His was a familiar face in the pits at Martinsville Speedway, and there were a few reporters waiting to talk to him. Nothing like it was 10 years ago when he was at the height of his NASCAR career and still on the way up, but these days, that can be said about a lot of things in racing. But on this day, Steve Park is getting ready to race in the K&K Pro Series East at Martinsville Speedway, and that series doesn’t draw the attention of the richer national touring series. Park is preparing for the afternoon’s race, a 200-lapper that’s part of a doubleheader with the Whelen Modified Tour.
It’s a place that represents a circle of sorts for Park. He began his NASCAR career in the modifieds, as did many racers from the Northeast back in the day. He finished as high as second in points in that series, and he did that twice. That was enough to get him noticed, enough to move up through the ranks until the call came that would define Park’s NASCAR career for the next seven years. The caller was Dale Earnhardt, though Park didn’t believe it at first, believing instead it was a prank call from a buddy. But Earnhardt persisted, and Park’s career was set on its path.
After a year in the Nationwide Series, there was a rookie season in Cup, but it was cut short by injury after a nasty crash. Darrell Waltrip would fill in for Park, but the Northport, N.Y. native would return to the No. 1 in 1999 and find victory lane for the first time at Watkins Glen, in his home state, in 2000. In 2001, Park’s single win was one of the most remembered wins in NASCAR history. On a cold February day when nobody really wanted to be there, Park won at Rockingham for Dale Earnhardt Inc. It was just one week after Earnhardt’s death.
Park finished 11th in Cup points in 2000 and was clearly a star on the rise. He had 12 top-10 runs through the first 24 races when he decided to run the then-Busch Series race at Darlington as one of a handful of races in that series.
And that’s when everything changed.
It was a freak accident. Under caution, preparing for the restart, Park pulled back on the steering wheel to make sure it was tight… and it wasn’t. Park swerved to the inside, unable to steer the car. Under caution speed, he should have hit the inside wall and at worst, ended his day. Instead came the crash that forever altered the course of his life and career. Larry Foyt had gotten the wave-around from NASCAR and came up the inside of the line of cars at speed, straight into Park’s driver-side door. Parks car was covered with a blue tarp, never a good sign. They cover cars with a tarp when a driver dies inside.
Park wasn’t killed that day. He came back to race the following season, maybe too early, but there were a few good runs. If he wasn’t the driver he had been, he wasn’t admitting defeat, either. There would be two more seasons in the No. 1 for Park, the only Cup car he ever drove full time. But when sponsor Pennzoil left after the 2003 season, Park’s ride ended.
And the journey to Martinsville began. Park never stopped racing. There were truck races and K&N Pro cars, a Nationwide ride in 2006, and a couple of modified starts.
On this Sunday, Park is 42 years old, no longer the young gun but rather the veteran. He’s racing for old friend Jeff Spraker. He’s here to race for the win, but also to help Spraker’s team figure out the car for their younger drivers, who don’t quite have the experience to figure out what’s wrong. Today, Park is confident that they have figured it out.
“Me and Jeff go way back from the modified days,” says Park of his car owner. “He’s a good friend of my family, of my father. He called me up and said ‘Hey how’d you like to run my second car at Martinsville?’ and I said ‘Man, I’d love to.’ We all love coming here to Martinsville. The car’s running pretty good. They’ve had some issues in the past with this car and we’re really trying-he develops a lot of young drivers and they sometimes can’t see or feel some of the bugs that these cars might have. I found two today that we’re trying to work out.”
Part of Park’s role this weekend is as a mentor to Andrew Smith, Spraker’s 22-year-old youngster, who will drive a team car to Park’s. Park has given the kid a nickname. “I call him Pop Tart because all he does is eat Pop tarts all the time and he’s only about 120 pounds,” says Park with a laugh. “He’s doing an excellent job,” adds Park. “He was fast in qualifying. Maybe I can get some pointers from him!”
Park has plenty of experience to share with the young drivers hoping to make the step from open-wheeled modifieds to the full-bodied K&N Pro cars and beyond. “These full-bodied cars run differently than the open-wheeled cars and you just really have to leave your expectations at the door when you go into a full-bodied car or truck,” explains Park. “A lot of these guys who are young and have talent in these open-wheel cars can adapt to pretty much you put them in. So just a little bit of guidance, a little bit of experience you can share with them and they an easily be successful in a full-bodied car or truck. We’ve seen that happen with guys like Joey Logano.”
Park says that the Sprint Cup Series has changed since he came up. He was one of a handful of drivers not from the South, one of fewer still from the Northeast. Now that’s changed, with drivers like Connecticut native Logano. Park says that’s a welcome change. “It’s just nice to see guys-back when I first started going racing with my day you hardly ever saw anybody from the Northeast breaking into NASCAR, it was kind of a good old boys’ sport and now with the opportunity of the things that were paved by my dad and George and Richie Evans and Jimmy Spencer, Geoff Bodine – those are the standout guys from the Northeast way back when. Now you get an influx of guys not only from the Northeast but from the West Coast, the Midwest, you name it.”
Park talks a little about his heroes, Evans in particular. Park will attempt his first Cup race in seven long years at Daytona in July, running for Tommy Baldwin in a car commemorating Evans, a modified legend and hero to both Park and Baldwin, who also comes from the modified ranks. They’re hoping that NASCAR will approve a temporary number change so that the famous orange No. 61 can again take to the track.
But on this day, Park will watch old friends and kids he once watched running around the pits take on Martinsville in the modified race before strapping into his No. 08 car. The day is beautiful and things look promising. Unfortunately for Park, neither lasts, and he finishes 30th in a rain-shortened race courtesy of a broken sway bar.
So here is Park on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps nearing the end of a career that has come back to where it began. If Park is in the twilight of his career, it’s the good kind of twilight, the soft, warm twilight that seems to go on forever. It’s the twilight at the end of a day that has come full circle, just like Steve Park has. I asked Park how he hopes to be remembered when he finally does hang up his driving helmet for good.
“I want people to look at me and say I was always a hard racer and a fair racer,” says Park simply. “I won at the Cup level which a lot of guys have a hard time saying. I not only competed at the Cup level, but being a two-time winner at the Cup level, I think just reaching the pinnacle, winning in Sprint Cup and being fair to the other competitors, and most importantly being fair to the fans. It’s the fans who have grown the sport to what it is today.”
It’s a safe bet that he’ll be remembered in just that way.