Dream chaser Park keeps truckin'
LIer once raced cars in the glamour of the Nextel circuit, but after losing his ride, he's regained passion
BY BOB HERZOG
There is no stigma for Steve Park because he is racing a pickup truck these days and not a sexier, flashier stock car. It doesn't bother the former East Northport resident that the Craftsman Truck Series pays him about one-ninth of what he earned on the more glamorous NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.
For Park, it's never been about the money. It's always been about the competition. About getting behind the wheel of a racing vehicle and pushing 200 mph. About being the one to take the checkered flag. Quite simply, it's always been about winning for the 37-year-old who cut his racing teeth at Islip and Riverhead speedways.
"I never raced for money - just for the trophies. I'm very proud that I grew up on Long Island and started racing there just for sheer enjoyment," said Park, who finished ninth in his first season on NASCAR's truck tour in 2004, earning nearly $300,000. "I never grew up trying to be rich and famous. That just comes with being successful in the Nextel Cup Series [formerly Winston Cup, where Park earned nearly $2.7 million in both 2002 and 2003]. Being in the truck series now is just getting back to the grass roots of racing hard, having fun and putting trophies on the shelf."
Perhaps the fact that Park's racing career is not on the shelf makes him blasť about not being part of NASCAR's elite series. Perhaps he has the proper perspective of someone thankful to have survived a frightening crash at Darlington, S.C., in September 2001. He suffered a severe concussion, slowed reflexes and eyesight problems in that accident and missed the rest of that season plus the first three races of 2002.
He challenged the demons - whether in his own mind or from a skeptical NASCAR Nation - by returning to racing at Darlington. He crashed in his comeback race, too, but was unhurt and managed to finish, earning a victory of sorts.
"I got back in a race car again at the place I got hurt at. At first, you wonder about the ghosts in the closet, but that's more Discovery Channel stuff, to tell you the truth," Park said in a telephone interview from his home in North Carolina. "I love racing in Darlington, so I came back there. Racing is not always the safest thing in the world - we know the risks. This happened more than three years ago and the media is still carping on it. I'm over it and it's time for others to get over it, too."
Park raced in 32 NASCAR Winston Cup events in 2002 and 35 more in 2003 without a victory. He managed just five top-10 finishes. Whispers among his peers and in the media that he would never be a big-time winner again and might lose his ride did something a crash couldn't do. It damaged Park's spirit.
"After being fully recovered and getting back in cars and living under controversy and media attacking you from every side, I wasn't really enjoying myself," Park said. "It became harder to find competitive rides."
Despite its popularity, the big-time NASCAR circuit became harder for Park to enjoy. "The problem is that in the last couple of years, the Nextel Cup series has been drowned by a whole bunch of things. The idea of watching races of 4-to-5 hours has lost its luster. People sleep through the middle of a race and wake up for the last 100 miles."
That was enough to make Park shift gears. In 2004, he joined the Orleans Racing Team in the Craftsman Truck Series. His blue-and-white No. 62 pickup is emblazoned with many sponsor's decals, just like the cars, and reaches speeds of 190 mph, just like the cars.
"I don't think Steve misses the Nextel Cup world all that much," said Mike Snow, publicist for the Las Vegas-based Orleans Racing Team. "In the truck world, you get to race without all the traffic and noise - by that I mean all that goes on in the Nextel side of things. He doesn't miss the circus atmosphere. This is 'real' racing without the distractions. Steve's about as pumped up as I've seen him. There's a lot of excitement around here, a lot of people ready to start winning some hardware."
Park is foremost among them. "When you're done racing, looking at what's in your trophy case defines your career," said Park, who won twice in seven years on the Winston Cup tour, countless times on Suffolk County's venerable tracks but not once in his rookie year in trucks.
He was part of a new team with new owners and a new crew. "The only thing 'old' last year was the paint scheme on his truck," drawled Owen Kearns, manager of communications for the Craftsman Series. "But he's a legit championship contender this year."
The thrill is back for Park. Victories are just around the next turn and of equal importance is the Fun Factor. "I've gotten back to enjoying myself," said Park, who will open his 2005 truck season at Daytona on Feb. 18. "In truck racing, from the drop of the green flag to the drop of the checkered flag, you're on the edge of your seat. It adds excitement for the drivers and the fans. We had a chance to win maybe five races last year but we shot ourselves in the foot. We're not going to make the same mistakes. It's time to put a bunch more trophies on the shelf."
Even if Park achieves those goals and dominates the truck circuit - he finished ninth last year despite the slow start - he hasn't ruled out racing cars again, but on his terms. "If the opportunity presents itself, I'll consider it," Park said. "If I move into the Busch Series [what he called "the Triple A" of stock car racing], it will be because I want to, not because someone else wanted me to. If I went back to cars, it would be for the pure enjoyment of the sport."
And, of course, because there are more trophies to be won.
The year-by-year statistics for Long Island driver Steve Park:
NASCAR Winston Cup Series
Year Rank Starts Wins Top 5 Top 10 Winnings
2003 32 35 0 1 3 $2,686,910
2002 33 32 0 0 2 $2,681,590
2001 32 24 1 5 12 $2,385,970
2000 11 34 1 6 13 $2,052,830
1999 14 34 0 0 5 $1,609,808
1998 42 17 0 0 0 $487,265
1997 51 5 0 0 0 $74,480
NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series
Year Rank Starts Wins Top 5 Top 10 Winnings
2004 9 25 0 5 10 $296,675
What: NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Vehicles: Full-size, American-made trucks from Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Toyota.
History: Begins 11th season Feb. 18 at Daytona.
Events: 25 at 22 different tracks, 16 scheduled as companion events with the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and 11 with the NASCAR Busch Series.
Television: All events aired on Speed Channel. Earned 0.7 rating in 2004, the No. 1-rated motorsports series on Speed.
Attendance: 1.1 million fans attended Craftsman Truck Series events in 2004.
2004 Champion: Bobby Hamilton (four wins, $567,315 total winnings).