On an April morning, just weeks after his return to Winston Cup racing, Steve Park is at Dale Earnhardt Inc. preparing for a photo shoot when he's spotted by a cluster of 15 or so fans visiting the DEI gift shop. The fans gather behind a glass wall separating them from the DEI showroom where the photo shoot is taking place. Park breaks free from the shoot, walks over to the glass wall so he can talk to the fans, and presses his face against the glass. "See the sign: Don't feed the animals," Park jokes with the group.
It's clearly a side of Steve Park the surprised fans hadn't counted on seeing. It's also a jovial side of Steve Park that shows how far he has come since being injured in a crash during a Busch Series race at Darlington last year. Park suffered a concussion when his car was hit broadside by another car-T-boned in racing parlance-temporarily leaving him with severely impaired speech and vision. Park's mom, Dorothy, recalls the crash, and the image of rescue workers pulling out blue tarps to cover Park's car while the driver was being extracted from the wreckage. "That was horrifying," Dorothy says. "That was probably the worst experience of my life, seeing it on TV, especially when they pulled out the tarps."
Park was fortunate that day, though-if fortunate is a term applicable to a man about to begin months of rehabilitation to regain his speech and proper eyesight. Yet a remarkable thing happened over the next several months. Park didn't ask, "Why me?" He didn't point fingers at anyone, didn't fall into deep depression, didn't get bitter over being dealt a bad hand during the peak of his career. He missed being in a race car, just like all drivers do when they're out of the seat for an extended time. Most of all, Steve Park kept his chin up and kept working toward a return to racing and the only way of life he's known.
Park is wheeled onto a medical...
Park is wheeled onto a medical helicopter following last season's crash at Darlington. "Really, a simple swerve to the left like that, it probably shouldn't even have been an accident," says Park, "but it turned into a catastrophe."
It took a full six months for him to recover well enough to get back into a Winston Cup race car: Six months of rehabilitation that not only healed the 34-year-old Park physically but, he says, changed his outlook on life. Park had daily headaches before the crash but, oddly, the headaches disappeared during his rehabilitation. That, he says, is a direct indication of how his life has changed.
"With the stress and the tension and everything, I used to let a lot more things bother me and keep them inside beforehand, and then it would all build up as stress," Park says. "I would get stress headaches. When I got hurt and couldn't race, I had a different type of stress.
"Now, I don't know if this sounds right, but I became a better person after the wreck. I just don't take things as serious and keep them inside like I did. The good Lord has always been important to me. My family, the race fans-I value all that, but I just don't let it tear me up inside. As much as I care about everything, I'll talk about it more; I'll be more open about it; I'll try to get more stuff off my chest. When you're that close to the brink of death, it just makes you realize that maybe some things aren't as important as you might have thought beforehand. It's important to be healthy, be happy, and just live life every day."
While Park has a clear perspective on his life following the crash, he can only theorize about why his car suddenly veered left into Larry Foyt's path. The race-the one that for six months profoundly altered Park's personal and professional life-was held on the Saturday before Labor Day. Rain had forced NASCAR to red flag the event. Soon, the yellow flag waved and the cars lined up to run pace laps well under speed before the green flag would restart the race. Foyt, running his car low on the track in order to catch the lead line of traffic, was accelerating past the slower cars when Park's car inexplicably veered hard left into Foyt's path.
By the time he was ready to...
By the time he was ready to race again, Park's road to recovery had come full circle. He would again face Darlington and would have to tame not only the track, but also his emotions.
During his rehab, Park drew...
During his rehab, Park drew inspiration from everywhere, once even vowing to jump rope more than a dog he saw doing tricks on TV. He also draws encouragement from his own dog, Harley, shown here.