Michael Stefanik, one of the most celebrated drivers in NASCAR history, died Sunday from injuries he sustained in a plane crash in Connecticut.

The 61-year-old stock car champion reportedly took off from Riconn Airport on the Connecticut border Sunday afternoon in a single-engine, single-seat Aerolite 103 aircraft.

Witness Allen Sayles, who lives behind the airport, told Providence, Rhode Island’s WJAR NBC 10 News that he often saw Mr. Stefanik flying the plane in the area.

“We heard the plane coming, which we see all the time, then all of a sudden he just missed the treetops and my wife said, ‘That plane is going to crash.’” He said that they then saw “big powerful smoke” coming from below the tree line, followed by an explosion.

Mr. Sayles called 911 and relatives ran to the area of the crash. He told NBC 10 News that Mr. Stefanik was outside the aircraft about 15 feet away “walking and … talking.” While Mr. Stefanik initially survived the crash, it was apparent he was seriously injured. He was rushed to a hospital where he later died, presumably of severe internal injuries and burns.

“Mike Stefanik was one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, but even more so, he was a true representative of our sport,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said in a statement. “His tough, competitive nature and excellence on the race track won him the respect and admiration of fans and competitors alike. His career stretched more than 30 years, bridging the generations between Jerry Cook and Richie Evans to our current drivers. He recorded achievements in this sport that are likely untouchable, and his legacy as a champion will endure.”

Mr. Stefanik, 61, a Rhode Island resident, was a nine-time NASCAR champion and six-time nominee to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. After his seventh championship in 2003, Mr. Stefanik was named the second-greatest NASCAR Modified driver of all time. He was tied with Richie Evans for the most championships in NASCAR history.

Another NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tweeted his sympathies on Monday.

Mr. Earnhardt Jr., his family, two pilots, and a dog survived an airplane crash in Tennessee last month with minor injuries.

The Earnhardt family was flying in a twin-engine Textron Aviation Inc. 680A airplane, also known as a Citation Latitude, when it “bounced twice” upon landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport August 15, the National Transportation Safety Board reported. The aircraft then continued airborne down the runway until it touched down a third time with about little paved surface remaining. The airplane’s landing gear collapsed on the third landing, causing the airplane’s wing to clip the runway. The airplane then crashed through a grassy area and a fence before landing in an embankment where it caught fire.

Mr. Stefanik’s plane crash remains under investigation.

Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the family of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.

Additional sources:
People
CNN

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