INDIANAPOLIS — My friend Ken Squier, the Hall-of-Fame broadcaster, says racing’s real draw is that it showcases “common people doing uncommon things.”
Sometimes, if the occasion calls for more flowery language, Squier will dress up his description: “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he’ll say.
I don’t know who Squier had in mind the first time those phrases rolled off his tongue, but either could serve as an epitaph for Mike Stefanik, maybe the most ordinary extraordinary champion I’ve ever known.
He died in mid-September, test-hopping an ultra-light aircraft for a friend. Aviation had been his kick since he’d put away his fire suit in 2014. He had a kit-plane of his own and he loved buzzing through the skies of Rhode Island, where he lived, and neighboring Connecticut, where tracks such as Stafford Motor Speedway and Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park were the foundation for what turned into a legendary career.
But on this flight, something went wrong, and Stefanik went down in a wooded area achingly close to the private airport he used as a base.
The newspapers and the TV accounts reported he was 61 years old, married and a father of two grown girls. Just a common obituary line to sum up the loss of an uncommon guy.
The racing records he left will go unmatched for a while. He remains the winningest driver in the history of NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour. Seven times — in 1989, ’91, ’97, ’98, 2001, ’02 and ’06 — Stefanik was the Whelen Modified Tour champion. Remarkably, in both 1997 and ’98 he also topped the standings in what was then the NASCAR Busch North Series. Through it all he was that common, regular guy, maybe because his biggest heroes were regular guys, too.
First, there was Bob Stefanik, Mike’s older brother, who was a three-time track champion at Riverside Park Speedway in western Massachusetts but earned his living as a short-haul trucker. Next came three-time NASCAR national modified champ Bugs Stevens, often hailed as a party guy — and, yes, Bugsy did love a good time — but someone who took very seriously both his racing and his weekday role as owner of a thriving salvage yard.
Then there was Richie Evans, nine times a NASCAR national champion and another fellow who raised more hell than most, but at his core a professional racer who traced his success to endless hours spent in his shop.
Mike Stefanik studied people and from those three he’d have learned a simple lesson: You could have a grand time racing, whether locally or regionally, but behind all the fun there was hard work.
Early on, he drew a fabricator’s paycheck at a Connecticut chassis shop. By the time he was good enough to support himself and his family as a paid driver, that workman’s mentality was locked in. He looked at the job and he planned accordingly. If a race was 200 or 300 laps long, he positioned himself close to the front, settled in for the ride and stayed on top of his car’s handling; when it was time to fight for the win, he usually had something in reserve.
On the other hand, if he entered a 30-lap weekly main with the fast guys handicapped to the eighth and ninth rows on the starting grid, Stefanik could pull out the stops and go for broke. His game had no weaknesses.
He played a huge role in one of the best races I’ve ever seen, a 100-lap NASCAR modified special at Riverside Park in the late ’80s. Nothing went according to plan for Stefanik or his primary foe, Reggie Ruggiero, yet they put on a battle for the ages.
In those days, before tire rules took a lot of the mystery out of things, these 100 lappers were full of suspense. If a yellow flag waved at the right time — halfway was ideal — guys like Stefanik and Ruggiero would pit for soft tires and make banzai charges back to the front.
This time, they didn’t get the timely caution they needed and by lap 75 each of them was hopelessly short on grip. Fortunately, all the other would-be contenders had worn out their own tires trying to catch them.
Riverside was a tight quarter-mile oval and for the last 25 laps their two cars skated through its banked turns. Stefanik would dive beneath Ruggiero, slide up, ricochet lightly off of Ruggiero’s left-side nerf bar and find himself in the lead.
On the next lap, Ruggiero would use the same move on Stefanik and again they’d trade places. They might have come together a dozen times.
It was clear to see, just from watching their arms sawing away at their steering wheels, that each of them was doing everything in his power not to hit the other guy.
For a decade they’d been fierce rivals, but they also shared a huge mutual respect. Neither was going to knock the other fellow out of the way just to take home another trophy.
As it happened, Stefanik made the last ricochet pass and he won that 100-lapper. He said later that when he got back to the pits and saw Ruggiero, “both of us just burst out laughing.”
That didn’t happen right away, of course. For a while, Mike Stefanik was busy with the victory lane interview and the photos that went with it. One more time, this ordinary guy had done something extraordinary.