It all started with a mystery Christmas gift. Then 15 years old, James Steffenhagen, Jr. was a bit perplexed when he unwrapped a small package that contained a toggle switch. But when he realized that the switch was for a car’s ignition system, it all made sense.
“It confused me at first,” said Steffenhagen, the newest Team E3 Racing Tier 1 winner. “But then Dad explained that it was my turn to get into the car and see what I could do.”
Steffenhagen had been enamored with the racing world since he was 10 years old. His Uncle Ed Steffenhagen ran NASCAR modifieds at tracks throughout New York and Pennsylvania and his father worked crew. Eventually, both of James’ parents would race as well, his father driving a street stock numbered 31. So, it’s no wonder that the youngest Steffenhagen would anxiously await his turn behind the wheel of a racecar.
“The car we had was older, obtained cheap after a big wreck, and put back together, complete with home built motor,” Steffenhagen says of his first racing ride. His first time competing proved he had some potential – “which means, I didn’t get lapped,” he says. But victory would prove elusive early on.
“I had dreams of winning, holding the flag in victory lane, but it didn’t happen that way,” he recalls. “After a few good wrecks, and some bad finishes, I started to think maybe it was me, maybe I just didn’t have what it takes. I immediately dismissed this however, because to me, I was driving that thing as hard as it would go.”
Steffenhagen refused to give up. He continued racing and gleaning pointers from fellow competitors and racing vets. Some advice he put into practice – other tips, he tossed. Still, cracking the top 10 in race finishes and series points proved tougher than he had expected.
“Someone said, ‘It’s just bad luck,’” he recalls. “I couldn’t accept that. In my head the same four or five guys were winning every week, and no one’s luck is that good.”
To debunk the luck theory, Steffenhagen began pouring himself into researching what makes a winning racecar. He found a book that explained “just about everything there was to know, from Ride Height, to cross weights and so on,” he says. Once he put his newfound knowledge – and a little superstition – to work, things changed quickly. He finally – and consistently – began finishing in the top 10 of nearly every race.
“I couldn’t help but remember that line though, ‘It’s just bad luck’. So to challenge, that I changed the number from 31, to 13. First one win, then six, then seven straight feature wins. Needless to say, my lucky number is 13.”
Steffenhagen has been a regular on the winner’s podium for both race wins and series championships ever since.
He’s currently on the Big 10 Super Stock Series Roster and plans to make his 2013 season debut May 17 at Spencer Speedway in Williamson, NY. He’s part of the JamesGang racing team along with fellow Team E3 Racing winner Darryl Barrett. Long term, he’s got his sights set on NASCAR. But as much as he loves winning, he loves interacting with fans, too – especially kids. He’s been known to take young fans for a spin through a track or event venue parking lot in his racecar.
“I hate it when guys velvet rope or have ‘do not touch’ signs,” he says. “In my mind, if a kid can break something on your car, it’s probably junk to begin with.”
Steffenhagen credits his family with being a solid support team. This includes his beautiful wife and toddler son, Uncle John, siblings numerous cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces and friends.
“My Dad does almost everything on the cars himself,” Steffenhagen says. “He is a retired mechanic and, as much as he won’t admit it, loves doing it. He paints the letters on the tires orange every week.”
But he has a special place in his racing for his late mother, also a racer.
“My No. 1 fan rides with me now as I lost my mom to cancer a couple of years ago,” he says. “I’ll never forget the time I won, and she took the mic from the announcer and told a story about me in a plastic pedal car, saying that it was in my blood to win. That’s my favorite racing memory of all time. I couldn’t tell you anything else about that night.”
We expect there will be many more memories over the course of a very successful racing career. From all of us at E3 Spark Plugs, welcome to the team, James!