Park struggled in Cup last season
There's an old adage in racing that it's not so important what you race, it's that you're racing, period.
That pretty much sums up the situation for Steve Park in 2004. After failing to have his contract renewed at season's end as driver of Richard Childress' No. 30 Chevrolet, the 36-year-old New York state native found himself without a ride for the coming season.
As the offseason dragged on, Park's chances of finding a full-time deal diminished. Enter Las Vegas-based Orleans Racing, which hired Park last week to drive full-time this season in the Craftsman Truck Series.
It may be two steps down from Nextel Cup, where Park's heart and ambitions still remain, but at least he'll be able to put food on the table and keep his face and driving talent in front of NASCAR's movers and shakers week in and week out during 2004.
"I looked hard for a ride in Busch and Truck," Park said. "There were opportunities in the Nextel Cup series too, but an opportunity is not always a good opportunity. The way I looked at it was, you can be involved in a Nextel Cup series team where the best they can run is 20th, and I've been there and done that. That doesn't give me any enjoyment to be a part of that."
Park will be filling the spot of Brendan Gaughan, who has moved on to Nextel Cup for Penske-Jasper Racing after finishing a close fourth in the Truck Series standings last season.
After being fired by Dale Earnhardt Inc., prior to midseason last year, resurfacing with RCR only to be released at season's end, driving the No. 62 Dodge Ram for Orleans will be a new start for Park.
"After the last year-and-a-half of kind of dismal displays on the racetrack in the Winston Cup Series, I was looking forward to getting involved with a winning race team. Orleans Racing has shown that in the past," Park said. "I'm excited about it. I'm looking forward to getting back involved in a team that's capable of winning races."
Park has struggled as a driver since sustaining serious head injuries in a crash during a Busch Series race at Darlington, S.C., in September 2001. Not only has he endured criticism about his performance on the racetrack, but he's also heard questions regarding whether he has fully recovered from his crash injuries.
Still, Park is not bowing to the criticism, nor is he giving up his quest to get back to the kind of success and prominence that has led him to two Cup wins and a season-high finish of 11th-place in 2000.
"You always look to the future, but the main thing now is that it's not a step back," Park said. "I hate for people to look at that. This is a step forward to me. To be involved in racing like I have been since I was 10 years old. I'm just used to running good and winning races. I really just want to get back to that.
"We can do that with Dodge and the Orleans Racing Team and with Kevin Kroyer building the engines. Brendan has proved that in the past. My main focus is getting back to winning races and enjoying myself."
Park qualified for 35 of last season's 36 Cup races, with one top-five finish, three top-10 showings and two pole positions. While he admittedly will miss Cup racing, he's looking forward to returning to trucks, which he raced several times in the mid-1990s.
"I looked at the Busch Series and Truck Series, and I just think that the competitiveness in the Truck Series is one that we've really seen develop in the past year. With the resurgence of the guys that were in the Nextel Cup series coming on over to the Truck Series it's just going to make it even greater. With other manufacturers (like Toyota this season) coming into the Truck Series you're going to see all manufacturers kind of step up. You can pretty much mark my words on this: you'll see the Truck Series get more limelight, I think, this year than they have in the past."
Park also cites the fact that former Cup drivers such as Ted Musgrave and Bobby Hamilton are currently finding success in the Truck Series as evidence that the transition won't be too difficult -- meaning Park and his team can aim high sooner rather than later -- though there are differences between the two series.
"I think it's going to be a learning experience from the fact that the way the races are run is different, the length of the races is different, the strategy is different, the allowance of tires is different," Park said. "I guess it's going to be a learning experience from all of those aspects along with the other drivers that I have or haven't raced with. But we're hoping we can bridge that gap in a short amount of time and just fit right in."
Still, Park's goals for the team are clear.
"Our main goal is to continue the winning tradition that the Orleans Racing team has and shoot for a championship. We feel that with the team and with the experience that I have that we can move forward with that and continue to win races and go for that ever important championship."
While Park has only a one-year agreement with Gaughan Motorsports, Park says he's concentrating solely on doing his best behind the wheel of a truck, and not worrying about eventually returning to Nextel Cup. Yet, at the same time, team owner Michael Gaughan, Brendan's father, is realistic that Park's heart still lies in Nextel Cup.
"Mr. Gaughan and I have talked, and he said he hopes this helps propel me back to the Nextel Cup series," Park said. "But, if it's a one-year deal or a 10-year deal, if we're winning races and championships, then that's what I want to be a part of.
"That was my first option. That's where I wanted to be, and I was just very fortunate to be able to have that come together."
Added Gaughan, "We have assembled a talented group over the years, and we think Steve is a perfect fit for this championship-level team. He has proven he can win races, and we expect he will win races for us this year."
While finding a new job and showing he can still cut it as a driver were admittedly important for Park, so too was simply having fun. Cup racing has become so technologically precise, while truck racing offers a lot more latitude and the ability to simply mash the pedal to the floor and bang some fenders without worrying about things like aero-push, fuel mileage, tire wear, etc.
"Truck racing is like racing used to be," Park said. "You just get out there and race. You see the guys rub a little bit and run three-wide. I'm looking forward to just getting back to racing like it used to be: three-wide and door handle to door handle."
But for Park, it's not just about the style of racing. It's also about finding success.
"There are some guys that race and are happy with mediocrity, and I'm not. I race to win, and I'm looking forward to getting back with that."