THOMPSON – It’s a furry feline Mike Stefanik wishes he left trapped in a bag.
Unfortunately, he let the cat come bounding out of that bag on Aug. 21 when – after winning a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Bristol Motor Speedway – he hinted that retirement from the series was likely coming soon for him.
“I wish now I had never said anything,” Stefanik said Saturday at Thompson Speedway. “I said it when I probably shouldn’t have said it, only because I guess I was thinking about it.”
Saturday, on the eve of the final Whelen Modified Tour event of the season, Stefanik opened up extensively about where things stand with his racing career going forward.
Sunday’s Whelen Modified Tour World Series 150 at Thompson Speedway might be the final event ever for the seven-time Whelen Modified Tour champion.
Or, it might not be.
Stefanik said he hasn’t made any decisions about whether or not he’ll be back behind the wheel of the Chris Our owned Whelen Modified Tour ride.
He said he will meet with Our, crew chief Brad LaFontaine and other principals with the team soon about matters going forward.
“Would I do another year?” Stefanik said. “Yeah, I would. As long as everything in our meeting goes well. If our meeting doesn’t go as well as I’d like it to, well then I would make my decision after my meeting. I’m going to sit down with Brad and Chris and everybody that’s involved with the program and see how things would be moving forward and the changes we would make and what we would be doing and how things would be going.
“There’s no animosity. It’s either, I’m all set or I don’t want to hold anybody back. I don’t want to hold this team back. I don’t want it to be like ‘Oh well, he’s 55 and he should just get out of here.’ I don’t want that. If everybody is on board and wants to do this again then I’d definitely consider doing it again. But if everybody isn’t on board and gung-ho and ready to go to do this again then I’ll be like ‘Hey, whoa, I don’t want to be the guy holding anybody back.’”
Stefanik, who won his first series title in 1989 and his last 2006, is the Whelen Modified Tour’s all-time winningest driver with 74 career victories. Reggie Ruggiero is a distant second on the all-time wins list with 44 victories. Stefanik said the feeling that comes from winning and running well consumes his life.
“I’m only here because I want to win, and everyone would say that on pit road, but I’ve been involved with so many good programs and together we collectively won  of these races, that’s what I thrive on,” Stefanik said. “The feeling on Monday morning … I thrive on that. If we could bottle that I’d never do this crazy sport because it’s really a lot of aggravation, a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of stress.
“But I have that love hate relationship with it that I’ve always had. I’ve never really sat in a car and enjoyed driving them. Never. Even when I was winning 11 of 13 races, it was all stress. Is this going be the day I make the mistake? I’m always critical of how I do things. I don’t have an overwhelming confidence of myself. But when I’m in the car that’s all not in my mind. I just let myself do what I do and if it was a good day it was a good day and if it was a bad day it was a bad day. But when I’m away from the car and I’m away from the sport, it controls me. It controls me all week. If we’re running miserable it affects my whole life and I hate that. That’s why we’ve got to run good, so the rest of my life is on kilter. When my racing is off kilter and we’re struggling, my life is upside down. … I never shut it off.”
After eight years with the Flamingo Motorsports Whelen Modified Tour team, Stefanik parted ways with the organization with one event left in the 2011 season. He joined forces with Our, a new team owner in the series, in 2012. In 2012 he drove half the season for Our and half the season for team owner Ed Marceau and finished 11th in the series standings. This year Our upped his program to running full-time with Stefanik and the group came out of the box in style in 2013 by winning the pole and grabbing victory in the season opening Icebreaker at Thompson in April.
But Stefanik said struggles with the team during the middle of the season had him starting to wonder if it was time to hang up the helmet.
“We were struggling this summer and I sat down with [LaFontaine] and I was like ‘Brad, the way we’re running and the way things are going you wouldn’t sign up for this program again next year unless someone held a gun to your head.’” Stefanik said. “I know how bad Brad wants to win and he’s used to winning three or four or five races a year. We’re not reaching our expectations I know we’re not. I’ve made mistakes and we’ve had mechanical mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes.”
Stefanik goes into the series finale fourth in the standings, one point behind third place Donny Lia. He said he needs assurances that going forward the team has absolute confidence in him.
“Nobody wants to be where they’re not wanted,” Stefanik said. “And I’m not saying they don’t want me, I’m just thinking about retiring very soon.
“If I get the vibe that they think because I’m thinking about retiring that I’m not going to elbow up and drive the car, well then if that’s how they feel I don’t want to be the one holding anybody back. That’s a position I don’t want to be in. This is way too good of a program where I would want to be responsible for holding them back. Chris Our is an outstanding car owner and I love the challenges. Brad is right in my face about me telling him what I need. I love being challenged. But when we’re not winning the amount of races that you maybe expect to win, well then are fingers going to be pointed? Is this going to be uglier than I think?”
Stefanik said he doesn’t want to put himself in the bad position he felt was created at Flamingo Motorsports. After Stefanik left Flamingo Motorsports the team hired Ryan Preece to replace him. Preece finished second in the standings last year and holds a 26-point lead in the standings over Doug Coby going into Sunday’s season finale.
“When I was over with [Flamingo Motorsports] we just stopped jelling,” Stefanik said. “[Flamingo Motorsports crew chief Sly Szaban] has been a friend of mine forever and we just weren’t working together. We tried some different things … we kind of got off the beaten path. We kind of came back and I think we just kind of wore each other out. He’s obviously running better without me and I’m over here running better without being in [the Flamigo Motorsports car] so it was a good move for both of us.
“I held [the Flamingo Motorsports] team back because we weren’t working together. I should have walked away from that four or five years ago. But out of friendship we just soldiered through it. We weren’t even talking on the phone, there was no communication. I don’t want that to happen again.”
Stefanik said he understands that in a performance based situation like racing, at 55 years old, age is going to be a perception factor for anybody.
“I felt in my whole career, after you hit 35 years old, you’ve got to prove yourself every time you get in the car, especially the first race every year. That first practice of the year, people are asking, ‘Can you go out there and drive it off in the corner like you should? Do you have reservations?’ I don’t. We went to the first race this year and sat on the pole and I won the race. I was 54. Now I’m 55. Do you think I can’t do that any more? Do you think that just went away over six months? If you did, I’m all set with you. If you didn’t then I’m willing to sit down and move forward.
“Bristol is the biggest elbows up track we go to. I went out there and drove it to the front. Yeah, [Donny Lia] can say he should have won, [Justin Bonsignore] can say he should have won and [Todd Szegedy] can say he should have won, but we won. We won. We won at Loudon last year with this team, the other toughest track to win at. The two fastest, elbows up, hanging on the line tracks.
“My age always comes into it. I like [30-year old Ron Silk] and they’re struggling over there with that car. Now if he was 55 years old they’d be looking at him. But because he’s not 55 they’re not looking at him, they’re just keeping their nose down and elbows up and they’ll work through and they’ll come back and win another championship. But if you throw that age thing in there everybody is hung up on the age thing, I’m all set with that. I am all set with that. If you think that I can’t hold up my end, just man up and tell me and I am on the couch. I like this team too well and I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be that guy. I’m deathly afraid of being that guy. So if you think I’m that guy, tell me and we’re all set. If you don’t feel that way and you want to talk about how we’re going to make this program better, and do better next year and win races and have a shot at the championship well then let’s here what we’re going to do and I’m all back in. Brad won’t be afraid to tell me. Brad will call a spade a spade.”
“During the middle of the season we were struggling bad and Brad made some changes to the car and to our program and to our setup and I liked it and now we’re climbing back out of that. But if you want to keep climbing back out of that or you want to bail then that’s your call. … I know I’m 55. Next year I’m going to be 56, you think I’m going to forget how to do what I did this year next year? Then just stand up and say so. I don’t want to walk in the trailer and have people stop talking. I don’t want to be in that place. That’s the last place any driver wants to be. So we’re either all in or we’re not. It’s really that simple.”
In September, during the Whelen Modified Tour race weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stefanik said that if he didn’t retire after this season that next year would definitely be his last. He said Saturday that that was another thing he wishes he hadn’t said.
“I’m not saying next year would be my last year,” Stefanik said. “What if I came back [next year] and we win five or six races and the championship and everyone is like ‘Mike, we want you to stay’ then I’m back for another year. But if I feel anybody is looking down their nose at me, I’m out of here. I don’t want that, I don’t want to be that guy.”
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