OXFORD — The first time fate rang Steve Park’s telephone, he left it on the hook.

On the answering machine — “voice mail” was a foreign expression in 1996 — was a voice claiming to be that of Dale Earnhardt.

The NASCAR legend wanted Park, then a rising star on the Modified and Busch North circuits, to drive his Grand National (now Nationwide Series) car full-time. He might as well have identified himself as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or President Bill Clinton.

“I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. It’s the call that changed my whole life,” Park said. “Everybody’s got aspirations to get to that pinnacle no matter what they do. To get that phone call, I didn’t believe it at first. It took Dale a second time to call, and thank God he called a second time.”

Nearly two decades, two Sprint Cup victories and two life-altering crashes later, Park, 46, returned Sunday to a place where the dream was born.

Park made his first attempt at the Oxford 250, a face he watched from the grandstands with his father and fellow racer, Bob, in its early years.

“It’s always sort of been on my bucket list, and then with moving down south and having a career down there, it kind of got put on the back burner,” Park said. “Sometimes I didn’t think I’d ever get the opportunity, but being semi-retired and having the opportunity to come back and run the Oxford 250, I put it together with G Body Parts and Sunoco. I’ve been fortunate.”

After running as high as fifth before fading to seventh in his first 20-lap qualifying race, Park spun in his consolation round and ran at the back of the 50-lap last chance race.

Promoter Tom Mayberry gave Park a provisional starting position, allowing him to take the green flag 43rd in the 44-car field. He raced all the way to the top 20 before he was taken out on lap 115 in a crash that also involved Trevor Sanborn and Curtis Gerry.

The driver from East Northport, N.Y., now based in Mooresville, N.C., steered a car owned by Dick Woodman, a Bath native closely involved with the one-two Oxford 250 finish by Jeremie and Bill Whorff in 2006.

Park also connected this weekend with Vermont short track great Harmon “Beaver” Dragon, whose son, Brent, was entered in the race.

“I’m still learning. It’s not like I’ve run here, and it’s not like many other tracks,” Park said prior to a late morning practice session. “(Dragon) has won a lot of races up here. His son has been a good friend of mine for years. He was telling me yesterday that my groove looked pretty good, telling me I needed to move higher or lower. With all that input, I’m able to give feedback to the crew, and it makes a big difference.”

His appearance at the race, while of his own volition, continued the recent tradition of drivers with a NASCAR cache attempting to qualify.

They have achieved the full spectrum of results. Kevin Harvick (2008) and Kyle Busch (2010) won the race. Matt Kenseth finished third in 2004. Others, including Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, have struggled.

Oxford’s oval-shaped 3/8-mile configuration and downward-sloping front straightaway are different from any track in the big leagues.

“It takes a lot of throttle control. That’s why a lot of good drivers come from Oxford, because it’s not a stand-and-steer type of racetrack,” Park said. “Not only are you steering all the time, but you’re also controlling the car. It’s definitely a momentum racetrack.”

Park’s career path personified momentum when his skills caught Earnhardt’s eye at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the mid-1990s. The ups and downs began in 1998, when he crashed one of Earnhardt’s Cup cars during practice at Atlanta and suffered a broken leg, broken collarbone, broken shoulder blade, and chipped front teeth.

He ran his only two full Sprint Cup seasons in 1999 and 2000, winning the second year at the track on the circuit closest to his home, the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

The most tumultuous year of Park’s life and career followed. Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 shook the sport. Eight days later, in the emotionally charged first race that followed, Park drove the No. 1 Pennzoil car to victory at Rockingham, N.C.

Seven months later, Park was involved in a freak accident at Darlington, S.C., when his steering wheel came out of its compartment under caution. His car veered out of control into the path of Larry Foyt, who was traveling at nearly full speed in an effort to get to the front of the lapped-car line.

Park suffered a severe brain injury, was out of racing for several months, and never again tasted his prior success.

“Growing up I always dreamed of racing with Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough and all those guys, guys that to us, being local guys, were so far above our capability,” Park said.

The silver-haired Dragon interrupted him. “They’re no different than you,” he said.

“He’s exactly right,” Park said with a smile. “Just getting a chance to race on the same track with guys like that and being able to win really fulfills a lifelong dream of racing at the top level and winning at the top level and representing the northeast. There’s a not a lot of guys from the northeast who have made it to the pinnacle and have won at the pinnacle. I’m proud to have done that.”

Park has scaled back his driving appearances in recent years. He has returned to his roots, competing sporadically on the K&N Pro Series and Whelen Modified Tour.

NASCAR teams often enlist Park’s help testing their Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars.

“I’m at the point in my career now where I can pick and choose and do what I enjoy to do,” he said.

On Sunday, Park competed against 14-year-olds Tate Fogleman, Tyler Dippel and Gunnar Rowe, none of whom are old enough to remember Park’s wins at the highest level.

“There’s a lot, and they have the money. You look at some of these young guys now, the talent that they have.” Park said. “It’s funny, they were talking about me coming to the Oxford 250, and I saw an article that said ‘the legendary Steve Park.’ I said I never thought I’d get old enough to be a legend.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.