’m thankful for the idea and his recollections of those days. Harrington raced in ASA for about 20 years, mostly as an owner-driver. He cited one of his high points as out-qualifying Jimmie Johnson in a 1999 ASA race at Orange County Speedway in Rougemont, N.C. Johnson went on to win the race, while Harrington finished 19th, but you take your distinctions when and where you can.
Tom Harrington most often raced in a #91 car.
Harrington dabbled in other sanctioned races besides ASA, including NASCAR, where he ran eight times in what is now the Xfinity Series, finishing ninth at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in 1988. Also worth noting, he drove in USAC stock division races at Texas World Speedway twice as a teammate to H.B. Bailey, finishing sixth in 1978, one position and five laps ahead of his boss. Racing needs more guys like Tom Harrington, who, by the way, is also exactly five days younger than I am.
Last weekend was better for the Blaney family than many people realize. Not only did Ryan kick some you-know-what in Texas, but only a few hours after he celebrated his Xfinity victory there, Dad Dave claimed the 410 sprint car checkers at Port Royal Speedway in Pennsylvania. The elder (age 55) Blaney showed the competitive fires still burn pretty intensely, passing Greg Hodnett and then holding off Lucas Wolfe (both former World of Outlaw competitors) for the win at the very fast Port. For anybody already on Social Security or anticipating that first check in the not-too-distant future, this is a photo worth putting up on the ‘fridge.
Dave Blaney on the gas at Port Royal.