STERLING, Conn. — Seven-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Mike Stefanik has died following a Sunday afternoon plane crash in Connecticut.
Stefanik was 61 years old. In total, he earned nine NASCAR championships during his legendary career.
NASCAR officials confirmed the news of Stefanik’s passing just after 8:15 p.m. ET.
According to Connecticut state police, an Aero Ultra-Light Aircraft Model No. 103 — a single-engine, single-seat plane — went down near the Connecticut-Rhode Island state line just after 2 p.m.
Stefanik had just taken off from nearby RICONN Airport, just across the state line into Rhode Island, when the accident occurred, according to WTNH News 8 in New Haven, Conn. He was preparing to return for a landing when he crashed into a wooded area adjacent to the airport.
Stefanik was initially transported to Backus Hospital for treatment, but was later life-flighted to a different hospital in Rhode Island, where he succumbed to his injuries.
Born in Wlbraham, Mass., on May 20, 1958, Stefanik became a short-track racing legend over the course of his lengthy career. He contested his first full-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season in 1987, driving to his first championship two years later on the strength of seven wins in 26 starts.
After a second title in 1991, perhaps Stefanik’s two most successful racing seasons ever came back to back in 1997 and 1998, when he won both the Modified Tour and NASCAR Busch North Series (now K&N Pro Series East) titles in the same year twice in a row.
Combined between those two years, Stefanik won 23 NASCAR modified races and six Busch North races, and Stefanik’s feat of four NASCAR championships in two years is a feat which remains unmatched to this day.
Following a less-than-stellar full-time campaign in the NASCAR Truck Series in 1999, Stefanik took most of the 2000 season off before returning to capture his fifth and sixth Modified Tour titles in 2001 and ’02.
Stefanik’s seventh and final NASCAR modified championship came in 2006 for veteran owner Eric Sanderson, but he continued to compete full-time on the Tour until his retirement following a part-time campaign in 2014.
The Massachusetts native’s 74 wins in 453 career NWMT starts is a modern-era record. His final victory came in 2013 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, driving Chris Our’s familiar red No. 22.
Following that victory, Stefanik’s emotion and pure passion for the sport was on full display, showing that even at 55 years old, he was just as determined to win as he had been in his early years.
“I’m playing it cool right now, but I’m freaking out inside,” said Stefanik after that Bristol victory. “This is a huge, huge win in my career. This is right at the top of the list, if not (at) the top.”
Stefanik’s national-series career never featured the same success that he had at the short track level, but he did have one top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 26 career Truck Series starts, which included Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 1999. He also had one top 10 finish in 26 Xfinity Series races.
Stefanik was even a star indoors, picking up a three-quarter midget victory in Providence, R.I., in 2009.
“Seeing those fans cheer for me over the final laps meant a lot,” Stefanik said that night. “They were my home state fans, and it means a lot to me keep this Dunkin’ Donuts trophy in Rhode Island.”
Stefanik’s long list of accolades earned him a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination pool starting in 2015, and he was one place away from being inducted into the 2020 class, falling just short of the five-man roster featuring Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs, Buddy Baker, Bobby Labonte and Waddell Wilson.
Every win and every performance meant so much to Stefanik, and it is that immense passion he carried that will be missed across the racing community.