Unbuckled: Getting to Know Joe Steffen


Hometown: Grand Isle, VT

Division: Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel Flying Tigers

Car: Northern Coal & Oil #00 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

2017 Season: Finished 7th in Flying Tiger points (1 feature win)


What are your favorite non-racing hobbies?

Hunting, fishing, and boating – I like to get out on a boat on the lake every weekend that we can. I really like to get outdoors. During the summer, we spend a lot of time outside. We’re inside too much during the winter, so when it’s warm out, you’ve got to get outside.

What do you do for work?

I work for Northern Coal & Oil. I’m a burner service technician, which obviously takes up a lot of my time during the winter and not so much time during the summer, so it kind of works out well. I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years. It’s good work, it pays the bills, and we try to be as casual about it as we can so things don’t get too nuts.

What are your current racing plans for 2018? Do you have any goals?

We plan on running everything that Thunder Road has to offer in the Tiger division. We’ll see if anything else presents itself along the way. As far as goals go, it’s what everybody else’s goals are: to win races and be the fastest car there every week.

What was the highlight of the 2017 season for you?

We won one race on July 6, and winning is always a highlight. Running the Triple Crown with the longer distance races was definitely a lot of fun – I like getting into those and getting a few extra laps. Every week we went out with the idea that we were going to have fun and see some cool racing, and that in and of itself is a weekly highlight for our team. We just enjoy doing it.

How did you get started in racing?

Boy, it was so long ago. I got in with some guys that were into racing and going to the race track as spectators, and one guy in particular – Jeff Hanson is his name – had raced Late Models years and years ago. I went to Thunder Road with him and some buddies and just really enjoyed it. One night, I made the offhanded comment that, “This looks like a lot of fun. We should try doing this sometime.” And the next thing I know, they’re strapping me into a car saying, “Okay, here we go.” It was really just an offhanded remark, but one thing led to another, and here we are 30 years later still doing it – I think this will actually be my 29th year, to be exact.

You have been involved with racing and Thunder Road for a long time now. What is it that keeps you coming back after all these years?

For as much as it stays the same, it always seems to be different as well. Every individual race every week is different – you have good nights, you have bad nights. It’s kind of the sameness but the variety of it. There’s the different things that you see – not necessarily driving the car or being in the races, but all the other things that you witness in the pits, and on the track, and in the stands. It always seems to be that every week when we’re on our way home, we’re talking about the events of the night, and there always seems to be something where we’re like, “Wow, did you see that?” or “Did you hear about this?” It’s cool – it keeps you on the edge of your seat. We have a good time with it. It’s our Thursday night “Boy’s Night Out”, as it were. It’s a lot of work to get there, and sometimes it can still be a lot of work when you’re there, but we have fun with it, and it continues to be fun. I suppose when it stops being fun, that’s when I’ll be back sitting up in the stands.

You’ve worked with your car owner Smith “Smitty” McKay for a long time as well. How did you get involved with him, and what’s that racing relationship been like for the two of you?

That goes back to Jeff Hanson. Those guys were and are our buddies, and Smitty and I both work at Northern Coal & Oil, and that’s how I met Jeff. Right now Smitty is car owner and crew chief – he gets to pay the bills, so that makes it easier on me to be able to go every week. We’ve been working together for all these years. We get done with our business work, and then go out to the garage and start working on having fun.

Do you have anyone that you consider a role model or that you take after?

Absolutely not. No, I’m kidding. (Laughs) In life, I come from a fairly large family. I have a lot of brothers – no sisters, believe it or not, but I’ve got a lot of brothers, and I’m second from the youngest. So I got a lot of life advice and such from my older brothers. We’re all kind of spread out over the country now, but you learn a lot from older siblings. Stuff that your parents won’t necessarily teach you, or your school teachers either – they’ll teach you the more solved things in life, shall we say. So I would say my family and my brothers. They really taught me how to be the person that I am, to be a good person, to treat others the way you expect to be treated, and that kind of stuff.

Can you tell me more about your family?

For my immediate family here in Vermont, I have my wife Susan – we’ve been married for 34 years this year. And I have two adult children. My oldest is Xander, and there’s his girl Becca. And there’s my daughter Carly and her husband Dave, and I also have two granddaughters – Carly’s daughters Ava and Violet. Everybody lives close right up here in the islands, so we try and get everybody together for Sunday dinner every week so the whole family is together. It doesn’t always work, but mostly it does. That’s really important to me that we get all get together and sit down and have an afternoon/evening. We’re lucky because everyone is close by – I think Carly’s only four miles away or something like that, so it works out well and no one has to travel a long way. Any my granddaughters will come over on Sunday afternoon and I’ll hang out and play with them. It’s great.

What is your biggest life accomplishment so far?

I don’t know if my family is an “accomplishment” necessarily, but they really mean the most to me. I’ve been on my own since I was 19 years old, and I’ve made it this far and been pretty successful. I’ve got a really nice place to live, I’ve got a really nice family, and I kind of really did – I don’t want to say on my own, but when you’re 19, and you drop out of college and move 700 some-odd miles away from home, and show up in Vermont with virtually nothing…I just kind of built it from there.

Where did you move to Vermont from?

I grew up in Michigan. Saginaw is where I’m originally from, and when I left there in the early ‘80s, the area was pretty depressed. There wasn’t a lot going on, there weren’t any jobs, and everybody was leaving. I was in college and I wasn’t liking it, so I just said, “You know what? I’m out of here.” So I grabbed some stuff and threw it in the back of an old beater car that I’m surprised made the trip here. (Laughs) And the rest is history, as they say.

What’s your dream vacation?

Probably anywhere that I could go that I could be able to get out on the water – oceans, lakes, streams, anywhere that I could go boating and fishing and such. I can’t think of any place specific, but my wife wants to travel, so if she were part of the conversation, she’d be telling you, “oh, we’re going to Italy, or Germany,” or places like that – go to Europe and wander around and see the sights and history. I’m more of an outdoorsy kind of guy, so anything that would be taking in the great outdoors is fine with me – maybe a nice trip out West or something like that.

If someone turned on the radio/media player in your car, what would they most likely be listening to?

WDEV, for sure. I listen to WDEV every single day, and it comes in remarkably clear up here. I kind of switch back and forth between that and NPR in my work truck. In my personal truck, I have satellite radio, and I like to listen to the ‘80s hair bands – much to my wife’s chagrin. She hates it, but I love it. If we get in the car together, it’s usually a fight. (Laughs) the station I listen to is called Ozzie’s Slow Burn, and they play a lot of that kind of music. Twisted Sister, Poison, Cinderella, Motley Crue…all of those types of bands.

If someone asked you to appear on a TV show or a movie, which one would you want it to be and why?

Oh, I would never be on any TV show that would have me on it, so… (Laughs) We don’t watch a lot of commercial TV – usually when I sit down to watch TV, it’s sports. We’ve been doing the “Game of Thrones” thing as well, which isn’t going to come back on again for a while, apparently. But most commercial TV really isn’t very good. My son likes to do the streaming stuff on Netflix and Hulu and watch the original series. So I guess the answer to your question would be this: there’s a show out there called “Black Mirror”. It’s a really freaky kind of show – it’s kind of like “The Twilight Zone” used to be, except I think it’s a British show. We watched an episode of it last week, and I was like, “oohh, that’s kind of cool.” And it’s a streaming show, so there’s no commercials and you don’t have to sit through breaks. That’s be cool to be on.

What sports outside of racing do you follow or play?

I love football. I’ve got to make sure every Sunday afternoon that everything’s all set for when football comes on. My favorite thing to watch is NFL football – college football too. I’m a diehard Detroit Lions fan. I get a lot of grief for that, but they’ve been my team since 1964, so I’m not going to give up on them yet. I’ve got a bunch of Lions apparel and all that kind of stuff, and I always get something Detroit Lions–related for Christmas or my birthday or Father’s Day. (Laughs) The fun part of it is that my son is a giant Green Bay Packers loser – he loves the Packers. And of course they’re division rivals, so the two times a year that the Packers and the Lions play each other, it gets pretty boisterous around here. We haven’t come to blows yet, but it’s come close a few times – just imagine if they ever play each other in the playoffs.

Who is your biggest supporter at the track?

It’s got to be Smitty, without a doubt. He’s certainly my biggest cheerleader, my harshest critic, and my biggest supporter. We go to the track every week together and work on the car together. He doesn’t have a problem telling me when I screw up, and usually I already know, so I don’t need to be told. (Laughs) I’ll be like, “Yeah, I screwed that one up pretty bad, didn’t I?” And he’ll say, “Oh yes you did.”

Who or what has had the greatest influence on your racing career?

There’s been so many people that have given me advice, especially on how to keep going. I can remember years ago when we first started, Smitty was talking to Robbie Crouch, and his advice was “just keep trying stuff.” Eventually you’ll hit on something that works, and you’ll see what direction you need to go in. I used to live across the street from Tom Tiller in Essex Junction, and he would come over to the garage when we were building cars across the street in our little two-bay – car and a half, really – garage, and “keep at it” seemed to the central thing he said. “Don’t give up.” Smitty was another one. If you had a bad night and the car wasn’t going good and something happened, his advice would be, “take it home and make it faster, and that won’t happen to you.” Rick Paya as well – I met him back years when he work at Lamell Lumber and helped the Lamells with their Busch North car. When I first met him, he was, and still is to this day, seemed like one of the happiest guys to be around race cars and go racing. There’s been a lot of people over the years, and I still get advice. I don’t seem to give too much advice, but I get plenty of advice. (Laughs)

So of all the advice you’ve received, what would you say was the best?

Take it home, make it faster, and bring it back. Just keep going, keep trying, and keep at it. As long as you can do it, and as long as you have the wherewithal to be able to work on the car, just try different things. Something might seem really outlandish to you, but hey, why not? If you’re having a rough time, just through the book at it. Eventually something will pop up that makes you say, “Hey, I think we’re on the right track here.” Don’t stop, and don’t give up, no matter happens. And even if you’re a really successful racer and doing really well, those guys are still trying stuff. You’re not just going, “Hey, the car was really fast. Don’t touch it.” None of those guys are doing that – they’re always trying something. If it doesn’t work, you can always put it back.

Where do you hope to see yourself five years from now?

Still above ground and still vertical. (Laughs) There was a time where there was a question whether I was going to be vertical or not, but I bounced back quite nicely. I’m having a good time doing what I’m doing – racing-wise, life-wise, family-wise. I hope to just keep it going, keep having a good time, and keep going to the race track. I’ll keep going to Thunder Road even when I retire from driving. It’s a good time – it’s that friendly family atmosphere with mayhem on the track.

What would you do if you won the lottery?

You would never see me again. Not to contradict myself or anything. (Laughs) I don’t usually buy lottery tickets, so I’ve never really thought about it. But first and foremost, I’d make sure that my family was set up and taken care of for the future. Kids, grandkids, that kind of stuff. And like I said earlier, my wife likes to travel, so I’d probably do a little bit of globe-trotting with her. And just not work anymore so I could do those kinds of things. I’d still be a part of racing and be a part of that family – I’m not really sure how my involvement would increase or change, but we’d do a lot of the same stuff we’re doing right now, only better.