NASCAR-WCUP: Brickyard 400 - Steve Park "Rides On" In Pennzoil Monte Carlo
6 August 1998(Indianapolis, Ind.) -- Moments before Saturday's fifth annual Brickyard 400, Steve Park pulled a clipped piece of newsprint from his Pennzoil driving uniform. It was a Charles Dickens poem that he cut from a magazine that included a short poem by the 19th-century English author with the admonition to "ride on" no matter what tribulation the reader ever faced.
For the last 148 days Steve Park has seen his share of tribulation as he mended from a broken right leg, left collarbone and right shoulder blade. He's watched races from a hospital bed, his living room couch, and the Pennzoil transporter. He's undergone hours of grueling therapy and painful rehabilitation. He's watched as others enjoyed success and failure in his car with his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.
On Saturday Park stopped watching and in the words of Dickens he "rode on."
The 30-year-old rookie climbed behind the wheel of the Pennzoil Monte Carlo at perhaps the most prestigious of NASCAR's 33-race Winston Cup schedule. Indianapolis is a place Park dreamed about as a kid and it's a place where he has planned his return ever since the day he broke his leg in Atlanta.
"I said getting back in the car was like Christmas for me," Park said before the race. By lap 64 as he passed Terry Labonte and was in the midst of a dramatic charge toward the front of the field, Park modified his statement.
"Now that I think about it," said Park over the team radio. "This is even better than Christmas."
That's because the East Northport, N.Y native showed the racing world he's healthy. He drove the Pennzoil Monte Carlo from the 25th starting spot to as high as fourth place while posting some of the fastest lap times on the track.
"Keep doing what you are doing, Bud," said crew chief Philippe Lopez. "You are the fastest car on the track right now. We can win this race."
Before the race, Park said he worried about overagressiveness and took great pains throughout the race making sure not to bend a fender that would ruin the car's aerodynamics or wear out a right front tire like some leaders whose day ended against the concrete wall.
But he wasn't driving a passive race. Park's exit speed off the second and fourth corners allowed him to jump his competitors down the long stretches as he passed the sport's best drivers.
But the Hollywood script started to take frustrating turn as the race moved into the latter stages. After running out of gas on pitlane during an earlier stop and dropping out of the top ten, Park charged back to the front and occupied seventh place when he pitted with 42 laps to go for four tires.
"This will give you what you need to go to the end," Lopez told Park on the radio. The move was designed to improve handling problems that recently developed in the Pennzoil Monte Carlo.
When Park returned to the track he was in 16th place because several of the cars behind him elected to make a two tire stop gambling that their old tires wouldn't jeopardize their handling ability in the final 42 laps.
"Hang in there, because a lot of those cars' lap times will start to fall off the longer we go," reassure Lopez.
Park started behind Bill Elliott and struggled to pass the veteran driver on the narrow track. A move to go outside Elliott ended when Park brushed the wall. Several laps later, a cut rear tire ended the day sending the Pennzoil Monte Carlo sliding into the wall with its driver uninjured but disappointed the triumphant returned ended so quickly. The benefit of the four-tire stop would never materialize.
"Man, I can't believe our luck," Park said after the race. "We finished 35th but we didn't have a 35th place car. We had a good car. But, I'll take this over sitting at home. It wasn't what we wanted today, but we ran well and if we can keep running like this then we are going to be OK."
Jeff Gordon won the race, his second Brickyard 400, plus a $1 million bonus.
Park took home nothing he could add to his trophy case and probably not as much money as he'd like to add to his bank account. But, Indianapolis might mark Park's greatest accomplishment in his career. Because on Sunday Park returned to his race car and race team and, in the words of Dickens' poem, he "rode on."