The pilot killed in a small plane crash Sunday in Sterling, Connecticut was well-known former racecar driver Mike Stefanik.
Police say the Aerolite 103 single-engine single-seat plane had taken off from just over the Rhode Island border and crashed while returning to the airfield.
The 61-year-old Stefanik was the only one on board. He leaves behind his wife Julie and two daughters.
Stefanik earned national acclaim, but much of his success came in Connecticut.
“He was a fierce competitor. He certainly took no prisoners,” said Mark Arute, CEO and general manager at Stafford Motor Speedway. “It was all in out war when he was out there but a clean driver.”
Stafford Motor Speedway was one of several tracks where Stefanik earned his reputation. He won 34 races at that track alone. Arute was shocked to learn of Stefanik’s passing, just like most in Connecticut’s racing community.
“The guy was just a class act,” said Brian Kentfield, a race fan from Vernon. “He was very smooth on the racetrack and very smooth off the racetrack as well.”
Stefanik was among NASCAR’s most dominant local racers, winning nine touring series titles. He’s credited with 74 NASCAR Modified Tour victories, many on Connecticut speedways, against Connecticut drivers.
“He was a step above all of us,” recalls fellow racer, Tom Bolles of Ellington. “We chased him all the time. Beat him a few times but he beat most of us all the time.”
Upon his 2014 retirement Stefanik turned to a new form of excitement; ultralight aircraft piloting. Sadly, a hobby that proved more dangerous than racecar driving.
“You always kind of know there’s a danger element (in racing), said Dan Avery, a racecar driver from Somers. “But when someone retires you kind of figure the danger is kind of gone.”
As a driver, Avery broke in with Stefanik in the late 1970s at Stafford Motor Speedway. He remembers Stefanik as an early career mentor.
“When I first started. I got one of his old hand me down race cars and that’s how I got my start,” he said.
During three decades racing together Avery won races, but Stefanik dominated, winning nine total, NASCAR touring championships. Stefanik claimed victories throughout the northeast, including 74 NASCAR Modified Tour wins. Many of which came in Connecticut.
Stefanik’s racing resume is long, and impressive. He’s a six-time NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee who appears on the cusp of one day being elected.
“I wish Mike could’ve been alive when he’s finally inducted into the NASCAR hall of fame,” said Avery. “It would’ve been nice if he could’ve been alive to see that day come.”
Stefanik’s death has garnered attention nationwide. NASCAR issued a statement which read in part, “Mike Stefanik was one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, but even more so, he was a true representative of our sport."