Mike Stefanik made his NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 1985, in its very first year, when it was known as the Winston Modified Tour.
Jerry Cook had stepped away from racing, and Richie Evans would perish in a racing accident at the end of the season after already clinching the championship. Together, the two Rome, New York, drivers had accounted for the last 15 NASCAR Modified Division national titles, a feat that would earn both inductions into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Into the void stepped Stefanik.
Over the next two decades, Stefanik would collect 74 wins and seven Modified championships. He would add 12 more victories on the NASCAR Busch North Series and his two titles there matched Evans for a NASCAR-record nine. And on Tuesday, Stefanik was himself elected to the 2021 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Stefanik, who passed away last September, becomes the sixth former Modified champion to be elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He joins Cook, Evans, Bobby Allison, Red Byron, and another 2020 inductee, Red Farmer.
But beyond the Victory Lane celebrations and the championship trophies, Stefanik defined the Modified era of the 1980s and 90s through a quiet but unwavering personality, a dedication to his craft, and a commitment to succeed.
"It’s a huge thing for the modern era of the modifieds," said Shawn Courchesne, who covered most of Stefanik’s career, first for the Harford Courant newspaper and then for his racing site, RaceDayCT.com. "Mike was such a huge par of that era that carried past Richie Evans and Jerry Cook. He took the torch and carried it for so long."
Stefanik would win at least one race in 24 of his 29 seasons on the tour, bringing home championships for four different Modified car owners.
He never really announced he had retired, opting to avoid any public spectacle of his departure. He won twice and finished fifth in the championship standings in 2013, his final full season. He ran four more times in 2014, and then walked away.
"I think Michael would have been elated," said his wife Julie following the announcement, making reference to Mike’s Victory Lane interview after his 2014 Bristol win – his last tour victory. "I’m very happy. He raced for 38 years for NASCAR and I don’t think he ever thought he would be in the Hall of Fame."
"I’m just elated, elated, elated. Relieved and elated.
"Winning never gets boring."
– NASCAR Roots (@NASCARRoots) May 4, 2020
"He didn’t do it for the fame. He loved racing," said Julie Stefanik, who watched the announcement on NBCSN with their daughter Nicole. "We are very excited. I think he really deserved it. It’s a nice honor. I just wish he could be here to enjoy it."
Stefanik’s resume is extensive.
He started racing at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut in 1976, winning the track’s Sportsman Division in 1979 and Modified Division in 1986.
He won 20 of his 96 Modified tour appearances at Stafford, the most of any driver in track history. He won the track’s season-opening Spring Sizzler four times and the season ending Fall Final seven times.
Stefanik also dominated nearby Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, collecting a record 15 tour wins there.
And nobody won more Modified Tour races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway than Stefanik’s eight.
He also won 12 times in what was then the NASCAR Busch North Series, and in 1999 at the age of 41, he finished 13th in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and took home rookie of the year honors.
Beyond the wins, though, Courchesne said he was struck by how smart and analytical Stefanik was about everything – business, driving, mechanics.
"He was such a great ambassador for Modified racers," said Courchesne. "He was always a great storyteller. He was so much more than a driver."
It’s something Mark Arute said he remembers from Stefanik’s earliest days at Stafford.
"He was a true gentleman, always a great competitor," said Arute, the track’s chief executive officer and president. "Probably the neatest thing about Mike was his ability to fabricate race cars."
Said Julie Stefanik: "He was quiet. Yet very methodical. If there was something to figure out, he would break it down. He enjoyed helping young races. He learned a lot from Richie Evans that way."
"They call him the iron man. We call him Mighty Mike Stefanik."
– NASCAR Roots (@NASCARRoots) June 16, 2020
"Mike’s one of the all-time greats and it’s great to have another one of the Modified community in the NASCAR Hall of Fame – where he belongs," said Jimmy Wilson, series director for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.