Race car driver killed at East Manatee track ‘had a good word for everybody’

The day after David Steele died in a sprint car crash at Desoto Speedway, the track on State Road 64 in East Manatee was deserted except for maintenance supervisor Jack Griggs, his wife, Thelma, and their chihuahua.

An eerie silence hung over the track. Griggs, who has worked at the track for more than 15 years, felt it.

The racing world is a tight knit circle, so many are hurting, Griggs said. He considered himself a friend and fan of Steele, a man who “had a good word for everybody.”

Griggs had talked to Steele moments before the driver competed in the Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series race that claimed his life.

“I was joking around with him,” Griggs said. “I asked him if he was going to win. He said he was gonna try his best. He was a good man and a good race car driver.”

Griggs was an eyewitness to the fatal crash.

The field, which was turning speeds of more than 100 mph during the qualifying heats and warmups according to another source at the track Saturday, 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 got together and hooked wheels, sending Steele’s vehicle flipping airborne.

“I saw it when he got tangled up with the other guy,” Griggs said. “He hit the guy’s back wheel, and that’s when he went airborne.”

Steele’s vehicle hit the outside retaining wall in Turn 1 and then spun perpendicular to the track before coming to rest. According to a 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.

According to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, 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 fully-trained medics, EMTs and firefighters at the track for each race card. That was the case Saturday night as well.

Despite the rapid response, Steele was pronounced dead on the track.

“It was a freak accident,” Griggs said. “That’s all it was. It’s rare for us to have bad crashes like that. Anytime anyone of us goes out to lunch, someone can hit you and kill you. It can happen just that fast. There’s nothing you can do. That’s how this was.”

When medical crews realized Steele was dead, a helicopter that was on its way was sent back, Griggs said. Some members of Steele’s family were in the stands, according to Griggs.

“Some fans stayed in their seats out of appreciation for David and his family,” Griggs said, adding, “The Steele family is in my and Thelma’s prayers.”

Steele an accomplished veteran

Steele, 42, was a veteran race car driver who won several sprint car series championships and competed in some IndyCar and NASCAR races.

He was a multiple United States Auto Club national champion and two-time winner of the Little 500.

His death quickly brought stunned reactions across social media.

“Tonight I am stunned to hear that Dave Steele has been killed in a sprint car,” wrote Andy Cobb, a professional dirt sprint car driver, 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, who resided in Tampa, made starts in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and the Verizon IndyCar Series in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but he returned to his short-track roots. His racing background included Silver Crown (USAC), sprint car and midget racing.

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 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.

Early Sunday morning, Desoto Speedway released an official 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.”

Steele, who would have turned 43 on May 7, is survived by his wife, Lynn Bunn Steele, and three young children.

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond

Mark Lawrence: 941-745-7052, @bradentonse