None Better: Remembering Sprint Car Driver Dave Steele

What appears to be a freak accident took another open-wheel racer Saturday night.

Odds are he would have won his 100th Florida sprint car race last night – at least I would have bet on him. I seldom bet against Dave Steele, whether he was racing in the local Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series, like he was last night at Desoto Speedway, southeast of Tampa, or in the hardest-to-win pavement sprint car race of all, the Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana.

Steele was just that damn good in a pavement sprint car. I’ve never seen anyone better. I won’t forget one night of non-wing sprint car races at Orlando Speed World during the Performance Racing Industry show – I was standing at the fence in turn two, with a clear view of the back straight, and Steele was on it so hard he was literally leaving black strips of rubber on the pavement from his rear tires, all the way to turn three. Every lap. Some nights, he simply could not be beat.

Saturday night at Desoto, as he drove into the first turn of the 35-lap feature, Steele’s car hit a slower one. It spun 180 degrees and struck the wall. It looked like a minor hit – like maybe his crew could make some quick repairs and he’d tag the back of the field. But Steele was apparently killed instantly: We can only speculate that his helmet hit the wall, or maybe he suffered a neck injury. Desoto is the same track that took Butch Lindley in 1985, though it took Butch five years to die. It is a fast,unforgiving place.

I had long admired Dave Steele but never really met him until a promoter brought him by the office for lunch one afternoon. Steele seemed a little put out by it all: He was cordial but not quite friendly.

That was, I learned, just Dave Steele. Like another sprint car racer I grew up around at Riverside Speedway in West Memphis, Arkansas, Steele was a lot like Sammy Swindell: Happy in the moment following a victory, and seldom anytime else. To say Dave Steele was focused and intense is an understatement.

To say he was a loner is also accurate, one reason why he was never quite comfortable during his attempts to play in the big leagues: There were so many other factors that made up a successful attempt than just desire and dedication, and he certainly brought those. Still, he made a couple of NASCAR Xfinity starts, four ARCA races, three IndyCar starts and two Indy Lights starts. But no one could ever imagine Dave Steele shilling for a sponsor,  grinning and glad-handing and chirping cheerfully in front of a TV camera after he’d just been taken out. Steele was old-school – love him or hate him for it, but you knew what you were getting.

Steele was born in Tampa May 7, 1974. He won pretty much everything you can in pavement short-track, open-wheel racing – the aforementioned Little 500 twice, the Copper World Classic, the Turkey Night Grand Prix, and a couple of championships in the USAC Silver Crown division, a class of car that owes more to that old school than any other. Though he lived for a while in Indianapolis, Steele never strayed far from Tampa, where he worked at Steele Performance Parts, founded by his dad, Mac, more than 30 years ago. And while Dave still competed in quite a few national-level races, he was just as intense when he was running a local race like he was Saturday night. 

The last time I spoke to him in person was just after he scored another of his 10 top-5 finishes at the Little 500 – where they start 33 sprint cars on a quart-mile track for 500 laps – just last year. Steele was second to Kody Swanson. You would have thought he finished 33rd. Second was just the first loser.  

But that was just Dave Steele. Happy, for a few minutes, after a win, then right back to the concentration required to win the next race.

RIP, Dave, and prayers for his wife, Lynn, and their three kids. This cruel sport never seems to get any less so.