Mike Stefanik, a nine-time NASCAR champion, has died in a plane crash, according to a news report by NASCAR.
Stefanik was 61 years old at the time of his death; according to the news report, he was killed on Sunday in a single-seat crash. Details around the crash are still emerging.
In a statement, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said,
“Mike Stefanik was one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, but even more so, he was a true representative of our sport. His tough, competitive nature and excellence on the race track won him the respect and admiration of fans and competitors alike. His career stretched more than 30 years, bridging the generations between Jerry Cook and Richie Evans to our current drivers. He recorded achievements in this sport that are likely untouchable, and his legacy as a champion will endure. We will keep his wife Julie and his family and friends in our prayers.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Stefanik Leaves Behind His Wife, Julie Stefanik; They Were Married for Over 30 Years
Stefanik leaves behind his wife, Julie Stefanik.
According to a profile of Stefanik in Motorsport, Stefanik met his wife Julie through her grandfather, Jack Koszela. They were married in 1984; Stefanik credited the success of his career to her consistent support as his wife.
He said to the racing website in 2017, “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.”
2. Stefanik’s Legacy Leaves Him Tied With Richie Evans for Most Championship Wins in NASCAR History
Stefanik’s legacy as a NASCAR racer leaves him placed among the greatest of all time. In 2003, he was named the second greatest NASCAR Modified driver of all time.
Per NASCAR, Stefanik’s resume read for the prize,
By the time the dust had settled from the Richie Evans-Jerry Cook rivalry that fueled NASCAR Modified racing in the 1970s, Massachusetts native Mike Stefanik was beginning a career that would redefine success in NASCAR racing. Stefanik’s career accomplishments include four track championships, three Most Popular Driver awards, 70 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour victories and nine NASCAR championships. Stefanik’s seven Whelen Modified Tour titles (1989, ’91, ’97, ’98 ’01 ’02 and ’06) are accompanied by two K&N Pro Series East championships, which he earned in 1997-98. Incredibly, Stefanik won the dual championships in two consecutive seasons, making him the first driver since Lee Petty to win two NASCAR division titles in a single season, and the only driver to do it twice.
3. Stefanik Was a Small Plane Pilot & Enjoyed it as a Hobby
According to RaceDayCT, Stefanik had a passion for flying small planes; the plane he was flying on Sunday was not owned by him.
In 2018, Stefanik said on the RaceDayCT podcast, “I’m not one to sit on the porch and I do like a little bit of thrill. I’m a little thrill seeker. … I can’t wipe the smile off my face every time I go fly that thing. I call it a flying lawn chair. But it’s actually a pretty cool little airplane.”
Stefanik was piloting the plane at the time of the crash.
4. Stefanik’s Death Comes Approximately Two Years to the Day After NASCAR Driver Ted Christopher’s Death, Also Plane-Related
In an ironic twist of fate, Stefanik’s death comes almost two years to the day after Ted Christopher, another NASCAR driver, died in a plane crash on Sept. 16, 2017. Christopher was 59 years old at the time of his death.
In the plane crash that killed Christopher, a pilot was also killed. As alt_driver noted, Christopher was considered an all-time NASCAR great: he won the 2008 NASCAR Whelen Tour, and raced at every level of NASCAR, including the Monster Energy Cup series and the NASCAR Xfinity series. He and Stefanik were fierce competitors.
At the time of the crash, a witness of the devastation spoke to The Hartford Courant about stumbling upon the scene of the crash. “The plane is literally straight up and down,” the witness said. “They were saying maybe it hit a tree and literally went straight down — it was just horrific. The nose is down and the wings and everything are just spread out through the woods. I really didn’t want to look at it too much.”
5. Many Have Taken to Twitter to Pay Tribute to the Late NASCAR Star
Following the tragic news of Stefanik’s sudden death, many in the NASCAR community have taken to Twitter to pay tribute to the famous race car driver. New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s official account tweeted, “We are so sad to hear the tragic news about Mike Stefanik. He was one of the greatest modified drivers in history and a great friend of the speedway. Rest in peace, Mike. We will miss you! Our thoughts and prayers are with the Stefanik family.”
Dave Moody, a NASCAR radio commentator for Sirius XM, tweeted, “Apparently, the rumors we’ve been hearing are true. Saddened to hear of the passing of Mike Stefanik today. He was a racer’s racer, in any type of car. Intense, passionate and incredibly talented. Prayers for Julie and the girls. #RIPRacer”
Bob Dillner tweeted, “It’s hard to put into words what Mike Stefanik meant to #NASCAR – he was simply one of the best. It’s even harder to put into words what he meant to a skinny 15 year-old kid like me who was just starting out in the biz. Mike was a racer, but also a great family man & a friend.”