ASA Late Models Prove to Be a Popular Training Ground by Mike Twist
Several Young Drivers Are Moving Up...We Look at Why
When it comes to picking drivers to step up into the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, it seems that there are always trends. In the 1990’s, USAC Sprints and Midgets were a hotbed of young talent – with guys like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart stepping up into the big leagues of NASCAR. Before that, the old ASA tour taught Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace and the NASCAR Modifieds taught Geoff Bodine and Jimmy Spencer how to become Cup-winning drivers. Currently, Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger are stepping up to the plate as Nextel Cup rookies after putting together winning resumes in various premiere forms of open wheel road racing.
Winning races in ASA Late Models helped Kelly Bires get to the Truck Series.
Where the next crop of drivers will be grown isn’t clear. There are many types of short track racing that are poised to graduate young stars. However, in the past few seasons, it seems like a disproportional number of young guns who are getting attention hail from the ASA Late Model Series.
After winning the 2005 ASA Late Model championship, Stephen Leicht attracted the eye of Robert Yates Racing and now competes in the NASCAR Busch Series for that team. Kelly Bires took over Leicht’s former ASA LM Challenge Series ride with WalTom Racing in 2006 and followed in his footsteps by winning the 2006 title. Bires is now ready to embark on a career in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with the storied Wood Brothers team. Landon Cassill was the only driver to win races in all three divisions of ASA Late Models in 2006 and now has entered into a relationship with the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team.
“I think that the ASA Late Model Series is a great point to start out if you want to eventually make it to Nextel Cup,” said John Wes Townley, a teenaged ASA LM Southern division driver who is a part of the Wood Brothers driver development program. “It’s a great program that can help a lot of driver make it to their goals.”
There are many reasons why the ASA Late Model Series has become so attractive to scouts in such a short amount of time. The tour got a boost of publicity in 2005 when the former ASA National Tour went belly-up and a void needed to be filled. Many teams and track associated with the “old” ASA aligned themselves with the ASA Late Models.
Other reasons why the tour is working have to do with the equipment that is raced. Crate motors and other cost-saving measures in the rulebook keep competition tight, while highlighting driver skill. The radial tires that are used are closer to the ones used in the top leagues of NASCAR than tires used on other tours. The list goes on.
“I just think that the cars really teach you to be smooth,” said Cassill. “They are really chassis-sensitive because they don’t have a lot of horsepower, so you really need to work on the car. It puts the driver into it because you have to be able to communicate with your team and give good feedback [to get the car better]. You don’t just add horsepower. It definitely takes a good driver to figure out how to get those cars around the track.”
The ASA Late Models are a good middle ground too. It is a series that teaches racing lessons and gets national attention, while not being quite as overwhelming to a young driver as some of the other short track tours out there.
“There aren’t many short track series out there that run on radial tires and are cost effective,” said Bires. “You can look at Pro Cup or ARCA, but it costs quite a bit of money to run those cars. In ASA, people can run the cars out of their house’s garage, work on the cars themselves and go to the track with a small trailer and a dually. They can have volunteer help and still run competitively.”
“Late Models are a great place to start,” said Townley. “If you started in Hooter’s Pro Cup,
it would be hard because it’s not that different than NASCAR [Busch Series or Nextel Cup].
You have to take baby steps to get to that point.
“There are big difference between those cars and a Super Late Model,” said Cassill, who
has won in both types of cars. “A Super Late is a lot of fun, but difficult to drive. Not
everyone can drive one. On the other hand, just about anyone can drive an ASA Late Model,
but there are very few people that can drive them the correct way and really know how to
race one. It definitely is easier to judge talent. Driving an ASA car is a mental game with
a lot of strategy involved. The best drivers always come out on top.”
“Short track racing is tough at any level you’re at – whether it is at the local track on
Saturday night or if you’re in a touring series like ASA,” said Bires. “There are always people
who are tough at every level. If you can master that and consistently beat those people, I think that you are ready to move up to the next level. The transition from ASA to the Truck is just another step. We did some testing at some downforce tracks and it didn’t take me long to adapt. I feel like where I was with an ASA car this time last year. The ASA Late Models did prepare me to go to the next level.”
A diverse schedule also helps prepare young drivers. ASA Late Models race on everything from tight bullrings like Baer Field Speedway to the Iowa Speedway, a 7/8th mile track designed by Rusty Wallace.
“You have to learn how to adapt to certain tracks,” said Townley. “Some place you go and have no experience at. You have to adjust quickly and that is the way that it is in NASCAR. That helps people a lot.”
“It challenges you a lot,” said Alex Kennedy, who will drive in the ASA LM Challenge Series for 5K Motorsports this coming year. “There are a lot of different drivers from different backgrounds that you race against at a lot of different tracks. It gets attention from a lot of people who are involved with developing drivers. I think that it is a great series to move up into.”
Although, he is still a rookie, Kennedy could be the next young driver to watch when it comes to using the ASA Late Models as a career springboard. The 14-year-old has already turned heads with a few starts late in 2006 and is ready to go for this year.
“Last year, we moved into the ASA Series near the end of the year after running in the USRA Late Model Series. We ran two tests with two different teams and raced at Nashville. That went well and we’re working on getting ready to run full-time this year.”
There are lessons that are taught in racing too that have nothing to do with how well a driver performs. Cassill knows that winning might have earned him notice from the talent scouts at Hendrick Motorsports, but that alone didn’t get him a deal with the team.
“We had a lot of really good runs this year, but I don’t think that it was all about winning,” said Cassill. “We had a lot of poles and a lot of top fives and top tens. Those things add up. It’s also about the things that happen off the track – the ability to communicate with people and networking. It’s a combination of things. People say that winning is everything. Well, winning really isn’t everything.”
Landon Cassill's career on on the fast track to NASCAR as well. He won in all three ASA LM divisions last year.
Alex Kennedy hopes to be the next driver to use ASA Late Models as a springboard to NASCAR. (AlexKennedyRacing.com Photo)