IRL: David Steele to Make IRL Debut at Phoenix

STEELE READY TO MAKE JUMP FROM SPRINT CARS TO PEP BOYS IRL TAMPA, Fla., March 16, 1998 -- The kid is asked about his upcoming summer, and he can only smile. Although Dave Steele is 23 years old, he still looks like he...

STEELE READY TO MAKE JUMP FROM SPRINT CARS TO PEP BOYS IRL

TAMPA, Fla., March 16, 1998 -- The kid is asked about his upcoming summer, and he can only smile.

Although Dave Steele is 23 years old, he still looks like he could fit right in at a high school prom, or maybe behind the wheel of a hot rod at the local teen hangout. Shy and friendly, he seems too young and quiet to be a race driver.

But he's ready to begin his career in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League, and it couldn't come soon enough for this former sprint car competitors.

Steele dominated pavement racing in the USAC sprint car division in 1997, leading the tough "Thunder and Lightning" division with six feature victories. Last season was another solid step in his rise through the open-wheel ranks to become one of the most highly regarded young talents in the country.

His performance caught the eye of the principals of the new rsm Marko team, a new IRL entry fielded by Dr. Helmut Marko, one of the most successful race team owners of Europe.

"I guess it was being in the right place at the right time," said Steele when he thought about the opportunity. "I had worked over the past couple of years to try and win races and see what would happen, and I feel really lucky that it kind of began to fall into place."

Steele will make his Pep Boys IRL debut March 20-22 in the Dura-Lube 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, a track that is certainly familiar to Steele.

In 1997, Steele blazed around the 1-mile Phoenix oval in a USAC sprint car at 138.366 mph, believed to be a world record for non-winged sprint cars. Just two months ago, he was strong at the USAC Skoal Bandit Racing Copper World Classic at Phoenix, finishing second in the midget class to Tony Stewart.

"I like Phoenix, and I hope our recent time there can help me get adjusted a little bit," Steele said.

Now, he sits in the seat of a Dallara/Aurora/Firestone IRL machine, and he begins a new chapter in a career which began in go-karts at age 7.

"My dad bought a sprint car when I was about four years old, and he had others guys drive for him," Steele remembered. "So I kind of grew up going to the racetrack.

"There were guys that drove for my dad, local racers, like Stan Butler and Jim Childers, and those guys were my heroes. Later on, when I eventually drove sprint cars and raced against them, it was kind of hard to go against guys that you idolized as a kid."

Much of Steele's young life was spent around the sprint car hotbed near his Tampa, Fla., home. Countless hours were spent during the long hauls to the regional sprint car tracks with his father, or going kart racing. He readily absorbed the scene, becoming a "track rat" of the highest order.

"When I was a teen-age kid, all I could really think about was racing," he admitted. "I knew that I wanted to drive, and all I really thought about were sprint cars in those days."

It might have been karts that got the kid started, but it was sprint cars that put him on the map. Still just a teen-ager, he began driving his father's sprint car at local tracks such as Sunshine Speedway in St. Petersburg, Fla., and East Bay Raceway in nearby Gibsonton.

He was impressive from the start, wielding the fire-breathing, overpowered sprint car with a smooth style. Then, in 1992, he took the road trip that could well have changed his life.

He was just a few days past his 18th birthday, and he and his father traveled north to compete in the Little 500, a grueling 500-lap sprint car race on the tight quarter-mile track at Anderson, Ind. It is the most physically and mentally demanding event in all of sprint car racing, and it seemed that Steele would be a boy among men.

But he turned in an amazing performance, finishing fifth and earning rookie-of-the-year honors. He would return to the event for the next five years, eventually becoming one of the youngest winners in the 49-year history of the race in 1996 (22 years old).

He ran the USAC sprint-car series full time in 1996 for fellow Floridian Jack Nowling, finishing fourth in the final standings after two feature victories.

In 1997, he really stepped up, winning consistently on such intimidating high-banked tracks such as Winchester (Ind.) and Salem (Ind.) Speedways.

"Sprint car racing is very tough, and you have to learn to race very close with other cars and not be intimidated or scared all the time," he said. "It takes a lot of discipline, but it's something that you kind of get used to. I'm hoping that kind of training helps me in Indy-style cars."

Indeed, he has a big transition ahead of him. The rsm Marko team is new to the IRL, and to oval racing, with a rookie driver. He is realistic about his expectations.

"I would never go into a race saying I can't win, but the reality is it is a tough series and we're all new," he said. "Sure, we'd love to win a race, and qualify well, but at this point I want to grow gradually and make sure we are consistent and qualify for every race.

"When you are a rookie, you first of all want to take care of the car and stay out of trouble. So qualifying for races and finishing races is my first priority."

He looks like a kid, but it is clear that he has become a veteran racer at a young age. He is anxious and ready to go racing. Like any "track rat", he is right where he belongs.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Dave Steele