HAMPTON, Ga. -- At 178.264 mph, Steve Park was more than 10 mph behind the slowest qualifying speed for last year's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Tuesday's practice session, however, wasn't about speed. His recovery from a vicious crash nearly six months ago at the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway has been timed by a calendar, not a stopwatch.
''Right now, it's just a matter of getting laps,'' Park said. ''I haven't been behind the wheel of a race car in six months. It's all one step at a time right now, one step at a time.''
For Park, a 178.264-mph lap is a baby step. That was his fastest lap in two days of testing at Atlanta, and it was well short of Dale Jarrett's pole speed of 192.748 mph. The primary reason why his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team was at the 1.54-mile facility was to get Kenny Wallace up to speed for next week's MBNA America 500. When the team got a break in its concentration, Park was shaking down a backup car and getting a feel for the fast lane all over again.
Six months ago, Park wasn't sure he'd ever race again. He was hurt in a bizarre accident during a NASCAR Busch Series race. As the cars lined up for a restart after a caution period, Park swerved his Chevrolet left and right to clean off his tires. Suddenly, the steering wheel came off in his hand, and the car veered left as Larry Foyt sped off pit road to join the pack. Foyt slammed into the driver's-side door at full throttle.
Park suffered a brain injury that still affects his speech. It has been a frustrating time for the 34-year-old driver from East Northport, N.Y. His mind races, but his senses too often struggle to keep pace.
When he was hurt in 1998 during practice for the spring race at Atlanta, it was easy to pinpoint the cause of the pain and a method of recovery. Unlike a broken leg, however, the brain has its own timetable.
''The human body can only take so much,'' Park said. ''First I broke my leg. Now I have a brain injury. But what I've learned is, the human body can heal itself. It's easier when you have a broken arm or a broken leg. When you have a brain injury, it can take the same amount of time to get better, but it's hard to see the progress.''
Wallace will drive for Park until he is fully recovered. For now, the plan is to continue the testing program until Park has the mental and physical stamina to survive a 500-mile race.
With Wallace under contract for the entire year, there's no hurry.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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