Not too big, not too small-that may best sum up the Southern All Star Racing Series (SAS). Positioned right in between the weekly tracks and the bigger series like Hav-A-Tampa, SAS has been developing drivers and thrilling fans for close to 20 years. Top local drivers, competitive prize money, and above all, exciting racing, make SAS one of the biggest little secrets in racing.
A Star Is Born
SAS was born in Birmingham, Alabama, as the brainchild of B.J. Parker, a longtime race promoter and former owner of Birmingham International Raceway. "I sold BIR in 1982 to focus on putting on a couple of dirt races in northern Alabama," says Parker, now president of SAS. "But at the time, I did not have SAS in mind."
For his first racing event, Parker enlisted the help of his old friend Bobby Allison. "I called Bobby and got him to come up and race and serve as a 'drawing card' to get the fans interested," Parker recalls. "That race went real well, so I went to Columbus, Mississippi, to do the same thing and got Red Farmer to come race. That also went real well."
Race fans came in droves to see the headliners as well as the top local drivers race together, and Parker began to realize he was on to something with serious potential. "I noticed that what made the people show up was that we had the best drivers from seven or eight different tracks. So, sort of like an all-star football game, I got the idea of an all-star series," he says. Thus, in 1983, the Southern All Star Racing Series was born.
The first year of SAS saw only 12 races, but Parker's idea was getting noticed, and today SAS holds almost 60 races at 20 racetracks throughout the Southeast.
Three Divisions, Two Surfaces
SAS races three divisions-two on dirt and one on asphalt. Parker began the asphalt series in 1989, which is now run by his partner, Ben Atkinson. The major differences between the two series, besides the obvious surface variation, lie in the cars themselves. The asphalt cars more closely resemble NASCAR-type stock cars, while the dirt cars are still the wedge-type, straight-sided cars similar to the type the Hav-A-Tampa series runs.
The top dirt division is the Super Late Model Dirt Modifieds followed by the "Topless" Bandits Late Models, which is like the Super division, but sans the roof. All cars have a steel tubular frame, but SAS imposes a weight rule dependent upon what type of engine a racer chooses to run.
"For example," explains Parker, "on the Super Late Models, we run a 2,150-pound limit with driver if the car has a steel-headed, flat-top piston motor. If the racer runs an aluminum-headed 362ci, the limit rises to 2,300. The open-motor limit is higher still at 2,400 pounds, including driver.
"On the asphalt side, there is a steel-headed motor versus a 9:1 aluminum-headed motor, with the only difference being in the carburetor. The aluminum-headed motor must run a 390 carburetor while the steel head can utilize a 750 carburetor."
A start-up SAS team can expect to spend about $20,000-$30,000 to get into a championship-level car and another $20,000-$30,000 to be able to run the entire series. Some spend more and some spend less, says Parker. "We try to keep the costs down as much as we can. We keep the tire cost down as low as possible. And, with the three weight breaks in the motors, a cheaper motor can be competitive with a high-dollar motor." All cars run exclusively on Hoosier tires, and most competitors use either Ford or Chevy engines.
All cars qualify for each race in similar fashion to Winston Cup qualifying. The fastest 18 cars are locked in for the main race while the top 6 drivers from a consolation race fill out the remaining spots for a total of 24 cars. The asphalt series may have as many as two consolation races to place as many as 36 cars in a field.
"We run the three divisions basically every week for a total of about 60 races a year," says Parker. "Some weekends, though, we run a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday race, especially during a holiday weekend."
SAS typically pays higher purses than the weekly tracks but a little less than the bigger series. Races are usually 50 laps with a payout of $3,000 to win, while a 75-lap race pays $5,000 to win, and a 100-lap race is $10,000 to win.
Parker, who was involved with the Hav-A-Tampa series for about two years and served as the Southeastern Regional Director for the Busch All Stars for NASCAR from 1985-87, devised a series point system similar to that of Hav-A-Tampa and Winston Cup. The winner receives 100 points, second gets four points less, then points drop by two for each successive position. With this system, determining the champion is easy. "At the end of the year," Parker says, "we just total the points up, and the high-points guy is the champion for the year."
The asphalt series starts with the Early Bird 100 in Birmingham in February, and the dirt series begins in Cleveland, Tennessee, at the Shamrock 100. Both series end the weekend of Thanksgiving.
A Great Place To Start
Parker is proud of his series, not only for its successes but also for how it offers an affordable yet professional avenue for a beginner to delve into the world of racing.
"This is a great series for a beginner," Parker boasts. "It gets the young driver good exposure, and when you win our championship, you have the exposure to go out and get better sponsorships. It is the best place to start racing, besides maybe the weekly racers. But if you run a weekly track, you are going to be stuck at one or two racetracks, and you really don't learn how to set up for quite the same variety of tracks and conditions. If you run a series like ours that takes you to about 15-20 different tracks a year, you learn about maintaining the car and about the surface of the racetrack, how to set the car up for different tracks, and even how to travel."
The series does travel but not long distances, giving the teams the opportunity to learn the demands of controlling a racing program on the road, yet also allowing them to return home each weekend.
"I don't travel very far," Parker says. "I keep it within a 350-mile radius so a driver can come home after every race."
Many successful Hav-A-Tampa and All Pro drivers honed their skills in SAS, making Parker's series the perfect launching pad for racers. "I call myself a stepping stone for Hav-A-Tampa," says Parker, "because so many of the Hav-A-Tampa drivers have been through the SAS and maybe even won our championship. For example, I know Dale McDowell won the Hav-A-Tampa championship in 1999, and he is also a past champion of SAS." Other successful Hav-A-Tampa drivers that have turned a lap in SAS include Ronnie Johnson, Marshall Green, Clint Smith, and Rex Richie. The asphalt drivers generally graduate to the All Pro series after earning their keep in SAS.
"As Good As Anybody's Got"
The SAS hasn't changed that much over the years. Sure, the cars have gotten faster, there are more drivers and more tracks, but the series itself has been, and most likely always will be, just like it was back in 1982.
"We are going to keep doing the same thing." Parker assures. "If you get bigger, you will be competing with Hav-A-Tampa or NASCAR, but if you stay on the same level, you really won't be competing against anybody. There are a lot of the smaller series in this part of the country, just not in our immediate area. We are going to keep our not-too-small and not-too-big size, so the drivers that don't have a big sponsorship can afford to race for us.
"We just try to stay in the middle, between the weekly track and the big series. Though we are a big series too, I don't broadcast it that way because we need the budget racers to come and run with us. They believe they really have a chance to win the race, but if they go to a bigger series, they may not think they can win. Any time you drop the flag on a SAS race, everybody on the track thinks they can win that sucker. It's racing as good as anybody's got."