Time to take it out of Park

by Pete McCole
March 14, 2002

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After six months on the sidelines, Steve Park's long road back from injuries he suffered last year is finally coming to an end. Reassuming the driving duties of the #1 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Pennzoil Chevrolet, Park will finally make his return to Winston Cup racing this weekend at Darlington, the same track that nearly ended his career six months ago.

Steve Park returns to drive the Pennzoil Chevrolet this week at Darlington. the

A crash during a Busch race at Darlington last September left Park with a severe concussion. The resulting blurred vision and dizziness forced him out of competition for the rest of the 2001 season. Kenny Wallace has filled in for Park ever since, while doing double-duty driving the #48 Chevy in the Busch Series.

Now, Park is confident he is ready to return to racing. He received full medical clearance on March 7th from Dr. Jerry Petty and Dr. Charles Branch, and has been cleared by NASCAR officials to resume driving. 

He also recently tested at Lowe's Motor Speedway, as well as grueling 600-mile test session at Darlington. He feels he's ready to tackle the challenge of the track "too tough to tame", a track that nearly ended his driving career.

"I've tested so much just to make sure my stamina is where it needs to be," said Park. "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."

Park was injured on Sept. 1st of last year, during a Busch Series race at Darlington. Park, driving the #31 Whelen Chevrolet for Marsh Racing, was going through a routine check of his safety gear just before a restart. When we pulled on the steering wheel to make sure it was locked in place, the steering wheel popped off. Park's car veered to the left, directly into the path of Larry Foyt's Chevrolet. Foyt, who was a lap down, was moving on the inside toward the front of the field for the double-file restart when his car slammed into Park's driver's side door. 

Park lay unconscious in the driver's seat and had to be cut from the car. He was immediately airlifted to the hospital.

"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." Park said, "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."

Immediately following the accident, the biggest concern for Park, and his doctors, was his vision. No matter how good a driver you are, you can't race if you can't see.

"The main thing I was concerned with was my eyesight." Park said. "When I first got hurt, my eyesight was off. I had double vision down low and then it suddenly cleared up in about a week. At that point, I wondered. You can't drive these cars with limited eyesight." 

"I went to a lot of doctors. 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. It's just been getting better and better."

Injured in an accident at Darlington, Park returns to action at the same track where he was hurt. the

While Park's vision has improved, he admits it's still not at 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." Park said, "It's only been six months and it just is getting better and better. My glasses don't even help anymore." 

Park's road to recovery has been long and arduous. He spends every day at the gym, improving his stamina as much as he can. He still suffers from slurred speech, but like his vision, his speech is improving as well.

"It's frustrating because I can't talk as fast as I think," says Park. "I've been to speech therapy. I think I sound like a robot. They say it'll come back. It's getting better."

Even though sitting on the sidelines was difficult for Park, he got plenty of support from friends and the fans, which helped motivate Park during his long rehabilitation.

"My teammates. They've been very supportive; and the good Lord. 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." Park said. "But my main focus has to be on racing well and qualifying well. This is a part of our rehabilitation and getting back to racing again."

"I don't think this is the last step (of rehab), 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." 

Park also has the support of his fellow competitors, some of who participated in the same testing sessions at Darlington.

Park was at the Atlanta Motor Speedway last week to announce his return to Winston Cup.
Photo: Tim Barrett the

"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." Park said, "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."

"I'm glad to have Steve back," said DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. "It's probably real emotional for him to make his return at Darlington. I can't speak for him. He wants to get in the racecar and run good. He's ready to come back."

"I think Steve is a real talent, a great guy, and a hard worker," said 2001 series champion Jeff Gordon. "He's shown how bad he wants to get back by his dedication to rehabilitating himself. It think it's pretty ironic that he's coming back to the where he got hurt. I wish him all the best."

While Park is happy to be back in the race, it's the chance to be a winner again that truly drives him.

"To come back to a place like Darlington and qualify good and race good is my number one concern." Park said. "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." 

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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