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NASCAR-WCUP: Steve Park Stretches Gas and Third Gear To 18th Place

10 August 1998

Watkins Glen International Raceway on Sunday it looked like Park and his Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew introduced a new innovation to NASCAR Winston Cup racing. -- An automatic transmission.

For nearly two-thirds of the race, the 30-year-old rookie never shifted the manual transmission in the #1 Pennzoil Monte Carlo. But, the apparent ease of Park's day wasn't by design. He didn't shift gears because he had no other gears to use. When he lost all but third gear early in the race it appeared his dramatic charge from 34th starting spot up to about 15th place, in less than 30 laps, was doomed.

Until then, it had been a rollercoaster weekend on the twisty New York road course for Park and his teammates. After a disappointing qualifying run on Friday then posting the fourth quickest practice speed in Saturday's final practice, Park and his teammates were again headed for a top five finish on race day. A fitting follow-up to last week's apparent top five finish at Indianapolis that ended when a cut tire caused a race-ending crash. .

This Sunday Park looked like he would put all that behind him, but then fortune frowned.

"I can't believe our luck," Park said as he radioed his crew about the gear problems. "I don't know how long the transmission is going to last." "Just nurse it around and try to get as much as you can get," advised crew chief Philippe Lopez after Park radioed that only third gear remained in the car. "It would take way too long to fix it so just stay out there and be real gentle with it."

Although Lopez and crew were disappointed their chance for a top finish or even a finish appeared bleak, they never gave up despite watching Park fall back to about 35th place.

Then the crew came up with a plan.

Knowing that if they could only race in third gear, it meant that Park would get a lot better fuel mileage than many of the competitors. So, Lopez told Park to pit as the field completed lap 50 under caution because of an accident. Pitting meant Park would have to finish the final 40 laps without a pit stop. Normally, Park could count on going about 30 laps before a pit stop. On the 2.5-mile track, if you run out of gas your day is over.

"You need to save as much gas as you can because we are going to try and go to the finish without coming in," Lopez said.

Park returned to the track and for the rest of the race everyone in the Pennzoil pit kept their fingers crossed and listened on the radio hoping they would never hear Park report a drop in his fuel pressure gauge. Troy Cole, the gasman, was ready if Park ran out of gas near the pit road and Lopez even gave Park an unusual order for a crew chief.

"I can't believe I'd ever tell you this but I'm worried your lap times are too fast," said Lopez. "Remember to save fuel."

Park short shifted the car, stayed out of battles for position, and did everything he knew to save fuel. When the checkered flag finally fell for winner Jeff Gordon, Park was able to coax his battered racecar across the finish line, probably on gas fumes, and claim an 18th place finish.

"It wasn't as great a day as it appeared like it would be at the first part of the race when we were passing everyone," Park said after the race. "But, it could have been a whole lot worse. To go most of the race with only third gear is amazing and then to go 40 laps on gas is unbelievable."

Park and his teammates return to the track on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.