After career full of setbacks, Steve Park returns to Victory Lane
It may have been a lower series than the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series he has won at in the past … But after the long, tough road he has traveled, this win had to be special.
While his name may not mean much to newer NASCAR fans, Park’s story is a rarity in the sport we love.
He suffered a major head injury, and came back to be a successful racer again. Other than Ricky Craven and Ernie Irvan, who came back from their injuries to win Cup races, I can think of anyone who has done it. Jerry Nadeau and many others have been sidelined by their injuries and unable to return to racing glory.
For those who don’t know Park’s story, it’s one worth retelling.
A New Yorker who drove modifieds as a youth, he caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Sr. after taking the pole in a Truck race at Watkins Glen, while subbing for Joe Nemechek. Park has told the story many times of how he ignored Earnhardt’s first phone message for him, thinking his friends were pulling a prank. Thankfully, he caught on that it was really after Dale called back.
Seeing talent in Park, Dale Sr. mentored him and put him into the #3 car in the Busch Series, where Park would go on to win 3 races in 1997 and be named Rookie of the Year. He was a rising star and, wasting no time, Park was moved up to Cup by DEI in 1998. He was DEI’s first driver in the Cup series.
Almost immediately, he saw his first bit of adversity, breaking bones and being sidelined after a brutal wreck at Atlanta his rookie year. He came back though, and began his learning curve in Cup, peaking in 2000 with his first career win at Watkins Glen (DEI’s first-ever Cup win), along with five other top-5 finishes.
2001 was a terrible year on many fronts for Park. First, he lost his mentor when Dale Sr. died at Daytona that year, though he got the chance to express his thanks in a tearful Victory Lane when he took the checkered flag at Rockingham the very next race in a DEI car.
Then, the freak moment came that changed Park’s career. Under caution, he was adjusting his steering wheel and veered to the left, just as a speeding Larry Foyt was coming up the inside to take his position for the restart. He crashed into the driver’s side of Park’s car, and Park suffered a concussion and bruised his brain, then missed the rest of that season and part of 2002.
Upon his return, it was Park was not his old, sharp, competitive self. He was involved in an increased number of wrecks, and there were noticeable speech effects from the accident. By the end of 2003, he was done in Cup due to lackluster results. He bounced around Truck and Nationwide for the next few years, winning a Truck race along the way.
But by 2006, he was pretty much off the radar. Though he claimed to be fully recovered from his brain injuries, he was still damaged goods in the eyes of many team owners, who were still looking for the next hot young driver, not an old guy with war wounds like Park.
The Camping World East series is where Park decided to try and prove his doubters wrong, and build his way back to being a player in the racing world. He has run strongly in that series in 2008 and 2009, and has made a statement with this weekend’s win – Steve Park ain’t dead yet.
What would have happened to Park if he hadn’t had the freak accident at Darlington? We’ll never know. He was definitely a young talent on the rise, but we can never really know how bright his star would have signed if things had gone differently.
What I do know is that Steve Park is still a talented racecar driver. And he is determined now, more than ever, to prove to people that he still has the racing chops to compete in the top three NASCAR series, even after all these years.
I doubt he’ll ever see a Cup ride again, but I’ll be rooting for him to land a spot at least in Trucks or Nationwide again. After all he’s been through, and the results he’s achieved despite his problems, he deserves to catch a break.