Steve Park Story
know Park's story by now. In less than 18 months,
the Long Island native jumped to the Busch Series
from the short ovals of the Northeast modifieds.
Combine his good looks and media savvy with his
sudden appearance on the scene, and it's easy
to assume natural talent and good luck made Steve
Park what he is today. Few know, however, that
Park endured long nights working on cars, eventually
owning an auto repair business, and at one point
went broke in a bid to attract sponsors for his
Photos © Paul Melhado
I was racing modifieds I set a goal of either
being in or on my way to Winston Cup racing by
the time I was 30," recalled the East Northport,
N.Y., native. "It was close, and I guess there
were times when it didn't look like I was going
to make it, but it all worked out in the end."
Park's roots in racing run deep. His mother, Dotti, frequently
traveled to Islip Speedway in New York to watch
her boyfriend and eventual husband Bob race his
modified car. A few years later their child Steve
started attending races, absorbing every moment
and never missing a move his father made in the
pits or in the car. The elder Park, whom Steve
still calls "the apple of my eye," once finished
second in the modified standings to the late Richie
Evans. He also worked a 40-hour job as a gear
specialist for a trucking company. Racing was
important, "but not more so than family or work,"
began "playing" with go-karts at age 12 and moved
to four-cylinder cars by the time he turned 16
years old. His first big break came when Bob Park's
ARCA schedule forced him to miss a qualifying
session at Riverhead one night. He needed someone
to qualify the car and turned to his 17-year-old
son Steve. It wasn't a matter of making a quick
lap or two. At Riverhead, you had to race your
way in the field, since they took only six of
the eight cars in the qualifying race.
young Park started at the rear of the field because
crewmembers "were afraid to start me anywhere
near where I could hurt someone." He proved a
quick learner, grabbing the final spot much to
the delight of his father, who returned in time
and replaced Steve before the race.
could tell Dad was pleased," recalled Steve. "I
think he would have been pleased no matter what,
but it made me feel good that he would trust me
enough to let me try to qualify his car, and it
made me feel even better that we got the job done."
racing modifieds, where he demonstrated some of
that inherited talent. He won his first modified
race in 1988, then earned five victories in 1989,
all in his own equipment and with his own team.
But Park knew that if he were to meet his goal
of reaching Winston Cup by age 30 he had to do
something different. So, he sold all of his modified
equipment and acquired a third-hand Busch car
that he and his father worked on all winter.
went to Daytona the following spring, where we
missed the field by just one position," Park said.
"It was a letdown, but it was pretty incredible
that we could come that close to making the field,
and looking back on it, it was good that I could
spend that much time with Dad."
also knew that to go far in the sport he needed
sponsorship. So, at a cost of about $15,000, he
and some friends filmed a video and created a
brochure touting Park's talents. He sent more
than 5,000 packages to potential sponsors across
the nation hoping, as Park said, "that if you
throw enough arrows in the air a few will land
right." He received only three replies, and only
one minor sponsor materialized.
video was awesome, maybe the best video of its
kind I have ever seen, and the brochure did a
good job of describing what we could do for a
sponsor." Park said. "But it just didn't work
like I thought it would."
Things got worse. After Daytona, father and son took the Busch
car to Richmond and a few other races. But without
major sponsorship, a blown engine at the New Hampshire
race signaled the end of the Busch venture and
some real problems for Steve.
was just flat out of money," said Steve. "That
was definitely the low point of my career. I was
out of money, and I didn't even have my modified
racing to turn to because I sold all the equipment."
rideless Park started going to the track to help
on his Dad's car and continued working at an automotive
repair shop in Connecticut. Modified owner Curt
Chase noticed the younger Park hanging out in
the pits and asked if he wouldn't mind driving
his car. The one-race invitation led to a full-time
deal with Chase Racing for the 1991 season. It
didn't take long for him to return to victory
lane, posting a victory at Riverhead.
"That was an awesome
feeling," Park said. "I guess some people may
have doubted me, but I always knew I could do
it. Those days of being out of money sure made
that victory lane extra special."
spending the 1992 season with Chase, Park moved
to TG Racing, where he won four times in 1993
and 10 times in 1994. In 1995, Park posted seven
victories with Sheba Racing and five victories
the following year. He also competed in 11 races
in the Busch North Series in 1996, visiting victory
lane at Nazareth and New Hampshire.
learning the basic ingredients of how to drive
a race car in the modified series, he knew it
was time to start looking elsewhere.
modifieds are a great place to hone your skills
and find out if you have anything special for
the series with the heavier race cars," Park said.
"I decided it was time to see if I had something
special for those series."
Winston Cup and Busch South series owners eyed Park when he
started and finished 11th at Indianapolis in a
NASCAR Craftsman truck race in 1996. However,
his breakthrough moment came at Watkins Glen when
Joe Nemechek asked the youngster to qualify his
truck. Nemechek was in Bristol racing in a Winston
instructions to "just get the car in the field"
like that night years ago at Riverhead Speedway,
Park climbed into Nemecheck's truck and took off
on the twisty New York road course and surprised
everyone but himself by winning the pole. He turned
the truck over to Nemechek for the race, but Park
had taken a big step toward making a name for
owners wooed Park to move south, and even some
of the sport's biggest names took an interest.
Richard Childress wanted him for his truck team,
and Dale Earnhardt started eyeing the youngster.
Steve Park and "The Call"
didn't believe that the voice on his answering
machine one summer afternoon in 1996 was that
of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
So, he ignored the message, until Earnhardt called
back. After playing the message to his mother
Dotti for verification, Park returned the call.
That led the modified star to drive Earnhardt's
Busch car and ultimately the #1 Pennzoil Monte
Carlo on the Winston Cup Circuit in 1998. Here
is the story in Park's own words:
"I raced 104 races
that year. I was racing about four nights a week
and pretty much on the go all the time. I came
home one afternoon with just enough time to change
clothes, check messages and get a bite to eat
before leaving that evening for another race.
When I checked, there were about twenty messages
on my machine, so I'm buzzing through them, taking
down the important ones. In the middle of all
the messages came the voice of some guy saying
he was Dale Earnhardt, and he was looking for
a guy by the name of Steve Park. I kinda just
laughed and continued on my way. I have a lot
of friends who like to play a lot of jokes, so
I figured that was just somebody messing with
took all the messages and left that evening and
didn't come home for about three days. When I
got back to the apartment, there was another message
from him. He wasn't as nice as he was the first
time. I thought I might want to check this out,
so I called my Mom, who is a big Dale Earnhardt
fan. I didn't get to watch too many races back
then because we were gone so much, so I really
wasn't familiar with how his voice sounded. I
was living in Connecticut at the time, so I called
home to New York and asked Mom if this was really
Dale Earnhardt's voice.
still kinda thought this was one of my friends
playing a joke. I hit the play button on the answering
machine and held the phone close to the machine
so Mom could listen to the message. I said, 'What
do you think?' and there was no answer from her.
I said "Mom are you there?" and she said, "That's
him...I know his voice, and that's him.' I still
wasn't totally convinced. I was thinking for a
minute it was him, then I thought it wasn't him.
I just wasn't sure.
left a telephone number, so I called it, and a
lady answered 'Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.' I
said, 'This may sound crazy, but this is Steve
Park, and there is someone who says he's Dale
Earnhardt who keeps calling my apartment leaving
messages that he wants to talk to me.' She said,
'Hang on one second' and put (team manager) Ty
Norris on the phone. He says, 'Hey, buddy, we've
been trying to get a hold of you for a while.'
I almost passed out.
said Dale wanted to meet with me and asked which
airport was closest to my house. Then he said,
'Let me call you back; I know that Dale wants
to talk to you.' I figured if they were serious
they would call me back, and sure enough they
did, in 15 minutes. Ty asked if I could be at
the airport at 8 a.m. the next day so Dale could
send his plane for me. I was like, 'You've got
to be kidding.' So, I called a friend and asked
him to go with me to the airport and to pinch
me if I was losing my mind. We got up the next
morning and went out to the airport.
"We waited, and
sure enough, Dale's plane lands, and me and my
buddy pressed our noses against the glass watching
it land. I said, 'I can't believe this,' and he
said he couldn't either. The two pilots climbed
off, and I climbed in. I was the only one in the
back of the plane.
I got down there, Dale gave me a tour of his farm
and his house. At first I thought he flew me down
there because he wanted a new friend. Later he
took me to his race shop and to Kannapolis and
showed me around. That was really neat because
not many people get to see the real Dale Earnhardt.
Dale told me the chemistry just wasn't there with
his Busch team and that he wanted to make a change
for the 1997 season. I thought, 'Why does he want
me...I'm nothing special.' I guess you could say
the rest is history.
only bad thing about that phone call now is that
I have always prided myself on having a state-of-the-art
digital answering machine. But you couldn't save
the message because of the computer chip. I'd
love to have that answering machine message."
of the things Dale made me do was move down to
the area and be in the shop every day," Park said.
"That really helped our chemistry. We started
kind of slow, but as we grew, we started to do
better and better, and after the middle of the
season we were pretty good."
He was better
than "pretty good." Park won three races, nearly
finished second in the points and won the rookie
of the year title. Park sparkled off the track
as well, impressing at least one veteran racing
observer, who saw Park as a new breed of driver,
one who might take this sport to new heights on
and off the track.
"Steve Park is tomorrow's race driver today," said Chris Economaki,
National Speedsport News' longtime editor, who
also eloquently commented on Park's off-track
presence. "He's skilled at the wheel, polished
in his mien and, when the sun goes down, sartorially
Moving Up Again
midway through his rookie season in the Busch
series, Park was registering wins, making a bid
for the top slot in the points race and wondering
about next year. Most expected the newcomer to
return for another year of seasoning in the Busch
series, but Earnhardt had other thoughts.
was just doing too well. We didn't know what else
he could learn in there that he couldn't learn
by moving up," said Earnhardt, who asked Park
if he was ready for Winston Cup racing.
It Didn't Take Park Long to Answer
course I said yes," Park recalled. "I wouldn't
have done it if I didn't think I or the team was
ready, but I thought I was ready, and I know they
were ready," he said.
driver in place, Pennzoil's support and the opening
of a 108,000-square-foot race shop adjacent to
Earnhardt's home in Mooresville, Crew Chief, Philippe
Lopez, felt time was the only ingredient needed
in the recipe to make Park a household name.
good, and he's got the right kind of mental attitude
to deal with this sport," said Lopez, who tutored
both Ward Burton and Hut Stricklin.
Winston Cup tracks all across America, Steve Park
began the quest to equal the success he's enjoyed
in the other divisions. In Winston Cup racing,
nearly everyone owns a championship from some
series. Add to that the 50 car fields, and Park
surely had his work cut out for him. However,
he had a little extra help from family. The Earnhardt
team hired Steve's dad, Bob Park, as a gear specialist.
Steve's mother, Dotti, takes care of the fan club,
which started out of her home in North Carolina.
The fan club grew and required moving to an office
that Steve and Dotti share at Steve Park Motorsports
style might remind some NASCAR fans of his mentor
Dale Earnhardt, while fans in his native Northeast
claim he's similar to his race-car-driving father
Bob Park. But, when the 1998 Winston Cup season
started at Daytona, the #1 Pennzoil Monte Carlo
driver Steve Park hoped to show fans and competitors
that one day experts will compare newcomers to
think our goal in 1998 was to be a top-15 team
and then move into the top 10 in points. By mid-season
I hoped the Pennzoil Monte Carlo would be in the
hunt with the leaders," Park said.
Battling with Kenny Irwin, Jr. for Rookie of the Year Honors
took a backseat early in the season after Steve
suffered a broken right femur in a severe crash
during practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Park
also suffered a broken left shoulder blade, left
collarbone and two chipped front teeth.
"The bottom line is something
broke in the right front of the Pennzoil Monte
Carlo and it made a right turn into the fourth-turn
wall. It put a monkey wrench in our plans to win
Rookie of the Year as well as get a lot of experience
on the track, " said Park, who sat out 5 months
of the 1998 season recovering. "That sure wasn't
the way that I wanted to spend my rookie year."
continued his learning curve in the Winston Cup
Series in 1999. Looking forward to returning for
his first full season, Park welcomed the addition
of Andrews in May 1999 and the duo collectively
scaled up the points standings - moving from 34th
in points to 15th at season's end with consistent
following year Park teamed up with Marsh Racing
to run a limited Busch schedule in addition to
his full-time Winston Cup schedule wit DEI.
Dreams Become Reality For Park and the Pennzoil Team
his heart he believed he could win and he wanted
to prove it not only to himself, but also to everybody
else. He knew that he was capable of obtaining
that elusive first victory. Steve Park did just
that on August 13, 2000 when he stood atop the
#1 Pennzoil Chevrolet near the finish line at
Watkins Glen International, victorious after the
90-lap event. Following the win, Park continued
on a rampage - posting eight top-10 finishes in
the remaining 13 races on the 2000 Winston Cup
schedule. Among those great finishes were four
top fives, including his second-best career finish
of third during the race at Phoenix. He not only
performed better on the track but also accumulated
another first in 2000 - his first Bud Pole Award.
starting third for the March race in Atlanta,
Park put the Pennzoil Chevrolet on the front row
for the start of the Bristol event two weeks later.
He would accomplish the feat again in Homestead
later in the season for the Pennzoil 400 - where
he set his second track qualifying record of the
season. In between the two events, Park started
the first Richmond event in the second spot after
being bumped at the last moment and when the team
revisited Bristol, sat on the second row.
Enjoying his first full season with crew chief Paul Andrews,
Park followed the guidance of the veteran leader
and took the Pennzoil team to a top-10 finish
at the second event of the season and then followed
it with a fourth-place run in Atlanta two weeks
later. Although finishing just outside the top
10 in the Winston Cup point standings may have
been a slight disappointment for the young team,
the Pennzoil group accumulated a total of 13 top-10
marks throughout their 2000 campaign with six
top 5's. The team placed 11th in the points standings
at the end of the season.
Park's Second Victory in 2001
Park's Rockingham win was one of the most popular victories
of the 2001 season, coming just a week after his
car owner Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the
final lap of the Daytona 500. Park fought off
a strong challenge from Bobby Labonte in the final
laps to take the checkered flag in the near-photo
was more than my car owner, he was a close personal
friend. I learned more than what it meant to be
a Winston Cup driver from him, I learned what
a friend can be. I will miss him deeply."
was the most incredible emotional roller coaster
I’ve ever been on. To be able to fight back the
emotions I was feeling in the last five laps and
do what Dale had taught me to do and that was
just to stand up on that seat and drive the hell
out of that race car."
September 2001, Park survived a vicious accident
in the #31 Whelen Busch Series car. The accident
occurred during a caution period as Park drove
down the backstretch readying for the lap 20 restart.
Suddenly, the car veered to the left. Before reaching
the inside wall it was struck near the driver’s
side door by Larry Foyt, who was racing past the
cars in the outside lane to take his position
with other lapped cars at the front of the field.
Foyt, who had nowhere to go when Park’s car veered
in front of him, struck the #31 car. After the
collision, Park came to rest against the inside
wall and remained in his car for almost 20 minutes
before finally being extracted, when workers cut
away the roof of his car. Steve suffered a moderate
concussion, sitting out the rest of the 2001 racing
season to recover, as well as the first few races
of the 2002 season.
Park Returns At Darlington
a full recovery, Steve made his come back at Darlington
Raceway in March 2002 where he qualified fourth,
his best qualifying effort of the season. Paul
Andrews was replaced by crew chief Tony Gibson
and the remainder of the season was one of highs
and lows. With only two top 10-finishes and ending
the season 33rd in Winston Cup points, the team
regrouped over the off-season and made several
personnel changes, including a new pit crew.
Fresh Start and a New Way of Life for 2003
and the Pennzoil team continued to struggle beginning
the 2003 season, although the team took the pole
for the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway in
April. That high didn't last long as Park was
released from Dale Earnhardt, Inc. shortly thereafter
on May 5, 2003. What may have seemed like a devasting
shock was actually a blessing in disguise. Richard
Childress, Dale Earnhardt's previous team owner,
immediately hired Steve Park for the #30 AOL sponsored
ride, which had been vacated with the firing of
Jeff Green, who coincidentally took over the #1
has no hard feelings towards DEI. "I will always
look back on my years of driving for DEI with
much happiness," said Park. "Together the Pennzoil
team and I shared many great memories of winning
races and pole positions. It will always be an
honor for me that I was the first Winston Cup
driver for owner Dale Earnhardt.
have the opportunity to drive for RCR and America
Online is exciting. A mentor like Richard and
a change of scenery is something I'm really looking
forward to. I’m lucky to have a primary sponsor
like AOL with their marketing power behind me.
My goal is to build consistency and to revitalize
the AOL/RCR NASCAR Winston Cup program so we can
finish the season on a high note."
More Changes in Store for 2004
September 2003, it was announced that Steve would
finish out the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup season
at RCR but would be released at the end of the
joined Orleans Racing as the full-time driver
of the No. 62 Dodge in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck
Series for 2004, replacing Brendan Gaughan.
is my privilege to drive for Orleans Racing and
Dodge,” Park said. “I enjoy the Craftsman Truck
Series. It is one of the most competitive forms
of racing. This team is certainly one of the most
competitive in the sport, and I look forward to
challenging for the championship this year.”
for Orleans Racing in the Craftsman Truck Series
- Earning a Victory at Fontana
for Harris Trucking in the Craftsman Truck Series
for NDS Motorsports in the Camping World East
for NDS Motorsports in the Camping World East
earning a victory at Adirondack & winning
the series Most Popular Driver Award.