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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

For Many Drivers, ASA Is No Longer Just a Career Pit Stop

March 09, 2001|SHAV GLICK

The American Speed Assn., an Indiana-based stock car organization that introduced such driving talent as Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Johnny Benson and the late Alan Kulwicki, will make its first West Coast appearance this weekend at Irwindale Speedway.

The two-day event will start today with qualifying at 5:30 p.m., followed by the Wynn's 100 for slow qualifiers at 8. The first 18 in the 36-car field will be determined by qualifying times. The Tires.com 300 championship race will start at 6 p.m. Saturday. Pre-race ceremonies will begin at 5:15, with the 300-lap race being tape-delayed on TNN at 9.

The posted purse of $274,810 is the half-mile Irwindale track's richest as it begins its third season.

All cars are powered by the same $12,000 GM Vortec ASA engine and must use identical BFGoodrich traction tires.

"These cars are equal to the finest Busch Grand National car," said former Daytona 500 winner Buddy Baker, now a TV analyst at ASA races.

"The beauty of this series is that anyone can come in and buy a Vortec engine and it is exactly the same as the one driven by the champion. No one can buy an $80,000 engine and blow off everyone. It's definitely a driver's series."

Joey Clanton, last year's ASA rookie of the year from Stockbridge, Ga., started the 2001 season with a win at St. Augustine, Fla.

"None of the teams have been able to test at Irwindale, so we will be on equal footing," said Clanton, an engineering graduate of Georgia Tech. "I have a great team, great crew chief and a great owner to back me, so I think we are going to have an awesome run at Irwindale."

Clanton drives a Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Steve Dale Motorsports of Fayetteville, Ga.

Most of the ASA drivers are from the Midwest or the South but Brandon Miller, 19, of Rancho Santa Fe, is a lone Californian in the 42-driver entry. A former karting champion, Miller has frequently raced late model stock cars at Irwindale. He will be in the No. 58 Chevy Monte Carlo for SouthWest Motorsports.

"It's lucky for me that my first ASA race will be at Irwindale, my home track," said Miller, who has one win there and was named the track's most promising driver in 1999. "These drivers are exceptionally fast and I can't wait to get on the track and learn from them."

For years, the ASA was considered a training ground for NASCAR Winston Cup racing, but its purses have become big enough to support a full-time racing habit.

Said defending champion Gary St. Amant, "A lot of guys are still using the series to further their career and move on, but there are a lot of guys, like me, who see the ASA as a stopping point for their career.

"This is the best short-track series with the best short-track drivers and you can still race here, still have a family and have a life outside of the racetrack."

St. Amant, who also won the series crown in 1998, has won $1.66 million in purses during a 15-year ASA career. From Columbus, Ohio, he drives a Chevrolet for Automotive Productions Inc.

"I remember in 1988, I saw Butch Miller collect $5,000 at the banquet for winning the championship," he said. "Last year, I got $200,000."

DRAG RACING ROOTS

Before Dave McClelland became drag racing's premier announcer, he drove a '39 Chevy coupe--powered by a Buick engine with a LaSalle transmission--in races around Arkansas and Louisiana in the late 1950s. It ran 95-100 mph in about 14 seconds.

As McClelland began a career that now spans 42 years of announcing National Hot Rod Assn. events, he found less and less time to pursue his hobby.

In 1970, a year before he moved to Glendale to work full-time for the NHRA, McClelland saw a 1948 Fiat sitting in a friend's carport. It had been raced in the 1962 Indy Nationals, but when McClelland asked about it, the owner said, "You want it, come and get it."

He and son Kevin raced it on local tracks such as Orange County, Irwindale and Lions from 1971 to 1976. When Kevin was 15, he made a pass at 135 mph in 9.4 seconds.

"We parked it in 1976 and it sat in my garage until 1991, when we put a funny car cage on it and Roger Lamb of Upland got it ready to race," McClelland said. "The day I got it, Wally Parks held a staff meeting at the NHRA offices and warned, 'This is a good place to work; this is no tuna factory.' "

The next day, half the staff showed up wearing Tuna Team T-shirts and Bill Holland, then editor of National Dragster, called McClelland's hot rod "Tuna Tank."

It has been the Tuna Tank ever since and now McClelland, after forming his own company, is racing it in vintage races such as this weekend's 42nd Goodguys March Meet at Famoso Dragstrip, north of Bakersfield.

Powered by a big-block Chevrolet engine, McClelland won the Hot Rod Eliminator class at the 1998 Goodguys March Meet, surviving six rounds of eliminations.

"It was the first major win for the Fiat in its entire career," said McClelland, who achieved the remarkable feat of dialing in an 8.78-second run and then duplicating it exactly in his final round.

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