CORONA, California — The most successful competitor in the history of the Lucas Oil Modified Series presented by LoanMart never has driven in a race, seldom gets asked for interviews and could sit among the spectators at one of the series races and never be recognized.
Steve Teets used to race, in the Super Stock class at Cajon Speedway and in the NASCAR Southwest Tour. He said he “wasn’t very successful. I didn’t have any money.” But he did learn a lot.
The experiences he had as a low-budget driver furthered his education in race car fabrication and set-up, and since November of 1996 he has refined those skills even more while the Short Track Racecars (STR) he builds at his small shop in Ramona, California, have dominated the series.
That’s why rival car builders, like Chris Bray of Phil’s Phabrication, measure much of their progress by their results against the 50-year-old Teets, who expects to be a target and accepts it as a compliment.
“He’s got a very good program going,” Teets said of Bray, who helped Linny White win the championship season opener March 19. “If he said he didn’t want to beat me I’d be very, very disappointed in him. I think it’s great. I feel that our cars, and his too because he’s very competitive, are the best Modifieds in the country. We’ve had a lot of good drivers.
“Eventually it’s going to happen, somebody’s going to come out and beat us. That’s just the way it is.”
Teets first got involved with Modifieds in 1992, when Cajon Speedway in El Cajon, California, began running the Grand American Modified class and has built them almost exclusively for the past 15 or so years, since the demand for Late Models and tour cars disappeared.
Teets recently finished his 59th chassis and he said that all but a few of those still are running and sometimes winning, like the car Taylor Miinch drove to victory in Las Vegas in last year’s final race. That was built in 2000 for Mike Salm, who was fourth in the Hoosier Tire west point standings in 2007, the series’ second year.
The Modifieds today basically are the same as they were when the series was organized, Teets said, with development primarily in the areas of weight reduction and distribution, shock absorber and suspension technology and set-ups. That latter area is one where Teets has had an advantage.
Dean Kuhn, the crew chief this year for 2014 series champion Dylan Cappello, raced in the series and has been a car owner and builder. He said one thing that gave Teets an edge was his ability to deliver a car set up well enough to be competitive from the outset with a competent driver.
“Usually we can find a spot (that works). Every driver has a different feel,” said Teets, who considers driver feedback essential. “Chris (Gerchman) helped me. Jimmy Dickerson helped for a while. Jason Patison. Austin (Barnes) has developed into an awesome driver. I got good drivers like that.”
Another key, Teets said, “is the track support that I offer, and Chris (Bray) does the same thing. I can be there and they can come over to me and I can have good answers and help them.”
That can be one of those double-edged swords, however. One of the criticisms of Teets is that he doesn’t treat everyone the same and he is forced to plead guilty, but with an explanation.
“There’s usually a group that kind of pay for my expenses, for me to be here, that I give the most attention to. But if anybody in my car has issues I’ll help them as much as possible,” Teets said during a race weekend at Kern County Raceway in Bakersfield, California.
“It has caused problems. Everybody’s competitive and they’ll say “are you giving me what you just learned here?’ It gets hard. When I come up with an idea, then to me it’s open (to any STR driver). If somebody comes to me and says ‘I want to try this’ and it works, that’s where I feel I can’t really say hey, look, this is what I just did (and offer it to all).
“There’s certain things you have to draw the line on. I try to respect everybody’s team. But as a whole, if I can share some of this stuff I do. It elevates the whole group.”
Teets’ cars have won nine of the 10 Lucas Oil Modified Series championships and a vast majority of the 90 races. In the March season-opener at Lake Havasu City, Arizona, 16 of the 31 cars were STRs and 7 of those finished in the top 10. But it gets harder each race in what Teets calls “a very strong series.”
“The competition is a lot deeper now,” he said. “That’s what happens when you have more cars, a lot of smart people getting in and great drivers. Before, if you go back to 2006, 2008, there used to be three or maybe four cars that could win a race. Now I would say on any given night there’s probably 10 or maybe even more that could win if everything falls in the right order.”
Keeping up with all that competition comes at a price other than a financial one, though. Teets said he has been working about 75 hours a week and admits that quite often he gets tired of it all.
“I look back now, I missed a lot of my kids’ stuff,” he said. “My daughter (Lauren) has always been into horses. We’ve always had horses and she got into what they call 3-day eventing. I tried my hardest not to miss a horse show. That was my release. They called me the barn dad; I was always in the barn doing whatever I could. Now she’s in college and my getaway is gone so it’s pretty rough.
“It’s pretty weird because we have a son (James) and he’s into baseball and my wife (Barbara) knows way more about baseball than I do. She’d go to the baseball and I’d go to the horses. Now I get to see a lot of his baseball games and that’s fun, but it’s different. In the horse stuff I was involved. The baseball stuff I’m not. I’m a hands-on person, but I’m getting better at being a spectator.”
Teets doesn’t plan on walking away anytime soon, however, and his motivation is the same as it was when he started his company.
“I just want to see one of my cars win,” he said.
-Lucas Oil Modified Series Press Release
-Photo Credit: Howard Twaddell