David Steele, a veteran race car driver who won several sprint car series championships and competed in IndyCar and NASCAR races, was killed in a wreck during a sprint car race Saturday night at Desoto Speedway.
Steele, a multiple United States Auto Club national champion and two-time winner of the Little 500, was competing in the Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series race at the 3/8-mile asphalt track on State Road 64 East in east Bradenton.
The 42-year-old driver’s death quickly elicited shocked reactions across social media.
“Tonight I am stunned to hear that Dave Steele has been killed in a sprint car,” Andy Cobb, a professional dirt sprint car driver, wrote on Facebook late Saturday. “Dave has been one of my closest racing friends for a long time. I can’t believe this.”
On Twitter, Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman wrote: “Man, I love open wheel racing, but something has to change. RIP Dave Steele. One of the best pavement sprint car and midget guys ever.”
Steele, a native of Indianapolis who lived in Tampa, made starts in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and the Verizon IndyCar Series in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then returned to his short-track roots. His racing background included Silver Crown (USAC), sprint car and midget racing. Steele, who was the USAC Silver Crown champion in 2004, won more USAC races than Al Unser, had more sprint car victories on asphalt than Tony Stewart and more midget wins than Jeff Gordon, according to multiple websites affiliated with Steele.
Tony Stewart Racing was one of the first to react on social media: “Our prayers go out to the family of Dave Steele, our former teammate, he was one of the best open-wheel drivers of this era.”
Steele was no stranger to success at the Desoto Speedway track: He won four southern Sprint Car Series events at the track last year. On Saturday, he was seeking his 100th career sprint car victory just in the state of Florida. He was already a multiple-time winner this year, with victories at 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda in February and at Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park.
The field, which was turning speeds of more than 100 mph during the qualifying heats and warmups, according to a source in attendance, had just taken the green flag to start the 35-lap main event, which capped Saturday night’s race card, and was not yet up to race speed at the time of the incident.
Steele, who was starting near the rear of the 16-car field, got a good jump at the start and tried to pass a vehicle in front of him on the outside heading into Turn 1.
Steele’s car and the car he was passing hooked wheels, sending Steele’s vehicle flipping airborne.
The Southern Sprint Car Series vehicles are open-wheel winged cars with the driver enclosed in a steel roll cage. In the winged configuration, the cars have a small wing over the nose (two vertical panels separated by a flat horizontal panel spanning the width of the nose). A larger, similarly configured wing is over the driver’s compartment.
Steele’s vehicle hit the outside retaining wall in Turn 1 and then spun perpendicular to the track before coming to rest. According to the source, his car was not hit by another vehicle after it struck the wall and the visible damage to the car was consistent with a vehicle hitting the outside wall flush on the left side.
The race was immediately red flagged and track emergency personnel were at the vehicle in seconds. According to a source affiliated with the track who was not authorized to speak on the record, the track has multiple medics, EMTs and firefighters for each race card. That was the case Saturday night as well.
Despite the rapid response, Steele was pronounced dead on the track. Track personnel, emergency personnel and local authorities called to the track after the incident were still on the track at the crash scene near midnight. Track personnel, race officials and other witnesses were waiting to be cleared to leave the facility.
Early Sunday, Desoto Speedway released a statement on its Facebook page: “Desoto Speedway owners and staff are saddened by tonight’s passing of David Steele in the Sprint car feature. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends who were all in attendance, to see him try to win his 100th florida [sic] race.”
The racing-related fatality is the first at the speedway in many years. Driver Butch Lindley sustained fatal injuries in an accident in 1985 during a late-model sportsman race. However, he lingered in a coma for five years, without regaining consciousness, before dying in 1990. Steele’s death is the first in the Southern Sprint Car Series, which is only in its second season. Steele was the defending series champion.
Joey “The Ace” Aguilar narrowly escaped death in a fiery wreck in 2013 at the facility, then known as Full Throttle Speedway. The driver suffered burns all over his body, but was cleared to return to racing a little more than a month later.
According to the source affiliated with the track, racing weather and track conditions were good at the time of the crash and there had been no incidents in the heats leading up to the main event involving Steele’s car or any other car.
Steele, who would have turned 43 on May 7, is survived by his wife, Lynn Bunn Steele, and three young children. The Bradenton Herald was unable to confirm whether Steele’s entire family was at the track Saturday.