Steve Park Faces Demons At Las Vega, Atlanta

Park faces demons at Vegas, Atlanta MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 24, 1999) This time last year No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet driver Steve Park sat atop the world. The 31-year-old East Northport, N.Y. native still basked in three NASCAR Busch Series ...

Park faces demons at Vegas, Atlanta

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 24, 1999) This time last year No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet driver Steve Park sat atop the world. The 31-year-old East Northport, N.Y. native still basked in three NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division victories from 1997 and had just turned in impressive outings at Daytona International Speedway and North Carolina Speedway in his new NASCAR Winston Cup Series ride.

Park and his Dale Earnhardt Inc., team appeared to be one of the favorites to claim the circuit's Raybestos Rookie of the Year award. But his trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and then Atlanta Motor Speedway began a two-week stretch that presented Park with as great of mental and physical challenges as he has ever encountered in his professional life. Park failed to qualify at Las Vegas and then saw his season shattered at Atlanta when a crash in practice broke is right femur, left collarbone and right shoulder blade. As he sat on the sidelines for 15 weeks, the young driver learned the lessons adversity teaches.

"Racing is a high speed sport, but sometimes the fastest thing about racing isn't the cars," Park said. "It's how fast you can go from the top of the world to the bottom."

For Park, that quick turn of fortune began in Las Vegas. He came into town on a roll, but rolled craps in Bud Pole Qualifying.

"We were sky high coming to Vegas," Park said. "It was the first race there and everyone wanted to be part of the glitz and glamour of the place as well as make history. We were a new team building its own engines and running a rookie driver. We knew there would be a learning curve and it seems like we drove off that curve at Vegas.

"We never were dialed in and just weren't fast enough to make the race. That hurt. It hurt so bad I wanted to just go home. I can't remember the last time I'd ever missed a race. You come off a year when you are third in the Busch Series points and everyone is talking about you as a favorite to win the rookie award then all of a sudden you are packing up the Pennzoil truck and going home. I remember walking out of Las Vegas that Saturday telling someone it gets no worse than this."

They were wrong. It got plenty worse for Park when he practiced at Atlanta the following week.

"We were very fast in practice on Friday morning at Atlanta and this was going to be the day that we forgot about Las Vegas," he said. "We sure forgot about Las Vegas. When I hit the wall I wanted to get out of the Pennzoil car and see what was wrong but I couldn't move. I looked down and saw my leg and knew I wouldn't be jumping out of the Pennzoil car or any car for a while. Something broke in the right front of the car and it sent me into the outside wall then I started bouncing everywhere and ended up going through the infield and hitting pit wall head on.

"The season sure changed that morning. That was tough. Missing 15 races was the toughest thing I have ever done. While the guys were at tracks racing I was home on the couch. The rehabilitation and all the hard work in the gym wasn't half as painful as not feeling like I was part of racing. The guys did a good job of coming to visit and calling me, but I guess if you are a racer and you can't put on that uniform then you are always going to feel left out."

Park learned to put a positive spin on his accident, and the aftermath as well.

"I learned to not take what I have now for granted and how fleeting this whole thing can be," Park said. "I mean that as far as career wise, health wise and life wise. It may sound crazy but that wreck did more for my desire than anything could have. You think you are thankful about what you have, but you don't realize just how thankful you should be until someone or some thing takes it away from you. I realized sitting there that driving a race car is what I want to do. In fact it's all I want to do. I won't let anything stop me from doing it. Except for family and religion there is nothing more important to me."

Nonetheless, it is still very important to Park that he do well at Las Vegas and, to a lesser extent, Atlanta in the upcoming weeks, if for no other reason than to erase the bad memories of a year ago.

"To say we are motivated for Las Vegas is an understatement," he said. "Frankly, we were embarrassed last year and plan to show everyone that we are a lot better than how we looked in 1998. Our motors are better, our cars are better, and to be honest the driver is better. I have experience now and we are just better prepared. I don't think any NASCAR driver has ever won at a track where he had to go home the year before. That would be a neat thing to put on the resume. We won't miss Las Vegas this year. That's a guarantee."

"We went back to Atlanta in November and pretty much got rid of any demons that were still there after the wreck. We ran pretty well finishing 17th. You don't totally forget that this is a track where you got hurt, but once you are in the race car you don't have a lot of time to dwell on that type of stuff. When you have Earnhardt or Gordon out there trying to pass you or you are trying to keep them behind you then all of your thoughts are on that track. I think it might be like wrecking at an intersection. Every time you drive by it you might remember it but it doesn't dominate your thinking and pretty soon its almost forgotten."

Park wants to create better memories in 1999. So far they have been fairly forgettable, however.

"We have had moments this season that were pretty good," he said. "At the Bud Shootout (Qualifier) in Daytona we finished third and thought we might have had something for Mike Skinner, who won the race. During the Daytona 500 we did OK but got caught up in the big wreck. There wasn't much we could do about that.

"At Rockingham we passed 25 cars in the first 100 laps then got caught pitting when the yellow came out. That was just bad luck. We want to have better results and I think you will see better results pretty soon. This is a tough deal. The competition is so strong that you almost have to be perfect to win. We need to be good all day instead of just in segments. That's the key for us and it's probably the key for everyone else also."

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Steve Park , Mike Skinner