Jeff Stevens wiped his hand on his jeans, which seemed just as grimy. Then he reached for mine. Yes, he said, he had a few minutes to talk.
Only a few minutes. Then he had to get back to working on his race car. Something needed to be done before the qualifying heats for the big race at Oxford Plains Speedway. Or the big race at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. Or wherever there was a big race on a summer weekend in New England.
He was a racer at a time when there was little money to pay crew members and none at all to pay publicists. So he got his hands dirty and made no apologies.
“He wasn’t a show-and-shine racer,” said Kelly Moore, the veteran driver and team owner from Scarborough. “Today a lot of it is what I call pretty-boy racing. Jeff wasn’t that. He was a warrior in a race car.”
Jeff Stevens passed away last week. He was 66. His obituary noted that he was a popular race-car driver throughout the Northeast and Canada, and that he was called the Racin’ Mason and the Outlaw. That was it.
For days I’ve tried to figure out why I felt a little empty after reading the news and the too-brief reference. He wasn’t a touring series champion. He won dozens of races over a long career but I never heard him called a track champion. He never won the race he most wanted to win, the Oxford 250, or the TD Bank 250 as it’s called today.
Throughout the 1980s, Stevens hauled his race car to Oxford Plains Speedway every July to enter qualifying heats for the Oxford 250. He finished third in 1981 to winner Geoff Bodine and runner-up Robbie Crouch. He finished fifth in 1998 behind winner Ralph Nason.
In 1987, when NASCAR sanctioned the race and instituted time trials to set the front of the starting grid, Stevens didn’t blink. “I said, ‘This is great, I’ve got the fastest car here.’ And I did. Then I watched NASCAR throw me out.”
Stevens wasn’t alone. More than half of the top-10 drivers on time didn’t pass NASCAR’s inspection.
In 1996, Stevens was again hopeful. “I’ve got a great car and I think this is my best shot. I’ve won everything I’ve needed to win. I have to win this race or I’ll never rest.”
He finished 40th, the year Larry Gelinas of Scarborough raced through the fog to win.
In a sport where bloodlines are well-defined, Stevens wasn’t the son or father of a popular driver. He was from Kennebunk, which in a way put him in the shadow of Dick McCabe of Kennebunkport. The Outlaw and the man nicknamed the Irish Angel. McCabe was not only a Busch North Series champion, he won the Oxford 250.
When race fans list their top Maine drivers, McCabe’s name is prominent. Stevens’ is not.
“We lost one of the most under-rated drivers the state of Maine ever had,” said Dan Walker, a longtime publicist at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. Stevens raced a Modified at Beech Ridge for car owner Pete Peterson. “Jeff was a hard-nosed racer. I think he could have gone toe-to-toe with any driver on the racetrack. He didn’t have a lot of money. With Jeff it was win or break.
“Jeff always drove orange race cars with a yellow stripe and usually No. 44. Even on opening day it had dents in it.”
Stevens and his volunteer crew knew how to use duct tape for quick fixes on the race car body. They knew how to make do. Twenty and 30 years ago, many race teams faced the same circumstances. Fans noticed and appreciated the tenacity.
He was a strong part of local racing’s backbone, a racer’s racer, a man’s man. A racer who drove aggressively but with a sense of fairness.
“Jeff had a lot of followers,” said Moore. “They’d crawl over glass for him.”
Moore, who later became the old Busch North Series’ winningest driver and will race again this summer, came into the sport when Stevens was in his prime. “It’s not like Jeff was a close friend but he was not a guy to snub anyone. If he saw you, he’d come over to talk.”
Moore, too, admitted to feeling a little empty when he learned that Stevens passed.
Success has many definitions. Jeff Stevens was part of local racing’s backbone. A racer’s racer, a man’s man. I never hesitated shaking his hand.
Maybe I hoped something would rub off on me.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org