Texas Motor Speedway This week's Breakfast Club featured Steve Park, driver of the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet Monte Carlo. How do you feel about being talked about as a championship contender this season? "Well, this is the first time I've...
Texas Motor Speedway
This week's Breakfast Club featured Steve Park, driver of the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
How do you feel about being talked about as a championship contender this season?
"Well, this is the first time I've heard that. I think it's pretty cool, but it's still early in the year to be talking about championships. I think the Pennzoil team has a consistency to run in the top ten on a week-to-week basis and I think that's one of the first signs of a championship team. Like I said, it's still early in the year and I think we're just going to get better and better as the year goes on. Goodyear's given us a great tire this year to work with but it's going to take us all a little bit of time to get adjusted to that. As the year goes on, there's going to be other teams that are going to get better. And the more time we can spend with them, we're just going to get better and better. We'll just keep doing what we set out to do at the beginning of the year and that's to put together as many top ten finishes as we can and then look at where we're at towards the end of the year and then start thinking about championships."
Why is Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) running so good this year?
"We started three years ago developing a Winston Cup team which would be an organization capable of winning championships. We struggled in the beginning because we had built our own cars and motors and had done everything pretty much in-house. It's coming to fruition now to the point where the motors are good, the cars are good, the guys have been together a good amount of time, and it's just rolled into an organization that is capable of running up front on a weekly basis."
Since you've already won at some of the tougher tracks like Watkins Glen and Rockingham and almost at Darlington, do you have it licked?
"I don't think so. If you want a story to write about, we struggle at Martinsville. We tested there last week and that's going to be one of the tracks that we're putting some of our main focus on. We haven't run there like we'd like to. We went there and tested and I think we're a little bit better, but I still don't think we are where we need to be. A lot of these places like the road courses we've won on is a huge accomplishment for a team because that's one of the toughest tracks to run on. And then we won at Rockingham, which is tough. I just think that some of the short tracks like Richmond, which we've run good at, but Martinsville where we've struggled at are going to be the ones that we're taking a good hard look at to try to get better. If we can go to Martinsville and get a top ten finish, we'll be in good shape."
Can you comment on the track condition and do you expect nose-to-tail racing tomorrow?
"They've really done a great job of smoothing the race track out. They've taken some of the dips out of it, but it still has a lot of smaller bumps to it. I know what they're trying to do. They're trying to get the track so that they can run stock cars and Indy cars and that's a difficult task. I think they've answered the call and gotten the race track to the point where we can race and go fast on it and Indy cars can compete on it. As for nose-to-tail racing, just because there haven't been any incidents, I think that's just due to the guys having good racecars and Goodyear bringing a really good tire here. I think you're going to see one of the best races you've seen at Texas Motor Speedway. Goodyear bought a harder tire here. It's going to be the team that has the best spring & shock combination and the best pit stops that wins the race. The cars are going to be spread out pretty good. I think you're going to see a couple different groups of cars going different speeds. As for an outside groove, I think everyone wishes we could race here like we do in Atlanta with two grooves, one on the inside and one on the out. But I still feel that getting around on the bottom of the speedway is going to be the fastest."
The way the season has gone with all the different winners, can you imagine what the season would be like if it weren't for the Dale Earnhardt tragedy?
"It's just been an incredible season. In light of the tragedy, it would probably be one of the most memorable seasons in NASCAR with the young guys winning and the rookies winning and everything else. It's a shame that it was marred at the beginning of the year. We're all doing what we're supposed to be doing. We're all supposed to be racing these racecars. As for Dale, I think he'd be mad at us if he knew we were making such a fuss over it. It's one of those deals where Dales' gone but he'll never be forgotten. In the wake of the tragedy, everyone's just going to have to try to recover and heal to the best of their ability. I know at Dale Earnhardt Inc. we're going full throttle to try to win one of these championships and to try to win races on a week-to-week basis. We all sat and talked about what we need to do and we're just doing what Dale would want us to do and that's run hard, race hard, and try to win. That's all we can think about in order to go on."
Have you seen changes in the way Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks at things?
"I've seen incredible changes in Dale. He went from being a young man to being a grown man in one weekend. He's just done a tremendous job in stepping up and going from wanting to sit home and listen to CD's to helping run a multi-million dollar company and helping Teresa (Earnhardt) out and the rest of the race team. It's been incredible to see that that such a young man can step up and take a role like he has and keep a vision of what Dale and Teresa Earnhardt started three or four years ago and see it through to a championship. He's really been an impressive through all these tough times."
Can you talk about what Michael Waltrip has brought to the team, and has he helped you deal with the media?
"I don't know if he's helped me deal with the media, but he's put a smile on our faces once or twice. Me and Michael are pretty good friends and we get the opportunity to talk quite often. It's jut been a tough time for all of us and we're just doing the best we can. I know Michael's in the best position, he feels, in racing since he started his career. He's really happy. He's a happy person. He's a guy that's really brought a lot of enlightenment to a team that's been through so much since the beginning of the year. He was a close friend of Dale's just like the rest of us. We're all just trying to stick together - me and Michael and Dale Jr. - and not only get through the tough times, but enjoy some of the good times that we've had. We told Michael that even though his Daytona 500 victory was tainted, that probably in another couple of months we'll throw a big party for him because he never had one. And that was a shame. He won not only one of the biggest races in NASCAR, but one of the biggest races in his career. It just doesn't seem fair. We were all talking the other night and said that we needed to throw a Daytona 500 party. And that's what we're going to do. Like I said, we're just all doing what we feel Dale would want us to do and that's the only way we can go on from all this."
What would it be like for DEI if Dale Jr. won tomorrow?
"How about one-two-three? Dale Jr's got a great shot at it. If you look at the record, he won the race last year. Obviously he's brought back the same set-up and the same car and he feels real comfortable with. The only thing he has to contend with is that No. 1 car (Park) and that No. 15 car (Waltrip). We feel we have a pretty good racecar and Michael feels they have a pretty good racecar. We came here and tested tires with Goodyear and Goodyear brought a good tire. We feel that all three cars are going to have a good set-up for the race. It wouldn't surprise me if all three of us were fighting for the win, but as for Dale Jr. to get his first win of the season to complete the three-peat for Dale Earnhardt Inc. would be pretty neat, but he still has to contend with the rest of us."
With the success of the three teams this season, is there a renewed competition among you?
"I don't feel competition among the three at the shop. I feel it more at the racetrack once we get here. Usually at the shop there's a lot of things that are shared. It's what makes a three-car team stronger is if you share the information when each one goes testing. Yesterday, we were all competing for the pole. I wanted to get the pole but Dale Jr. got it. That's not a bad consolation when you belong to one organization. One car's first, one's fifth and one's seventh. It just shows that we did a good job coming here testing and sharing information and making all the teams capable of running for that pole. It gets very competitive among each driver on Sunday."
How much do you think tire testing here will help you in learning what this track and that tire want out of each other?
"When we tire tested here, it wasn't what tire and what the track wanted out of the tire as much as it was can we make the cars go a little slower with a harder compound. That's what we've seen all year long. A lot of guys are really struggling with the new tire because it's so hard. But we feel that having the opportunity to test out here with the harder compound enabled us to know what we were going to be up against when we came back. I think Goodyear's done a fantastic job. You'll hear guys complaining about the tires being too hard, but that's only because they're competitive and they want a softer tire that they can haul butt with. I think we've seen some of the best racing all year long with the Goodyear-mandated tires for each of the different racetracks. I think we're going to see a really good race here on Sunday. We're going to see a real competitive race with a lot of passing. It's going to come down to the people that have the best pit stops and that have prepared the best cars that'll be out in front."
Has Dale Jr. been at the shop more than he has in the past?
"He's really stepped up to a very mature role at DEI and that's something we all find very honorable. He's still a young man, but in the wake of the tragedy that's one thing to grieve over the loss of your father and also make everybody in the organization feel comfortable that we're going to be able to go on and still contend for wins and championships."
Is he making enough time for himself?
"That's a tough question. I'm hoping he has. We're pretty close. What is enough time? Is it six months or is it five years? I think that's up to each individual person who goes through a tragedy like that. What is enough time and how do you deal with the grief? Do you immense in work and try to let it go by, or do you spend a couple months grieving and then go back to work? It's a question that he should answer. He's done a fantastic job to give everybody peace of mind."
Can you comment on the boycott discussion heading into Talladega?
"Yeah, I think it's ridiculous. We're all racecar drivers and we've all been doing this for a long time. Safety's always a concern of the drivers. I've been racing at Daytona and Talladega for four years; and these guys have been racing there 10-15 years. I think safety was more of a concern 10 years ago than it is right now. I think it's just ridiculous that there would be any kind of a walkout or a boycott. To be honest, I think drivers mistakenly say something for effect and then the media takes it and runs with it because it makes a great story and that's what we're seeing now. I don't think you're going to see anything different in Talladega."
Do you think there should be a rules change for Talladega?
"Yeah, but what are we going to do? What do you recommend for a rule change? Nobody knows. We've been racing there without restrictor plates in the '70's and we've been racing there with restrictor plates now. Do we take them off and go 225 (mph)? Do we put smaller ones on and keep all the cars close together? Do we make the rules like they were five years ago when the cars all ran together? Do we make them like they were two years ago? There's going to be multi-car packs and multi-car wrecks at any superspeedway we go to. That's just the way it is. Nobody knows what the answer is. NASCAR takes the brunt of it and takes it on their shoulders because somebody wants somebody to do something. Nobody's standing up and recommending what to do."
Would you support a reduction in horsepower?
"For what? We've only got 400 horsepower there to start with. We run 780 everywhere else. So what's a reduction in horsepower going to do? Just make the cars run slower? We'll run in 150mph groups with less horsepower and still have 150mph 20-car pile-ups. We'll run at 180mph in small groups or big groups, and have 180mph crack-ups. I don't see a difference in hitting the wall at 150mph or 180 mph. If somebody did some research and knew that the human body could survive a 150mph crash instead of a 160mph crash, then yeah. Slow the cars down. What is the answer? If somebody knows, I wish they'd step up and take a firm standing. But nobody takes a firm stand in what we should be doing. Until somebody steps up and tells us what's safe and what's not safe, we're just going to continue to go out and do what we do. We know this sport has a risk to it. Unfortunately we've lost lives at Daytona, one of the biggest tracks we go to. But we've also lost lives at one of the smaller tracks we go to at New Hampshire. What's the answer? We only go 130-140mph at New Hampshire and you can lose your life. We've thought about it, and the only thing that I can think of is that every driver needs to do what they feel is right to protect themselves inside that racecar and it's their responsibility to do that -- as long as they're not restricted from trying different things and different safety devices, which we're not right now. If you feel it's dangerous and you're that concerned about it, there's other things you can do like baseball or football."
Regarding the HANS device, has your family come to you and asked you to use it?
"Actually, I've had more race fans come to me and express their concerns about my wearing one. I'm taking a good hard look at it. I haven't used the device, but I am using it this weekend for the first time. I've worked with Jeff Gordon and some other drivers, and I think Jeff Gordon has probably done something inside his racecar that I'd feel the most comfortable with after looking at what some of the other drivers have. With his help, I've emulated what he has in his car for head restraints, and worked with the HANS people to come up with a device that fits me. Me and Michael have oddball problems because we're so tall and so big. It makes it hard for us because it makes the inside of our cars that much smaller to use any kind of devices. The last couple of weeks we've worked hard on the head restraining system and the seat and get the HANS fitted for the car. I used one yesterday in qualifying. I'm going to be using one this weekend. How far it goes from there is just a matter of how comfortable I get with it right now, this weekend."
Do you find that the drivers are more receptive to other drivers snooping around their cars when it comes to safety?
"Yeah, it's been amazing. Before, you couldn't walk up to another driver's car without a crewmember saying, 'Hey man, what are you looking at?' But now, you'll see drivers poking their heads in each other's cars. It's not the concern of what are you hiding for speed and handling as much as it is working together to try to share what we've all learned. I would never have gone over to Jeff Gordon's car in the past and poked my head in without getting yelled at. In Atlanta, Jeff invited me over there to take a look at what he was using. Each driver is different. For me, after looking at what Jeff Burton had with his seat and his head restraints, I felt I'd be more comfortable with what Jeff Gordon had. Jeff (Gordon) had spent plenty of time with me and let one of our engineers look at it and give us a good idea of how we were going to go forward with a restraint system for my car."
After Dale Earnhardt's accident, did you think you could be doing more as far as safety goes?
"Dale wasn't a big advocate for safety and restrictor plates. He was just a racer. He was just a guy who started racing in the '70's. You put your helmet on and your seat belts and you go racing. It didn't matter where you were. We've also seen him walk away from terrible wrecks in Talladega without a hitch. He was a big advocate of the open-face helmet. He felt it kept him safe. I remember I used to run a sternum belt. He told me it was going to hurt me, so I stopped wearing it. It just depends on how far you want to take the safety issue and what you feel is going to work for you at any given time.
"I also want to thank Chevrolet, because Chevrolet bought my HANS device. They want to step up and make sure all their drivers are using as much safety equipment as they can to make them as safe as possible."
-Team Monte Carlo