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.

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.”

Uncertainty 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.

Park can recall the race that day, but nothing just before or just after being hit. He thinks the steering wheel, not securely locked onto the steering shaft, came off in his hands. Given his prerace habit of tugging on his safety belts and pulling the steering wheel back and forth to make sure it’s locked in place, that seems as plausible as any explanation.

While the exact events that day are unknown, the crash’s effect on Park’s life is as real and as tangible as the crash itself. “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.”

Amazingly, Park felt almost no pain from the Darlington crash, outside of some general soreness. But take away an athlete’s eyesight—especially one like Park who had never worn glasses—and you’ve threatened his livelihood and way of life. So the double vision right after the crash was the one thing that pitched Park into a world of doubt and uncertainty. He was able to see relatively well from about the waistline up, with glasses; but from that point down, he saw double and suffered from blurred vision. Getting back into a race car was an uncertain proposition.

Park visited doctors in New York City and at Duke University and was told the same thing: Given time, the eyesight would return. The racer in him left no room for patience. “You’re like, ‘Well, give me a shot, give me a pill, give me something to make me better,’” Park says. “There’s nothing you can do other than just wait it out.”

Still, Park began to think that maybe waiting wouldn’t be enough, that his career had actually ended that day at Darlington. “I was praying every day that it would get better,” Park says of his vision. “I just knew I couldn’t race with the eyesight I had in the early stages.” He began to have doubts. What if I’m stuck with this eyesight? What if every doctor I’ve seen is wrong? What if I can’t race? What will I do? He had been racing since age 10 and felt that his options were limited.

“That was the motivation because I realized, ‘Well, I don’t know anything else, and I better get back to doing what I love to do,’” he recalls. “It just made me work harder and just pray all the doctors were right, that it was just a matter of time. They had seen the injuries a lot more than I had; but you look at it and realize you can’t see as good as you want to—you can’t race that way—and if that never changes, then you won’t race. That’s probably the darkest point I reached.”

Road To Recovery

The road back involved more than getting his eyesight restored. Park had to work on his balance, his eye-hand coordination, his stamina, his strength, his speech. It was a long, tough road to recovery. Initially, Park made regular visits to a rehabilitation center in Charlotte. He would work there for two hours, then go home and work for four more hours. Therapists at the rehab center, unaware of his extra work, were amazed at his progress.

By mid-November, two months after the crash, he was released from rehab to begin working out with his personal trainer, Walt Smith, who owns two Charlotte area fitness centers and serves as pit coach for DEI and jackman for Park’s Pennzoil team. Smith scheduled their workouts around Park’s speech and vision therapists.

Smith had been hired by Dale Earnhardt in 1998, just before Park crashed during practice at Atlanta and missed 15 races during his rookie season, suffering several broken bones, including a broken leg. Smith had helped Park through that recovery. “Then we went to a two-year period where Steve became just phenomenally in shape,” says Smith. “I’ve worked with a lot of drivers over the years, but Steve’s determination and his actual strength was really, really good. Then to come back off his last injury and just to see what had happened to him as far as his balance, his hand-eye coordination, it was really gut wrenching.”

Smith and Park became a team again, spending up to five days a week, two hours a day, together on the path to recovery. When the two started the workouts, Park’s stamina and flexibility were almost nonexistent, Smith says. Many of the activities were simple, like having Park sit on a workout ball without falling over, in order to regain his balance. From there it progressed to Park lifting his arms and legs and doing light weight training. Simply bouncing and catching a basketball or racquetball were exercises in frustration early on.

“I look back on that and at the time it was so challenging for me,” says Park. “I was almost breaking a sweat and concentrating so hard on trying to catch these balls and bounce them off the ceiling. I look back on it now, and I’m like, it was such a child-like game, and back then it was such a struggle and took so much concentration to make it work. Now I look at it and it’s so easy to do, but it was so child-like back then that I wouldn’t even think about doing it now.”

Once, while Park and Smith were taking a break during a workout, they watched a dog jump rope on a morning television show and establish a world’s record for dogs by jumping 74 times. Park had worked his way up to 50 jumps at the time and Smith kidded Park about being bested by a dog. Park laughs at the story now, but it was a source of motivation at the time.

“I was determined that I was going to jump rope 74 times,” Park recalls. “I mean, I worked every day on doing that. One day I got to 74, then I got to 75 and beat the dog. I threw the rope down and said I was never going to jump rope again in my life. You know, you’re not racing, so how do you keep your spirits up? Just by wanting to beat a dog in jump rope.”

Clearly, the one constant through Park’s recovery, through the high points and the low points, was his determination. “He was almost determined to the point that I couldn’t get him to stop,” Smith says. “He would get so frustrated that he couldn’t do something. I noticed this the first time I worked with Steve, after the first injury, that if he can’t do something, instead of coming back and trying to do it again the next day, he’ll sit there until he’s so fatigued —although he still doesn’t do it—that he’ll sit there until there’s nothing left in him. He’s so determined to succeed. To me, that’s why, when he’s had these major injuries, he’s come back so fast from both of them.”

Eventually, Park was back to normal, able to shun the eyeglasses and able to do the workouts like a man fully recovered. His speech lagged behind somewhat, but today even that is almost 100 percent recovered. There was one thing left to do: He had to prove to himself he was rehabilitated well enough to get back in a race car. That led him to Dr. Mark Lovell in Pittsburgh, the doctor who regularly tests drivers in the CART series. Lovell told Park that everything tested fine—his eyesight, his reaction time, his brain function. Basically everything that dictated whether or not he could return to racing was OK.

Returning To Action

Park’s comeback happened at the same Darlington track where it all nearly ended that September weekend. It wasn’t planned for it to be that way; it was just the way circumstances worked out.

During his Darlington comeback, Park started fourth and quickly worked his way into the lead, driving hard and fast on the tricky Darlington track while leading 19 laps. It was clear he had something to prove after six months on the sidelines. While passing the lapped car of Stacy Compton between Turns 3 and 4, though, Park’s car and Compton’s drifted together, leading to a crash that collected the car of Ricky Craven, ending what could have been Park’s storybook return.

Craven, like Park, had come back from near devastation, having suffered a head injury in a crash at Texas in ’97 while driving for Hendrick Motorsports. He returned to the circuit after missing two races that year, but early the next season, ’98, Craven had to again step away from the sport, after suffering post-concussion syndrome. “One of the greatest challenges for a competitor and a race car driver is to see someone else in his race car,” says Craven. “There is an urgency to get back, particularly when you feel you’re close to winning and things are going well.”

Ernie Irvan, a 15-time winner in Winston Cup, offers another example of a driver making a successful comeback from head injuries. In ’97, Irvan won at the same Michigan track that had nearly ended his life during a ’94 crash. Another hard crash at the track, in ’99, effectively ended his career. “The toughest part is having to be out of the car, not being able to do what you love to do—drive a race car and do it competitively,” says Irvan.

Talk to any driver who has been out of his car for an extended period and he can provide insight into Park’s anxious state of mind whenever the Darlington race rolled around this past spring. Kenny Wallace had substituted for Park in the Pennzoil car last fall then ran the first four races this season before Park took over at Darlington.

“We made an early mistake, but I think it was from a lack of patience,” says Park of the crash during his comeback. “Think about it: I sat out for six months, qualified good, got the lead, was leading the race, and I wanted to lead that race. I wanted to stay out front. One thing Dale taught me when he was with us was patience. He said, ‘In order to finish first, you have to first finish.’

“Over the course of the next week, I thought about it. If Dale was alive and with us, Monday morning he would have scolded me. He would have told me, ‘You could have dropped back to 25th. You could have not even passed the lapped car. You could have made a pit stop and come out a lap down and still finished in the Top 10.’ It’s so true. And I thought about it and thought about it. Man, I know I could have dropped back to 25th and still finished in the Top 10 somewhere. He was definitely right. It was just a lack of patience on my part because I sat out for six months, got up front, and wanted to lead that race.”

The next race up after Darlington was Bristol, where crashes are an accepted part of the show. Whenever Park’s car got into the back of Buckshot Jones’ car, Park quickly accepted responsibility and apologized. That wasn’t enough to appease critics, however. Rumors circulated that NASCAR was going to re-evaluate Park’s status. That never happened, of course, and Park was undaunted by the talk.

“I’ve got really big shoulders, so bring it on,” he says. “It’s hard to come back from an injury no matter what. There’s going to be reporters. There’s going to be skeptics. I wouldn’t put a human being through what I’ve been put through for those six months to get back behind the wheel of a race car. I think (it would be different) if people knew the tests that I’ve taken, the amount of effort of going to New York City and Pittsburgh and Duke Eye Center. I mean, I didn’t just jump back behind the wheel of a car.”

Talk also surfaced that Park would be released from DEI at the end of the season or before. Although Ty Norris, executive vice president of motorsports for DEI, stressed in the late spring that Park’s job was not in jeopardy this season, he said the company was exploring its options for next season with Park and teammate Michael Waltrip.

Park knows, nonetheless, that there’s a final, significant step in his comeback that would put an exclamation mark on the whole ordeal. He says that would be “when we can just raise our hands in Victory Lane as victors.”