In Memory of Mike Stefanik

Lime Rock Park & Alan Claffie Remember Mike Stefanik
 

On Sept. 15, 2019, the world of motorsports and Lime Rock Park lost a dear friend, Mike Stefanik.
 
Mike passed following a plane crash in Sterling, CT. The seven-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion and racing legend was 61 years old. 
 
Mike is the Whelen Modified Tour’s all-time winningest driver with 74 career victories in 453 starts from 1985 to 2014. In addition to his seven Whelen Modified Tour titles (1989, ’91, ’97, ’98, 2001, ’02, ’06), he won championships on the former Busch North Series (now K&N Pro Series East) in 1997 and 1998. He ran one full-time season in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 1999. Stefanik was a 2018 inductee to the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame. He was first nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.

 

Mike, a Wilbraham, Mass. native, got his start in racing at the former Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Mass. 
 
Motorsports Journalist Alan Claffie interviewed Mike for the book, "Lime Rock Park: Six Decades of Speed, Beauty and Tradition" and the chapter on NASCAR at Lime Rock Park. Alan shared the following message about Mike:
 
I didn't interact with Mike Stefanik that much in the years I covered the NASCAR Busch North/East Series. He drove for one of the big teams, and I hung out more with the little guys. He also had a very good PR person who I knew would get me very good post-race recaps so I didn't feel the need to chase him for quotes knowing they were going to get sent to me automatically. So our relationship in those years was mostly at arms length.
 
A year and a half ago, I was offered the chance to write the NASCAR chapter of a book that Lime Rock Park was producing for its 60th birthday. Rather than go year-by-year with results or short recaps, I decided to interview a handful of drivers who had made their mark on Lime Rock during the NASCAR years: Butch Leitzinger, Bill Penfold, and Dale Quarterley. When I put that stuff together, I thought I needed one more voice, and Mike Stefanik's name came up. He had won at Lime Rock, celebrated championships there, and taken advantage of the track's hospitality options to host hundreds of people on behalf of his primary sponsor, which also sponsored races there. He also had run Modifieds at LRP, and that needed to be mentioned as well.
 
I got Mike's number and called him up. He answered and I introduced myself, explained why I had called, and asked for fifteen minutes on the record to answer a few questions about Lime Rock. He gave thoughtful answers even as we crossed and left the fifteen-minute mark in the dust. I got a real feel for his love of racing, his sense of history, and his willingness to bend his answers to fit the narrative I was shooting for. The whole time I was regretting not interviewing him more back when he was an active driver. He certainly could colorfully describe a race or a track and wouldn't leave me wanting for first-hand takes.
 
As we continued talking, the conversation turned to his life after racing. He explained that his new hobby was flying, and he went on about the light aircraft he had bought. I can't remember the particulars, but I still have the interview on tape and I want to go back and transcribe it. I think it'll show that he took to flying with the same passion he used in racing, and it crushes me to see that the one thing he was most passionate about now has taken him from this earth.

 

The following is an excerpt from the book, "Lime Rock Park: Six Decades of Speed, Beauty and Tradition" (Chapter Nine: NASCAR at Lime Rock, 1993-2011, Pg. 141)

 
During its tenure as the Busch North finale, the annual visit to Lime Rock was often pivotal in deciding the season's championship.

Nothing could rival the saga of Mike Stefanik. In 1997, in front of an outfield hillside packed with guests from his sponsor, Burnham Boilers, Stefanik notched a ninth-place finish to hold off challenger Jerry Marquis. But Stefanik's weekend was far from over. After a brief celebration, it was off to Thompson Speedway on Sunday, where he'd add NASCAR's Whelen Modified title, becoming the only driver in the modern era to accomplish such a notable feat. For an encore, he did "the double" again a year later, this time capping the season with a Lime Rock win for the Burnham Boilers Chevrolet. The celebratory burnout was epic!

Entering that last race of the year with a shot at the title was not something that Stefanik looked forward to.

"I was terrified," he said, "because I'm not a road course race. Lime Rock was so much more narrow than Watkins Glen, that you had to be so much more precise. It was so easy to make one small error and just destroy your entire week in an instant. Lime Rock was not very forgiving if you dropped a wheel off in the wrong spot. Sometimes it was very nerve-racking because most of the guys like me were not really accomplished road racers. We had to really work on that because we did so little of it. It became more natural near the end, but it was quite challenging and always remained challenging. We managed to hold our own against the competition, and once in a while we'd come out on top."

Stefanik had an impressive two-year run in the Modifieds at Lime Rock. In the first race, he wound up sixth. The following year, he improved to finish in the second position. 

"I think I had a little advantage because the usual Modified drivers had even less road racing experience than I had." he explained. "It wasn't as big a learning curve for me going to Lime Rock as it was for most of the other Modified drivers."

Photos Courtesy: Joe Corbett/Randy Mckee Collection

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