Park Ready To Get Rolling; Veteran enjoying his role in East Series Steve Park's long and successful racing career has taken him all over the map -- from his days running the short tracks of the northeast to racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup...
Park Ready To Get Rolling; Veteran enjoying his role in East Series
Steve Park's long and successful racing career has taken him all over the map -- from his days running the short tracks of the northeast to racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for Dale Earnhardt Sr.
The winding road has had its up and downs, and it has taken him back to the beginning, as he prepares to enter his second season of his second go-around in the NASCAR Camping World Series East. When he first came through the series back in 1996, it was known as the NASCAR Busch North Series and primarily based in the New England and New York. Park took on the likes of Dave Dion, Kelly Moore, and the late Stub Fadden -- guys who have made their careers on the bullrings around the region.
Fast forward more than a decade later. The series has evolved, stretching from its New England roots down the Atlantic Coast to South Carolina -- where the 2009 season will kick off with Saturday's season opener at the historic Greenville Pickens Speedway. The faces behind the wheel have changed to, as a fresh crop of development drivers look to replace the likes of Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon as stars-of-tomorrow who made their mark in the series and are now looking to establish themselves in one of NASCAR's three national series.
"Ricky Craven and I were talking about that," said Park of his fellow former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran. "We never had the opportunity like this. If we wanted to get the attention of a Cup owner, we had to run 100 short-track races or five races in one weekend just for the chance that somebody might notice you. Now there's a great division that gives these young guys a showcase to show their talent."
The 42-year-old Long Island native will return to the track with the same No. 35 Waste Management Recycling America Chevrolet team he raced with last year. The relatively new team, owned by Robert Torriere and with crew chief Sam Caron, had its ups-and-downs last season. Park finished ninth in points, with three top fives and eight top 10s in 13 starts. The highlight of the season came in September at New Hampshire, where Park qualified second and finished second.
"We're pretty excited about this year," Park said, "having had a year to grow on things."
As important as the success, Park had fun.
"It's enjoyable," Park said. "With all the new talent in the series, I made a lot of new friends, and got to meet a lot of people that enjoy the series. It's refreshing to see a lot of talent coming up through here."
Park takes time to reflect on a story-book career. He twice finished as runner-up on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. It was New Hampshire in 1996 where he caught his big break. When weather during the season kept causing the two touring series events (NASCAR Camping World Series East and NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour) at New Hampshire to be postponed, the final solution was to run a unique double, doubleheader on the September weekend.
Park finished second in the NASCAR Camping World Series East race on Sept. 7 and won the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event. The next day, accidents in the second half of both events left him 36th in the East race and 22nd in the Modified race. Not done there, Park also ran the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on that second day and finished fourth.
His dedication and performance caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt, helping him embark on a career in the national series ranks that included winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year. He is one of just 19 drivers to win a race in all three national series. A serious wreck at Darlington Speedway in 2001 sidetracked his rise in the sport, but didn't diminish his drive to compete.
As he watches the next crop of drivers try to make a name for themselves, he knows full well what the next five, 10 and 20 years have in store for them. Even if they don't quite see the big picture for themselves.
"I don't think they do realize," Park said. "When I was that age, I felt like I was the best of the best and I was ready to go up against anybody. You need that. In order to be successful, you need to feel like you're the best and you're willing to take on all challenges. Because this sport has been fantastic, and it's been fantastic to see grow. And hopefully they know what they have ahead of them and that they prepare themselves for that.
"This is a performance-based sport. And with the economy being the way it is, if you get the opportunity, you better make the best of it, because the opportunity may not come again.
It was definitely some pride and fellowship for Park when he watched fellow veteran Matt Kobyluck, 38, turn back the challenges of the development drivers and take home the NASCAR Camping World Series East championship last year. And Park, whose last series win came at the now-closed Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania in 1996, would love to take his team back to Victory Lane and, as he joked, to "win one for the old guys."
As Park's career comes full circle, he realizes that to the teenagers racing now against guys like him and Kobyluck, he has become the same veteran presence he used to measure himself against.
"I used to love it; I used to thrive on it," Park said. "If I was going to learn from somebody, I wanted to learn from the best. If I wasn't going to beat them in the Nationwide Series, how was I going to beat them in the Cup Series, where I wanted to go?"
On Saturday at Greenville Pickens, Park will again strap into the car and get ready for another racing season. It's been an eventful offseason. In December, he married his longtime girlfriend, Jessica.
"Married life is good," Park said. "I'm really happy about it. I'm excited about having a partner that's going to continue to support me like she has for the last 10 years. I'm ready to go. The wedding's over, the honeymoon is over, now it's time to go racing again."