I was walking through the garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway and ran into Steve Park. He was chatting, so I let him be. But I always liked that guy. He's always been cordial, and I thought I'd give him a ring to catch up.
He'll race a truck for Eddie Sharp at Phoenix next month and is continuing work on putting a program together for 2011. I hope he's successful.
Park was a rising star in the Cup series before his career was derailed in 2001 by a freak injury at Darlington Raceway that left him with a severe brain injury and ultimately ended his run in the big-time. He's not big on discussing that, and frankly, I don't blame him. Every interview veers off into the details of that day, and all he wants to do is put it behind him.
He'd rather talk about other things, and given he drove for Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR's heyday so would I. I had to ask him about the wreck, but the stories about Earnhardt are gold.
Here's my six-pack with Steve Park …
MS: What's your best racing memory?
SP: Ohhh … I have two. Obviously, my first win in Cup, at Watkins Glen [in 2000], probably ranks as my best memory -- for two reasons. Not only is it your first win in Sprint Cup, Winston Cup at the time, but what made that victory so great was having Earnhardt come to Victory Lane and hug you around the neck and tell you, 'Good job!'
That was something with our second win, which was also so memorable. … Unfortunately it was bittersweet because it was after Dale passed away. The biggest thing I missed was Dale not coming to Victory Lane for that win. And even though it's a victory that will last for me forever and ever, just like that first win, the difference between the first and second was dramatic. One, having Dale there to celebrate and the second not having Dale there anymore. Two opposite ends of the spectrum.
MS: What did Dale say to you in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen?
SP: This is a story a lot of people don't know. We had just signed an extension on our Pennzoil contract. During the contract negotiations for that extension, winning was brought up in the conversation, and it was brought up by Dale Earnhardt. He promised those people that those first three years were our building years, which they knew going into it.
And the second three years, he pounded his fist on the table, and he promised those people at Pennzoil that we were going to win a race, that we were going to be winners. And I sat in on that conversation, that meeting -- talk about pressure being applied. Wow. The pressure was applied, and we won soon after that. In the limousine leaving that meeting, Dale looked at me and said to me, 'You better win, Park.' And I said, 'I will, sir.' He said, 'Oh, I know you will.' And in Victory Lane when we first saw each other I said, 'Hey Dale, see?! I told you we'd win! I told you we'd win!' He grabbed me around the neck and said, 'I didn't doubt it for a second. See ya at home.' And off he went.
MS: I will presume you felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof?
SP:I did. I did. Those are moments in life … that's what it's all about. My goal as a kid was to race like my dad. And after I grew up, my goal was to make it to the pinnacle of racing, which is Sprint Cup, and to win at that level. So many goals were achieved that day. Lifelong goals. Not only having the accomplishment of a lifelong goal for yourself to be personally set, but to achieve a goal Dale Earnhardt had set. How many people have been able to live up to The Man, and achieve goals he had set? He set them for himself, and to live up to a goal he set for himself and his team, it makes you feel invincible.
MS: What do you remember about the accident at Darlington?
SP: My memory of that accident is basically we had a decent race car and the rains had come and delayed the finishing of the event. We got out of the cars and the rain stopped, and they got the track dried off and there was a window where NASCAR thought we'd get at least past halfway.
So I got back in and, I have a ritual that I do when they give you the one [lap] to go sign, where I pull on my belts and tug the steering wheel like I'd been taught my whole life. So under caution, going around the track, when I pulled the steering wheel it came off because it wasn't set in the car right. It was due to my mistake.
Naturally the cars turn left, so it should have just been a left and turn and a stop. But Larry Foyt was the lucky dog, I think at the time, and was coming back up on the inside of the field and hit me in the door. After that, I don't remember anything, until regaining consciousness in infield care center. We drove back to Charlotte the following day, and I did most of my recovery back at home, and spent some stints in a rehabilitation center in the Charlotte hospital.
I hate to say it's a part of racing. But it is. What we do is not the safest sport, in comparison to some other professional sports, and the reason why people fill grandstands is because there's always a chance of something going wrong. Sometimes it's big. Sometimes it's small. But it always happens.
NASCAR's done a great job since we lost Dale Earnhardt, instituting new safety products. With some of the safety devices they have now, my injuries would have been less than they were at that time.
I'm just looking forward. It's something we all wish we could have avoided, from me to Larry Foyt. But we didn't. The rehabilitation process started right then and didn't stop until I won that race in California in the Truck series [in 2005]. Right now I'm enjoying time with my family. I just had the birth of my son, Jayden Robert Park, who's 9 months old. Things are looking good.
MS: What's your best Dale Earnhardt story?
I need to write a book, man. The stories are endless. The thing I always try to convey to race fans when they ask me about Dale is that what you see on TV, with the Intimidator, is what he was at the racetrack and behind the wheel. But what he was at home on the farm and driving that huge John Deere tractor and hands-on with the guys bailing hay, those are memories I take with me that are priceless.
I remember seeing this huge 10-wheel tractor, this enormous thing built to do farm work, then to look close and see Dale driving it when it looks like it needs to be driven by a professional farmhand, that's what he was. Some of the things we did on the farm and outside or racing are the best memories of Dale for me.
One of best was when I was with him in his new Chevy pickup truck, going back on the back roads on his farm. He always had these electric gates that opened almost like a garage door opener. We're going 70 miles per hour on this back road, and he's talking to me about racing and race cars. And he's hitting the garage door thing, and that gate's not budging. We're going 70. We're flying.
Here I am in the passenger's seat, making sure my seatbelt's tight, and he's talking, very calm. That gate isn't budging. What do you do and what do you tell Dale Earnhardt? He hits that button again, and it slowly starts to open.
So I'm screaming, bracing to hit this gate, and I scream, 'Dale! We're not going to make it!' Still calm, he said, 'Boy, you don't tell a seven-time Winston Cup champion how to drive.' That gate opened up, and we made it through, but it sheered both rearview mirrors clean off that truck.
I looked over to tell him, 'See!'
He gave me one of those half-crooked smiles.
'Told you we'd make it.'
We did make it. But those mirrors didn't.
MS: How about Dale Jr.? What's the best story you have on him? Well, that's printable, anyway.
SP: Most aren't printable. Ha! Some of the best stories with Dale Jr. were his antics with his dad. Everybody loves how a son interacts with his dad. Me and my dad are real close, and they had times when Junior was little and Senior was at the pinnacle of Cup that they didn't spend as much time together as they'd have liked. But that bonding session of Junior going from Late Model cars to his first foray spending time with his dad when he got involved in the Busch Series and to watch this new interaction between them was just incredible.
It was a father-son moment. Dale always had a way that he was stern and taught me to rule with an iron fist. I always thought it was because I wasn't family. If you did something right on the racetrack, you might get half a grin and a pat on the back. But if I did something wrong, I was down on that farm in the 90-degree sun, bailing hay and working my butt off. He worked you to death to teach you what life's really all about.
When you were wrong you knew it, and you tried your best not to do it again. And when Dale Jr. came onboard, he was as rough -- if not rougher -- on Dale Jr. than he was with me. It was tough love. Dale Jr. was no different than anybody else, except he expected perfection out of Junior just like he expected it out of himself. Dale Earnhardt was the guy that wanted as much time and effort and perfection put into something from others as he put in. There was no other way.
That was tough on me. Very tough. I thought he'd be easier on his kin folk, but he was tough on Junior. Junior is the man he is today because of the later times he had to spend with his dad and learned from one of the best.
MS: What's racing like for you now?
Pure joy. I always enjoyed racing. I never asked to be rich and famous. That's something that comes along with the sport. All I ever asked for was to be the best on that particular day. No matter what you were doing, whether it was four-cylinder cars or the Sprint Cup Series, to be the best on that day only means that -- that day. You have to prove it every weekend.
I see other people winning races at the Sprint Cup level and say we'll savor this for tonight and tomorrow it's back to work because next week is another week. That's what's drawn me to this sport and made me one that wanted to be the best on any particular weekend. When you can achieve that level, you walk away with a smile of your face, go to sleep with a smile on your face. That comes through winning, whether it's work, life, family or at a racetrack somewhere. Dale said it best -- there he is again -- but I learned so much from him. He told me if he could put one sign up in the shop to motivate people, it would say, 'WIN.'
Winning heals your personal life, your professional life. It makes your crew chief happy, your sponsors happy and your crew happy. It was real simple, real easy. Just win.
MS: What are your thoughts on the direction of NASCAR right now?
SP: Tough question. I might not be the right person to ask. I never watch NASCAR. I was always involved in it, always the one being watched. Now that I'm not as involved in it, I don't get to watch many Sprint Cup races on TV. It's Sunday, and I'm doing something with my family.
I don't like to see the fact that attendance is down. I still feel that NASCAR is one of greatest motorsports in the world and on TV, too. With the competition of what you see on TV, especially right now, we got into the Chase. I really think the Chase was built around the latter part of the year, motivating TV viewers to watch the final 10 races at a time in the season when NASCAR is up against the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the options for people to watch sports on TV is so vast that I can see why TV viewership might go down this time of year.
But attendance? I don't get that? If you're not going to the track, you must be watching on TV, right? And if not, you must be going to the track. To see both, that means there is a problem. What's the solution? I don't know. I think NASCAR knows a lot more than I do when it comes to attendance in the grandstands and viewership on TV. It's problem that needs to be fixed. As a team -- the media, driver, NASCAR, everyone -- let's figure it out and fix it and get it back to five years ago and prior to that. I wish I knew that answer.
MS: What's your best Bill France Jr. story?
SP: Fortunately, I got to see Bill Jr. more than the average person because of Dale Earnhardt. Some of the greatest interaction was when the sport was at its pinnacle, when Bill Jr. was at the helm and Dale was alive. Bill Jr. and Dale Earnhardt had serious conversations about the state of the sport, and the respect Bill Jr. had for Dale, picking his brain about, 'What do you think about this? We're thinking about this, what do you think?'
It was just massive respect for each other's opinions and how to move the sport forward. And the sport was moving forward then. Who's taking that position now? That's one question I have. You have the sanctioning body and the leading driver driving the sport, working together to propel the sport into one of the most recognized sports in the country. And now that we're struggling, boy it'd be nice to have those two back to figure this thing out.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.