Two years ago, short track fans were stunned by the unexpected loss of one of New England’s most notable racers. Sunday afternoon, under eerily similar circumstances, Mike Stefanik met the same fate.
Stefanik lost his life Sunday when the small plane he was piloting crashed on the border of Rhode Island and Connecticut. He was only 61.
Those outside of New England know Stefanik mainly for his interview after the 2013 Battle at the Beach, where he was spun from the lead on the final lap in a chain-reaction crash. Or they recall him from brief stints in NASCAR’s Busch and Truck Series in the late 1990s.
Those from New England are far more familiar with the career the Coventry, R.I. racer built on the region’s short tracks. Stefanik was the most successful driver of NASCAR’s Modified Tour since its official inception in 1985, with seven championships and 74 career wins in NASCAR’s only open-wheeled division. Stefanik’s records rival and even exceed those of NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans.
But to call Mike Stefanik a Modified legend is only to tell part of the story. Stefanik was one of a number of Modified drivers who also raced in NASCAR’s Busch North Series, now known as the K&N Pro Series East. Among the dual-discipline drivers, Stefanik was the most decorated, with two championships and 12 career wins in the heavy full-bodied cars.
Whether Mike Stefanik’s mount wore fenders or nerf bars, he was sure to be a threat.
The signature performance of Stefanik’s racing career, and perhaps what he should be known best for, was his two-year, four-title run in 1997 and 1998. Driving two different cars for two different teams, Stefanik won both the NASCAR Busch North and NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour championships in 1997. And in a further display of dominance, Stefanik repeated his performance in 1998.
Stefanik first added the fendered cars to his repertoire in 1991, the year he earned his second Modified Tour title. In 1995, he ran both series full-time for the first time in his career. Driving the #09 Oldsmobile for car owner Allen Avery, Stefanik won three races and finished second in the points. In the Modifieds, Stefanik won five races for car owners Peter Beal and Charlie Bacon, placing their red #x6 fifth in the standings.
In 1996, Stefanik and sponsor Burnham Boilers moved to Mike and Harry Greci’s H&H Motorsports, replacing fellow dual threat Jerry Marquis in the #51 Busch North entry. Stefanik went winless in 1996, finishing sixth in points with two poles marking the highlights of the year. Stefanik’s Modified season went slightly better, with three wins en route to a fifth-place points finish in his second full year in the Beal & Bacon #x6.
Then came 1997. In the Grecis’ Busch North car, Stefanik was consistently fast, finishing outside of the top five only once in the first ten races of the season. In the Modified, Stefanik was utterly dominant, winning five straight races and establishing himself early as a championship favorite. With 20 Busch North points races and 23 Modified races, Stefanik and his teams chased a frenetic schedule. Some weekends, Stefanik would fly or drive between tracks to keep his title chase alive. On other weekends, particularly those at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he would run back-to-back races, switching between the heavy, narrow-tired Busch North cars and the light, low, high-horsepower ground-pounders.
Stefanik scored wins at Star Speedway and Thompson Speedway in the Busch North car, with another 14 top-ten finishes propelling him to his first Busch North Series championship. Despite missing one race in the Modified due to the year’s only head-to-head conflict, Stefanik’s ten wins and 17 top-ten finishes in the other 22 races easily handed him his third Modified Tour championship.
With his rides unchanged for 1998, Stefanik was an easy favorite for the repeat, though the feat seemed improbable to begin with. In the late 1990s, the Busch North Series was New England’s premier touring class. Among Stefanik’s top challengers were former series champions Kelly Moore and Dave Dion, veterans Jerry Marquis and Bobby Dragon, future champion Brad Leighton, and departing star Andy Santerre. With as many as eight or ten drivers sent home after qualifying each week, participation and talent in the series was at its peak.
The Modified Tour was no less replete with talent. Two-time champion Tony Hirschman, legend Reggie Ruggiero, veterans Mike Ewanitsko and Tim Connolly, and upstart Tommy Cravenho were only a few of the contenders in a deep field.
There was no shortage of competition for victory, never mind the championship battle.
But Mike Stefanik rose to the challenge. In seventeen Busch North races, Stefanik finished in the top ten in all but two, racking up four wins in the second half of the season. A win in the season finale at Lime Rock Park capped a commanding championship drive in the fendered car. And Stefanik somehow found a way to improve upon his 1997 Modified Tour season, winning 13 races and finishing outside of the top ten only once in 22 starts en route to his fourth series championship.
In that era, one title was a noteworthy achievement on its own. Winning two titles was remarkable.
To win championships in both series in consecutive years, switching back and forth between radically different cars on the same day and often in different states, was career-defining.
Stefanik’s success in 1997 and 1998 opened the door for another shot at the national ranks. A brief stint in the Busch Series in 1998 ended before the regional tours were underway, but in 1999 Stefanik moved to NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series for team owner Dale Phelon. Stefanik’s success created opportunities for his team as well; his crew chief in 1996 and 1997, Greg Zipadelli, moved south in search of greater fortunes, and car owner Mike Greci established himself as a key asset for driver development programs with drivers like Andy Santerre and Ryan Truex.
But despite winning Rookie of the Year in the Truck Series, Stefanik was out of the truck in 2000, running a limited slate of Busch Series races for GTS Motorsports instead. They were his final starts in NASCAR’s national series.
The national series’ loss was New England’s gain. Stefanik returned to the Modifieds, teaming up with veteran car owner Art Barry for championships in 2001 and 2002. In 2003, he joined Grizco Motorsports, reuniting with sponsor Burnham Boilers. Stefanik won two races for the Griswolds, earning runner-up points finishes in 2003 and 2005, while running a limited Modified schedule.
As the Busch North Series transitioned to the East Series for 2006, Stefanik returned full-time to the Whelen Modified Tour. He won his seventh and final Tour championship that season, his first year of a six-year partnership with Flamingo Motorsports. Stefanik won five races with the Flamingo team, leaving the team at the end of 2011 to make way for Ryan Preece. Stefanik ran for car owners Ed Marceau and Christopher Our in 2012 and 2013, winning his final Whelen Modified Tour event in 2013 at Bristol Motor Speedway. After making four starts for Marceau in 2014, the veteran racer called it a career, finishing tenth in his final race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Stefanik’s death came only a day before the two-year anniversary of the loss of fellow Modified legend Ted Christopher. Like Stefanik, Christopher was a dual threat, winning races in both the Modified Tour and the Busch North Series. Like Stefanik, Christopher was killed in a plane crash, his private plane going down en route to a Modified race on Long Island.
But unlike Christopher, whose results were tempered by his signature aggressive driving style, Stefanik was a tough but clean racer. One of his rivals described him as the type of driver to “wear you out,” taking eight or ten laps to execute a pass while saving his car. Yet when faced with the need for aggression, Stefanik had that in his bag of tricks as well. In a Modified race at Loudon in 1998, Stefanik started dead last. Putting his drafting talent to the test, he came from 40th to the lead by halfway. But after issues dropped him back through the field, he fought back through the pack, making a last-lap pass to take the win.
By mere numbers, Stefanik’s career was phenomenal. But Mike Stefanik’s career was far greater than the numbers. Mike’s nine NASCAR championships and 86 touring wins, with four titles and 29 wins in a two-year span, rank among the top of both the Busch North Series and Modified Tour. Moreover, those wins and championships came at the competitive peaks of both series. Over three decades, Stefanik showcased his skills against the likes of Mike McLaughlin, Steve Park, Ted Christopher, Doug Coby and Todd Szegedy.
Plenty of drivers have competed for multiple championships at once. A few have even won. But none have done so in such different disciplines under the NASCAR umbrella. Mike Stefanik’s achievement stands alone. Over twenty years later, with the East Series a fundamentally different division, it seems unlikely it will ever happen again.
Stefanik narrowly missed a NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination this year. While he will surely join the Hall posthumously, Mike deserved to make his own acceptance speech.
I began following the sport just before Mike’s four-championship run. Early on, I settled on Dave Dion as my favorite driver in the Busch North Series. But along the way, I came to respect Mike Stefanik. There were plenty of drivers who would jump from car to car, something I did not fully appreciate the mechanics of at the time. But few looked as comfortable in either seat as Stefanik. He was equally at home locking nerf bars with Tony Hirschman and Steve Park as he was bumping doors with Dion, Kelly Moore or Robbie Crouch.
In his memoir, penned while both drivers were still competing, Dion mentioned his relationship with Mike Stefanik. Dion, openly cautious about friendships with his competitors, singled out Mike as the only fellow driver he considered a friend.
When Mike made the move to the Truck Series, he gave New England fans another racer in the majors to cheer for. When he returned to the Northeast, he reinforced the strong veteran presence that the region’s touring divisions are known for.
I still wear a Mike Stefanik hat to the track, usually to Modified races. It serves as a nod to one of the greatest drivers to represent New England in the wider racing community.
Now, it will serve as a tribute.
Rest in peace, Mike.