When I look at Jayski.com and see the title ‘Sad News’, I always read the story. It doesn’t matter if I don’t recognize the name: I figure we owe it to the people who had an impact on this sport to recognize their contributions. This is the first time I’ve seen that headline and had the slow, sinking realization that this was someone I had met.
Steve Peterson, the Technical Director of the NASCAR R and D Center, passed away today at the age of 58. Steve was one of the people I spoke with when I was just starting to research my book. I visited the R and D Center in Charlotte and he patiently answered my (what must have seemed to him inane) newbie questions. Frankly, Steve was a little intimidating. He tended toward gruffness and answered questions like, “What makes an ‘exotic metal'”? with “If you have to ask, it’s exotic”. He reminded me a little of an assistant principal I visited way too much when I was in junior high school.
Steve knew cars, but he didn’t feel compelled to show off how much he knew. His humility was evident a few months later when he received the 2006 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Motorsports Achievement Award at the SAE Motorsports Conference in Detroit. This award is one of the highest recognitions from one’s peers and salutes a person’s long-term contributions to the sport. (SAE is the professional society for automotive engineers.) I watched Steve shift uncomfortably on the stage as they read the citation, which praised his dedication to improving the safety of stock car racing. Much of the early work in NASCAR safety was done in his and Gary Nelson’s garages and I’m sure he was much more comfortable there than he was on stage. The rousing applause he received at the end of the citation is evidence of the respect his peers had for him.
The picture of Steve most vivid in my memory is him sitting cross-legged on top of a pile of containers at the old airfield in Lincoln, Nebraska during a test of the IMPAXX foam in the then Car of Tomorrow in January 2007. The rest of us were huddled around, joking and trying to stay warm. Steve was single-minded, sitting up where he had the perfect view of the impending collision, seemingly oblivious to the 30 mph winds and 20F temperature. Once the collision was completed, watching him move in to survey the crash scene was like watching an old-time detective movie.
My favorite story about Steve, however, is a story Kevin York sent me. Kevin and his son Evan were headed out to a go-kart race and one of them had my book. The driver of the vehicle in which they were riding looked over and said, “You know, I think I’m in that book.” It was Steve Peterson, who still spent time running go-karts and mentoring would-be NASCAR drivers and engineers. I talked to many, many people during the course of researching the book and everyone I spoke with cited Steve’s dedication and drive as a major factor in the improvement of NASCAR safety.
Steve was a major contributor to many of NASCAR’s safety initiatives, from the Car of Tomorrow to compiling a database of information about accidents or near-accidents so that this data could be used to make racing safer. Steve was a graduate of Western Michigan University who was a crew chief for Mark Martin in 1982, as well as a race engineer prior to joining the R and D Center. He was my perfect answer to anyone who threw out the line “NASCAR doesn’t care about safety.”: If you think “NASCAR” doesn’t care about safety, you’ve never met Steve Peterson.
I’m headed to Charlotte tomorrow and I was hoping to convince Steve to allow us to profile him in our science and engineering “hero cards” that recognize the role math, science and engineering play in motorsports. This unfortunate news reminds me that you never know what the future holds–for you or anyone else. I saw Steve at Daytona two weeks ago and didn’t stop him to thank him again for all his help with the book because he looked busy. My condolences and best wishes are with Steve’s family and friends. There are a lot of people in motorsports who owe their well being, if not their lives, to Steve Peterson. His contributions will be very much missed by the motorsports community in general and by NASCAR in particular.
I’m going downstairs to hug my husband and my four-legged kids now. Say a prayer for Steve today and every time a driver walks away unharmed from a close encounter with a wall.