The only time this writer saw Dave Steele race in person, he won.
As one is often tempted to do when we lose a racer like we did Dave to tragic circumstances, I might be tempted to find some extra meaning in this occurrence. It is often comforting to know we were able to glimpse into the window of greatness and to feel in hindsight a renewed appreciation for what we witnessed. But here’s the thing: it was a Sprint Car race in Florida. Who else was going to win? I could have watched Dave Steele race 100 times in my life and I’d probably watch him win 90 of them.
So instead, I will choose to focus my recollections on a different dimension of his prolific career, aside from the on-track accolades. Dave Steele did something that very few racers can ever claim to do. He drove both a race car and an entire racing community into the national spotlight.
When you ask people about Florida’s place in racing history, there’s much to tell. Most obviously, it’s the birthplace of NASCAR, of the legend of Daytona Beach stock car racing and the home of the Daytona 500. You could throw in the pageantry of Speedweeks or the Snowball Derby or the Smyrna World Series or just any of the dozen asphalt bullrings from Hialeah to Palm Beach to Jacksonville that produce great grassroots action. The picture is clear: Florida and auto racing are linked all the way back to the sport’s inception.
But in this mass of racing variety, one class struggled for years to take off. Sprint and Midget racing had been part of Florida’s racing scene since the USAC Tangerine days of the 1950s, but open-wheel racing had never really found its foothold in the state. Even with big February Sprint shows beginning at Volusia and East Bay in the early 1980s, these were exceptions to the rule of Florida being stock car country, highlighted by the fact that these big Sprint events featured almost exclusively outsiders flocking South for the money and nice weather.
The Midwest short track open-wheel scene had Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell. Pennsylvania had Steve Smith and Doug Wolfgang. California had Leland McSpadden and Brent Kaeding. Charismatic, compelling faces that elevated themselves and comrades to national superstars.
Florida was lacking that kind of name all the way into the 1990s. Sprint Car racing was really struggling in the state. A few attempts at getting a strong touring sprint car group going had flailed and a newer group called TBARA seemed to represent the last real hope for keeping the homegrown Sprint scene going.
Enter Dave Steele. A teenager who some thought seemed to lack the bravado and cockiness to be an alpha driver turned heads in a hurry when he won some 24 TQ races come the 1990 season. He joined the full-fledged Sprint world two years later at 18 and didn’t take long at all to adjust. By 1993, he was winning races. By 1995, he was a TBARA titlist. Florida fans, always intrigued by these little Sprint cars that would invade a normal pavement short track Saturday schedule, suddenly had a name they knew.
Dave Steele was becoming as much of a short track name in the state as David Rogers, Buzzie Reutimann or Wayne Anderson.
By 1996, Steele was the face of Florida Sprints and he began to push his success nationwide. That year he won the Little 500. In the years to come, when he wasn’t dabbling in a race here or there in Florida, Steele was winning more Little 500s, Copper World Classics, Turkey Night Grand Prixes and claiming the USAC Silver Crown title twice. He had earned the nickname “Superman,” rightfully so.
His success almost singlehandedly buoyed the Florida Sprint scene. TBARA hit mainstream with Steele and even after he left rode Steele’s popularity into a successful touring series for years to come. And when Steele returned home to Florida after his national success, his pledge to come race was often enough to convince tracks to pull the sprints back together after TBARA’s ultimate demise.
While no disrespect is meant to any of the other great Florida drivers of today – Sport Allen, Mickey Kempgens, Troy DeCaire and Shane Butler to name a few – it is sadly ironic that if Dave Steele had not recommitted to running Sprints again in Florida, there might not have been a Sprint race at all Saturday night at Desoto Speedway.
I’m not implying the Sprint scene would have dried up in Florida completely, but Dave Steele winning 13 of 14 starts in 2016 and aiming for his 100th career win were important storylines that have kept Sprint racing at the top of the message boards.
In short, Dave Steele went as far as his race car would carry him and his Florida friends and rivals only went as far as Superman would carry them.
NASCAR got the Pettys, Outlaws got the Kinsers, Late Models got Dick Trickle and Florida got Dave Steele. Godspeed, Dave.
-By Tim Quievryn, Speed51.com’s The Third Turn
-Photo credit: Paul Arch