Race Weekend Central

Tim Steele, An ARCA Great

Tim Steele was one of the greatest drivers in the ARCA Menards Series. With the second-most championships, trailing only Frank Kimmel, and third-most wins, trailing Kimmel and Iggy Katona, his statistics are still some of the series best.

“He was as good as it gets at this level,” ARCA Communications Manager Charles Krall told Frontstretch. “Tim was incredibly fast everywhere he raced in everything he raced. I watched him race in the ASA series, ARCA and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. He was incredibly talented with a great team behind him and I was fortunate to be coming up as a young race fan when his career kicked into high gear.

“He was dominant on the big tracks. Nine wins at Pocono Raceway, four wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, four at Talladega Superspeedway, three wins at both Michigan International Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. The bigger and faster the racetrack was, the better he was going to be. Pocono is an incredibly difficult racetrack to get a hold of and he won there nine times. He got those 41 wins in 147 starts; that’s an incredible winning percentage close to 30%. Kimmel won 80 races but he started 500 races. I don’t know if we have seen somebody quite that dominant. There are drivers like Corey LaJoie, who won three races in seven starts, and that’s incredible. But try to do that over 80-100 starts, and Steele was able to do that over 147 starts. Prodigious when it comes to winning races.”

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Among Steele’s accomplishments are the most wins in a single season in the modern ARCA era, which is post-1979, and he is tied for the longest win streak at five.

“Tim was a fantastic competitor,” current ARCA team owner, and former driver, Andy Hillenburg said. “He put together great cars and then he also knew how to wheel them. So it was a pretty potent combination. A lot of people can drive them and a lot of people know how to put them together, but when you find somebody who can put both those skills to use, you go on to win 41 races.”

One of the people that Hillenburg has shared stories about racing against Steele with his driver Zachary Tinkle.

“He had the whole respect of the ARCA garage,” Tinkle added. “Whether it was Wayne Peterson, David Richmond, Hillenburg and Todd Parrott, they all had one thing in common when it came to Steele and that was their undying respect for him, his accomplishments in this sport and his grit and determination to do whatever it takes to get it done out on the racetrack.

Upon receiving news of Steele’s passing, Tinkle tweeted his thoughts about the ARCA great.

“I used to watch him on TV when I was growing up, on Speed Channel,” Tinkle continued. “He was one of my heroes. Like a lot of us guys, he was an independent for most of his career. Always owned his own stuff, worked on it and tried his best to be like a lot of old-school ARCA racers of that era who showed up with their own car, their own crew. It was just the everyday man trying to do every incredible thing. I have a lot of respect for Steele about it. He was one of the best in ARCA and to be honest, there probably will never be another Steele in ARCA. He’s one of a very elite few who’ve made the ARCA series their legacy. You think of the ARCA series in the late ‘90s, early 2000s and Steele was undoubtedly one of those drivers you’d associate with that era.”

Krall saw Steele race in person as Krall watched from the stands.

“I remember seeing him at Toledo Speedway, ironically a racetrack he never won at,” he said. “I remember seeing him for the first time at Toledo running the ASA Toledo 400 back in 1991. He qualified second and had a pretty good day, I don’t remember where he finished. That No. 85 car was up in front most of the day. I later saw him in 1998. He and Kimmel battled intensely for a win at Toledo. Kimmel got the better of him that day. I don’t think they were more than a car length apart all night long. They swapped the lead back and forth a couple of times, weaving in and out of lapped traffic, it was just a great race to watch. Probably the closest Tim came to winning at Toledo, I believe.”

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Kimmel and Steele raced against each other, but Hillenburg ran against those two as well. The 1995 ARCA champion, Hillenburg competed against Steele 39 times. Head-to-head, Steele bested Hillenburg 23-16 but the two both enjoyed success. Steele amassed 13 victories in that timespan as well as 20 top fives and 22 top 10s, and Hillenburg totaled two victories, 12 top fives and 25 top 10s.

“When I beat him, I had a lot of fun,” Hillenburg added. “He was tough. He was always a clean racer who ran you hard but he didn’t have to run into you to pass you. He knew how to pass you and I liked that. I dueled with Tim quite a bit and we never had any issues on the track other than beating each other. He was a great competitor.”

Steele was on the trajectory to stardom with a full-time ride lined up for his rookie NASCAR Cup Series campaign in 1998. One of his new team owners would have been NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre with sponsorship from Nike and Sony. Unfortunately, Steele crashed while testing a Cup car at Atlanta in late 1997. He missed the ARCA season finale – still won the championship – was unable to make his Cup debut that same race weekend and the deal fell apart.

Steele did not compete for eight months. He came back victoriously, winning at Pocono on June 20, 1998. Yet his career was never the same, as he suffered from physical pain, subsequent addiction to pharmaceutical narcotics and he retired from racing in 2006.

Steele’s career is truly a what-if story. What if that crash never happened?

“If Steele hadn’t gotten injured, I believe his team and what he was going to be able to do, he would’ve been a Cup race winner and quite possibly a Cup Series champion,” Tinkle said.

“I’ve seen people talk about the what-if story,” Krall added. “I’m going to change it a little bit. We’ll always have those unanswered questions about what his career would’ve been like if he didn’t have that crash at Atlanta in 1997. Of course that crash was unfortunate for so many reasons. They had a new team they were trying to build around Tim with some sponsors. He had won the five previous ARCA races and he was headed to Atlanta to wrap up his third championship. As we know, he wasn’t able to compete in the race, he wasn’t there to receive the trophy, very unfortunate as far as the racing is concerned.

“I look at it like what would his life have been like if not for that accident. The medical issues that he dealt with in his later years, would he have had to deal with those. He was open about his struggles with substance dependence as a result of that accident. He was a family man. He had a wife and children. What would their lives have been like if not for that accident? That’s really what I think of in a situation like that. As much as we love watching those racecars go around, it’s secondary to me as someone who connects with him as a father and husband. I wish he would’ve been able to live life without the pain and lingering effects of those injuries to enjoy his family time, more than anything.”

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While Hillenburg does not think about the what-if scenario, as there are many what-ifs in racing such as injuries, funding and bad luck, he knows Steele would’ve succeeded in Cup.

“Oh sure, he had all the skills,” he stated. “He had all the right things going in the direction for sure.”

At 55 years old, about two months shy of his 56th birthday, Steele has passed away. Yes, the what-if story is one we can ask for the ages. Nevertheless, Steele was an accomplished ARCA driver, one of the all-time series greats as all three men attested.

“Anyone that doesn’t look up to Steele, if they’re racing ARCA, I’d question why they’re in ARCA to be honest,” Tinkle stated. “If you don’t have respect for him, you’re not going to get far along in ARCA. That’s my opinion of course and I mean that a little bit jokingly. That was the amount of respect people had for him.”

“If you place his numbers up against the greats, whether you’re talking about Kimmel or Jack Bowsher or anybody, his numbers are among the very best,” Krall remarked. “He still leads ARCA all-time with superspeedway wins.”

An asphalt oval track one mile in length is how ARCA defines superspeedways, including Steele’s best racetrack, The Tricky Triangle.

“He leads all-time superspeedway wins, all-time superspeedway poles, all-time superspeedway laps led,” Krall noted. “He’s someone whose legacy will last a very long time and deservedly so. His race team was built by him and his father. It was a family-run operation. The folks on that team were all close to him. They did it their way, they were successful, and if not for one bad day and something that was outside of his control, the sky was the limit.

“He was a friend to all inside this building. He always had a smile on his face, he was as competitive as could be on the racetrack but one of those people off the racetrack who you wanted to find and be around because he had that personality that drew people to him. It’s a sad day for everybody.”

“You don’t have to turn many pages to get to the great ones,” Hillenburg commented.

About the author

Mark Kristl joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is the site's ARCA Menards Series editor. Kristl is also an Eagle Scout and a proud University of Dayton alum.

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