Following a six-month recovery period, Steve Park will return to the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet Monte Carlo at the Carolina 400 at Darlington Raceway on March 17th. Park suffered a concussion in a NASCAR Busch Series race accident last September 1st...
Following a six-month recovery period, Steve Park will return to the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet Monte Carlo at the Carolina 400 at Darlington Raceway on March 17th. Park suffered a concussion in a NASCAR Busch Series race accident last September 1st at the very same racetrack. While Park was on the mend, Kenny Wallace was his relief driver.
In six career starts at Darlington, Park has scored three top-10 finishes - including a 2nd place one year ago in March '01.
Park visited with the media just prior to the MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 10th. The following are highlights of Parks comments:
On making his return at Darlington Raceway - the same track where he was injured
"It's going to be great. We went there and tested. I know I got hurt there, but just going back to test I felt good. Everybody wanted to know how I felt going through Turn 2 and it felt great. I have no ill affects from the accident other than my speech. I'll just let my right foot do the talking for me."
Have you talked to a lot of the drivers about coming back?
"Yes. They've all expressed their well wishes. But the main thing is getting back on the racetrack. I tested last week with Jeff Burton and I asked him afterwards if he was comfortable with me racing side-by-side with him and not make him nervous and he said he was. That's all I could ask for. I had the opportunity to go to Charlotte with my teammates and we raced wheel-to-wheel and they didn't get nervous. It feels good for me to do that. To come back to a place like Darlington and qualify good and race good is my number one concern. We're not going there to fill up the field. We're going there to qualify on the pole and win the race. That's why I've waited so long - I wanted to be able to come back and race to win. That's the main thing.
"I've tested so much just to make sure my stamina is where it needs to be. To come back at Darlington is an honor for me. But Bristol is right behind that and that's going to be tough too. All the tracks we go to are tough."
What have your doctors said?
"They have said I'm not prone to re-injuring myself. If I spin and crash, I'll get a concussion just like the next guy will. The main concern was to heal up to the point of not re-injuring myself. That's where we're at right now."
When did the doctors release you?
"Last Thursday (March 7th). We tested on Thursday just to make sure there were no ill affects from going in a circle for 600 laps. And there wasn't. So we got their approval and NASCAR's approval."
Since you can't win the championship mathematically this year, what are your goals?
"We talked about the championship and we didn't want to miss the first four races, but it just worked out that way. Part of it was due to having the well wishes of Pennzoil and DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc. to come back at my own pace. I think that' helps a lot. We just want to come back and win as many races as we can. That's where our focus is right now."
How do your injuries compare to those of Ricky Craven and Ernie Irvan?) "Honestly, they suffered a lot worse injury than I did. The lingering affect that I have is in the speech, unfortunately. I've had no vertigo from the onset of the injury. Ernie and Ricky fought dizziness and vertigo. Fortunately, I haven't experienced that. Even though the speech is lagging a little bit, the doctors have said that will come back. It's just a matter of time. It's not hindering my performance behind the wheel of the Pennzoil Chevrolet."
Did you test the car at Darlington, too?
"We did an all-out test. It wasn't just to test Steve Park. We wanted to see what we needed to do in the car to go to Darlington and qualify for the pole. Once we proved we could do that, we went into race trim and worked on the shocks and springs to get the car to race as good as it could. We're pretty confident going in. It's just the next step in the process to go from testing the car four times to racing it. These guys have four races under their belt that I don't have. The points championship might be out of our reach, but I don't think a win is."
For such an intensive run you'll face at Darlington, are you following a particular workout program?
"We've taken this into consideration. I can run ten miles. Physically, I don't think I'll get worn out behind the wheel. It's just mentally with the focus, the pit stops and the attention. The only way to answer that is by doing it. There's no way to prepare yourself other than what I've been doing. I've been going to the gym everyday."
On his steps in rehab
"I don't think this is the last step, I just think it's the next step. I think after a couple of races and just getting used to being back behind wheel is what it takes. Will it take one race? Will it take four races? Who knows? I feel I'm capable enough to go out there and try to win. That's the main thing. If it doesn't come in the first race, I feel confident enough it will come sometime this year. I'm looking forward to it."
How will it feel to hear the reaction of the race fans at Darlington?) "I've had the support of the team, of Pennzoil, and of the race fans. Between the three, that's what's kept me going to get behind the wheel of that car. But my main focus has to be on racing well and qualifying well. If you have to take away energy, it will be from signing autographs and doing all that because you're focused on what you need to do. And we've got 10 to 15 years that we can support all the sponsors and race fans. But right now, this is a part of our rehabilitation and getting back to racing again."
Does that mean you're going to cut down on personal appearances?
"We don't know. I think we're going to stick to our guns and try to keep it to a minimum. We're just going to focus on racing good. When I feel comfortable enough, we'll go out and make personal appearances. Pennzoil wants me to go out and do what I love to do, which is to go out and win races. If we do any appearances, we'll do them for them."
Have you been following all the support you've been getting on the Internet?
"On my own website, I've been trying to keep things updated because that's the first place they fans) go to look for information. I run it pretty much myself with letters and photographs from what we're doing. I probably use up 24 hours a day on working out and testing and rehabilitation, so I don't have much time for more things. As time goes by, I think I'll have more time."
Did you ever think this day might never come?
"Oh yes. When I first got hurt, my eyesight was off. At that point, I wondered. You can drive these cars with limited eyesight. I went to a lot of doctors. The main thing I was concerned with was my eyesight. They all said it would come back in a matter of time. We waited it out and it got to a point where we thought glasses would help. So I wore glasses for a while. And now, even glasses don't help. So the eyesight is healing itself. It's encouraging to be able to see that. No pun intended. It's just been getting better and better."
Is it 100%?
"It's 95 to 98 percent. It's pretty good. If an eye doctor went to the garage area and tested every driver, I'd probably score in the upper 95 percent. It's only been six months and it just is getting better and better. My glasses don't even help anymore."
Since you were in a bad accident once before, did you ever wake up and just think enough is enough?
"The main thing was the eyesight. Early on, I had double vision down low and then it suddenly cleared up in about a week. I was amazed. My eyesight from the beltline up was perfect. It was just off from the beltline down. And then when it cleared up from the floor to the beltline, the whole thing was then off just a little bit. A month later, even the glasses didn't help. It was easy to get depressed over it because I race cars. To see the steady progression of it getting better and better is what has kept my spirits up."
Which injuries were worse?
"I don't know. I had a concussion and I'd sometimes think maybe it would have been better if I'd broken my arm or my leg. But I have broken my leg and I broke my arm one time and that was pretty painful. Right now, I don't think enough is enough. Getting back behind the wheel of a car is all I want to do. I haven't lost that competitive edge. It's hard to describe how it feels when you win a race. You are the best for one day. That's what I live for."
Do the new safety rules make you feel safer?
"Unfortunately, I got hurt in a Busch car and I didn't have those safety things available to me. But in the Pennzoil Chevrolet, I have everything. It's hard to look back and second-guess yourself. It's probably why I put my Busch racing on hold. Unfortunately I got hurt in that car and it took away from the Pennzoil car. It's a tough way to learn your lesson. But from here on out, we're going to concentrate on the Pennzoil car."
On relief-driver, Kenny Wallace
"Depending on how I run and how I feel when I come back - if I don't feel good, we have something to fall back on. At least we have a good competent driver that can fill in for us. Kenny is a good friend of me and it's great to know. Pennzoil has been great as a sponsor because they've given us the time to heal up. You couldn't ask for more than to be able to take your time until you're ready to come back. I don't sound like it. Unfortunately, the side effect is the speech. I can feel it getting better. I know it's getting better. The problem is that I'm from New York and my mind goes 400 miles per hour and I want to talk as fast as I'm thinking and I can't do that right now."
Who has motivated you the most throughout this tough time?
"My teammates. They've been very supportive; and the good Lord. You can't take a shot or a pill or anything to make it better so it comes down to you and the big guy. I've said a lot of prayers. I feel they're answered. I pray every night that I heal. Now I'm praying that the speech comes back to where it was."
Are you doing anything to your car to lessen the side impact or to make the side of the car stronger?
"No, we just have a good seat and good headrests. We didn't have all those seat devices in the Busch car. I think if I would have been in the Pennzoil car, it probably would have been a lot less of an injury than I suffered."
Would you put side airbags in your car if NASCAR okay's them?
"I don't know. If they approve it, we'll do studies on it and see if it's worthwhile. Right now, we're looking to save weight and we've added the seat and the headrest. Every time we add something, it's more weight. But if they make it mandatory, then everybody's got to add the weight. The main thing is to keep the cars as light as possible. We want to race to win, but we want to do it in a safe way."
What happened with your steering wheel not locking in?
"Fortunately, I remember right up until the accident. And fortunately, I don't remember much of the wreck. My ritual is to tug on the wheel and pull the belts tight right before we go green. I've had the steering wheel pop off in the Busch garage before if it's not put on just right. It was a freak accident. A caution flag and the steering wheel popping off should have just been a skid to the inside. But it ended up being a t-bone. But it's nobody's fault but mine because I knew the steering wheel had a chance of popping off and plus there wasn't a safety device in the car that we see today."
Do steering wheels normally pop off?
"It doesn't in the Pennzoil car. When it goes on, it's locked. In the Busch car, when the steering wheel was on and locked, you could still pull it off if you wanted to. It wasn't adjusted right. Fortunately, we don't have to deal with that in the Pennzoil Chevrolet. It's on for good.
"When you're going 45 mph and the wheel comes off, it's better than going 180 mph and having the wheel come of. It really should have been a simple veer. But it turned into what it turned into because Larry Foyt was a lapped car. He was doing what he was supposed to do. I blame myself more. I went in front of him. He didn't come up and hit me. He was doing what he needed to do. It was a freak deal. You can't go back and rewind it. You have to suffer the consequences and look forward."
Do you ever get frustrated?
"It's frustrating because I can't talk as fast as I think. I've been to speech therapy. I think I sound like a robot. They videotape me and just tell me to slow down. But the worst part is that people judge the way you think by the way you talk. They say it'll come back. It's getting better."