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In Their Words is a weekly feature in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Matt Markey talked with Tim Steele, a three-time ARCA RE/MAX Series champion and Michigan native who recently announced his retirement from competitive driving at the age of 39.
Steele, who ARCA president Ron Drager said "at his best, was as good a driver as there ever has been in the ARCA RE/MAX Series," was ARCA's champion in 1993, 1996, and 1997. His statistics put him near the top of almost every category in the 55-year history of ARCA, and Steele produced more super speedway wins than any driver in the series. He had seemingly fulfilled a lifelong dream and was just days away from signing a lucrative contract to race fulltime in the Winston Cup Series in November, 1997, when a crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway left him with a serious head injury. He began a decade of internal debate over where to take his career - a debate Steele finally ended with his retirement from competition.
"THE LAST THING I remember before the crash, I had made it to the big time, and I was going Cup racing. We had a team put together, had the sponsors in place, and were just days away from signing a big, big, big deal. It was November 5th, 1997, at about 4:45 p.m. There was an open test at Atlanta, and since the track had been changed, everybody was there. We were one of the fastest there, if not the fastest, and we wanted to do a two-lap qualifying run late in the day. That first lap was perfect - from what I'm told, nobody's done a lap that fast since. On the second lap, somewhere between turns three and four, we crashed, and I don't remember anything from that moment until the following April. I recovered, I went to the banquet since we won the championship again that year, and I guess I got up and spoke, but I have no memory of it - nothing.
"SOMETIME IN April I woke up one day in a new house that was all finished inside. Last I remembered, it didn't have any carpet, paint, or anything. I walked around and thought it was a dream. But then I started putting things together. People said I had days where I was sharp as a tack, and others where things just didn't connect for me. But I went back and went racing again. I got back in the car in June and was back in ARCA.
"AT THAT TIME I didn't tell nobody, but I was seeing double. I had it figured out that the one image on the right didn't exist, and the one on the left was accurate. So I drove my four-wheeler a lot and got to where I could drive through the woods pretty fast without hitting anything, once I figured out how to live with this. Then I told everyone I was OK, went through the eye exams and the full physical, and fooled the doctors. They put me through the ringer, and I beat them.
"WE WENT TO Pocono in June of 1998 and won that race, seeing double. I was still seeing double until probably May of 2004, and I did a lot of racing in that period, and done darn good at it, especially with the way the world looked through my eyes. I won a lot of races, and even finished third in the championship one year.
"I KEPT RACING because racing is the only way I have ever made a living since I was 20 years old. I guess I was just doing it because it's what I am supposed to do. But eventually, I had to admit that it didn't feel right, and it hasn't felt right for a while. I hadn't run any races yet this year, and I went to Toledo Speedway a while back to test a car, and something broke and we hit the wall, and that was the last ride I've taken in a race car. I always told myself that if I ever got scared doing this, I'd get out. I rode home after that crash on by bike - that's where I get my therapy and solve all the world's problems - at least my problems. Somewhere on that long ride home I decided it was over. I talked to my dad when I got home and thought it over for a few days, but I knew I was done driving a race car.
"ARCA WAS very instrumental for me, and because of ARCA, the racing world knows who Tim Steele is. It got me to the big time. Now I want to put together an ARCA team and take on the role of race team owner - I guess that's proof I must have hit my head too hard.
"THIS WAS NO spur of the moment decision. It is something that has taken nine and a half years for me to finally get to this point. When I got hurt, I had made the big time, but that head injury took me down a road I had not expected - not an easy road - and I think way back then I knew, but it was just so hard to accept, that I'd never get that chance again. Now I accept that I'm still a racer, I'm just not a driver anymore."
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