Back in September of 2021, NASCAR announced its 2022 Hall of Fame Class and to no one’s surprise, the headliner was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., NASCAR’s prodigal son, but two other names were called as well. The other was Red Farmer, a legendary member of the original “Alabama Gang,” who will deservingly join Davey and Bobby Allison in the Hall.
But the third and final name was one that even in my twenty plus years of being a race fan, I was unfamiliar with. The driver’s name was Mike Stefanik, and the panel on NASCAR Race Hub said he drove Modifieds. The only thing I knew then about NASCAR Modifieds was how good I was racing them in EA Sports’ video game “NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup.”
A few months passed, and as I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline one cold January night, I spotted a tweet from Freddie Kraft, Spotter for 23XI driver Bubba Wallace, which had a photo of an induction speech written by Mike’s wife, Julie Stefanik, and Kraft tweeting what a travesty it was that she wasn’t going able to speak on Mike’s behalf, since he had died tragically in a plane crash in 2019. I was appalled, remembering that when Dale Earnhardt was inducted, that Teresa, Dale Jr., Kerry, and Kelly Earnhardt all stood on stage to honor Dale, and Teresa had given a long speech on Dale’s behalf.
I read Julie’s speech, and my goodness, what a speech it is. She wrote it with reverence, passion and above all, love for the man she was married to for thirty-five years. Her speech spurred me to do some digging and learn more about Mike Stefanik and his legendary career in NASCAR’s too often forgotten Modified Tour. We all know that in our sport, three names stand above all others in the conversation for greatest driver of all time, based on the amount of NASCAR Cup Series Championships they won: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jimmie Johnson. In the larger scope of things, they all fall short of the amount won by two Modified Tour Legends. One is Richie Evans, who is already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and deservingly so. The other is his protégé, Mike Stefanik. They each have nine, yes nine, overall championships.
Mike was born on May 20, 1958, in Springfield, MA to Stanley and Patricia Stefanik. A welder by trade, Mike followed his older brother Bobby Stefanik’s racing career until 1976, when he began driving in the Sportsman Division at Stafford Speedway, winning a championship in 1979. In 1981, something huge happened that would change the course of Mike’s career and subsequently his life.
During an interview with Motorsport.Com in 2017, Mike recalled the moment he received a phone call from the legendary Richie Evans, asking him if he would like to drive one of his cars. “Having someone like Richie call you up and ask you to drive his car is relevant to Jeff Gordon back in his championship days calling you up and asking you to drive his car,” Stefanik said. “I couldn’t even sleep after he called me because I was so honored that he thought enough of me to give me a chance to drive one of his cars.” Mike agreed and was incredibly impressive at Thompson Motor Speedway Park in Thompson, Connecticut that night, running second to Ron Bouchard for a time before a mechanical failure ended his night early. Greg Sacks would end up winning the race, but he was behind Stefanik when the failure happened, meaning that Stefanik very well could’ve won that race.
In 1984, Mike married Julie Koszela, whose grandfather Jack Koszela, ran a very successful lumber and hardware business in Coventry and was at the time a former car owner. Mike kept on racing, and in 1985, Evans gave his career another boost, convincing Jack to get back into car ownership with Mike as his driver. Stefanik built the car, and Jack bought the motor. Julie was also ever present, serving as Mike’s spotter and often being his biggest critic and supporter. Mike said of Julie, “Julie has been with me almost my entire career and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her. She’s also been my biggest supporter and critic. She wouldn’t cut me any slack when she thought I could have done better and at the same time she’s always been my biggest supporter.”
Mike made twenty-four starts from 1985 to 1986 snagging his first win in 1986 at Riverhead Raceway in Riverhead, New York. In 1987, Mike Stefanik went full time on the NASCAR Winston Modified Tour racing with Koszela Speed, the name of Jack Koszela’s race team. He picked up another win in 1987, finishing seventh in final points. 1988 saw Mike win three races, but he only completed fifteen events, leading to him being mired back in seventeenth in points. 1989 was the breakout year for Stefanik and Koszela Speed. Mike won seven times in twenty-six races, finished in the top five in eighteen of them and only six times did Stefanik finish outside the top ten. At the end of the season, he was crowned as the NASCAR Winston Modified Tour Champion for the first time. He would again win the title in 1991.
Six years would pass and although Mike kept winning races, no championships would come his way. In 1997 and 1998, however, Mike Stefanik would cement himself as an irrefutable racing legend. Mike continued to race on the Modified Tour and went on to win the championship in consecutive years with new car owners Peter Beal and Charlie Bacon.
Back in 1991, Mike had begun racing in the Busch North Series, winning several races and having moderate success on a part time basis until 1995, when he began competing in the series one a regular basis in the number fifty one Burham Boilers Chevrolet, with future Cup Series Champion Crew Chief Greg Zippadelli and car owner Mike Greci. The three of them experienced moderate success leading into 1997, when Mike did the unthinkable. He won the series championship, becoming the first and only driver to win championships in two different divisions of NASCAR in the same year consecutively after winning the Busch North Series title again in 1998, even after the departure of Zippadelli after the 1997 season. He also won an astounding twenty-three of forty-four races on the modified side during this time. Stefanik said of 1997 and 1998, “I had a hard-working group of guys who would sometimes take the car to a race not even knowing if I would get there in time to race but they always had the car ready to go and I always appreciated that about them. We had a plane ready to go and even got lucky as rainouts sometimes allowed us to make races we wouldn’t have if it hadn’t rained the day before.” According to Racing Reference, Stefanik made an astounding eighty-eight starts between the NASCAR Busch Series, Craftsman Truck Series, Busch North Series, and Modified Tour from 1997 to 1998.
All this unprecedented success didn’t go unnoticed by NASCAR’s three premier touring series either. Former Truck Series Director Dennis Huth began the process of getting Mike a ride in the Craftsman Truck Series, as it was known then, in 1998. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway at the end of the 1998 Craftsman Truck Series Season, forty-year-old Mike Stefanik made his first start in the number sixty-six Carlin Burners Ford F-150 for owner Dave Phelon, in one of the absolute coolest and most nineties paint schemes I have ever seen, starting twenty-sixth and in true Mike Stefanik fashion, he would finish in eighth.
1999 would mark his first full season in the Truck Series, and after finishing up with no wins, one top five in his second start at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and nine top ten finishes, he was named 1999 Craftsman Truck Series Rookie of the Year. Following the 1999 season, Mike left the Truck Series and made some starts in the NASCAR Busch Series, now known as the Xfinity Series, which he had been doing sporadically since 1992.
After only running eight events in 2000, and only netting a best finish of thirteenth at Nazareth Speedway, Mike returned to what he loved in 2001, the Modified Tour, where he almost immediately got back to winning, scoring consecutive championships in 2001 and 2002 and again in 2006. His 2006 triumph marked his ninth and final overall championship in NASCAR tying Richie Evans, the man responsible for his first big break in racing. Mike continued to race and continued to win and be able to win week in and week out.
In 2013, Stefanik became an internet sensation after former NASCAR Cup Series Driver Steve Park bumped him out of the way at the Battle at the Beach at Daytona International Speedway for the win. When interviewed post-race, Stefanik went on a profanity-laced tirade on national television. Jay Leno even featured the interview on The Tonight Show. That same year, Mike Stefanik won his seventy-fourth and record-setting race at Bristol Motor Speedway. While in Victory Lane, Mike said, “I’m 55 years old… and winning is never boring.” The man was a winner through and through and was happiest on the racetrack holding the trophy when the checkered flag fell.
In 2014, Mike Stefanik retired from racing, holding the records for most wins, laps led, and of course, championships in the Whelen Modified Tour. He went home and began enjoying time with Julie and their children, Nicole and Christine. In 2017, the same year he sat down for the interview with Motorsport, he bought and assembled his very own Ultra-Light Airplane, which is sort of like a big hang glider with an engine, and loved to fly it, according to the Michael P. Stefanik Charitable Foundation’s website. On September 15, 2019, near Sterling, Connecticut, Mike was helping a friend with his Ultra-Light. Something went wrong and the plane crashed while trying to reach the airfield. Mike later died of his injuries sustained in the crash. He was sixty-one.
Julie founded the foundation in his memory and continues to run the lumber business her family has owned and operated for decades and continues to try and preserve the memory of her legendary husband.
Ironically, the virality of the internet seemed to pay back the Stefanik family after the post of Julie’s speech went viral. NASCAR Hall of Fame Director Winston Kelley announced on January 10, 2022 on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio that the format would be changed to allow Julie to speak for Mike, as she should be. Mike Stefanik should be celebrated with the all-time.
In my opinion, Mike Stefanik is one of greatest race car drivers to ever sit behind a steering wheel. Not only was he skilled behind the wheel, but he also loved his fans. In the interview with Motorsport, Mike closed by saying, “I can’t thank the fans enough. Many of them pulled for me for over 30 years and I would have them come up to autograph lines and mention races they watched me win from years ago and it was incredible the support I got from them. The fans spent their hard-earned money to watch me race and I always raced hard and wanted to put on a good show for the fans. New England race fans are dedicated and follow us to a lot of different tracks to watch races and I always have thought that showed we have some of the best NASCAR race fans in the country.”
Mike Stefanik will take his rightful place among the Earnhardts, the Pettys, the Allisons and all the other legends on January 21, 2022. At the beginning of this project, I had no idea who Michael P. Stefanik was, and I certainly didn’t know about his records or any of that. Now as I sit here typing this final line, I’m just glad I now know a little bit about the man behind the legend. Hopefully dear reader, you are too. You can make donations to the Foundation on its Facebook page or directly on its website.
Image Credit: http://speedsport.com’ via NASCAR Images