I talked to Parker Kligerman five days after he had won the Tim Richmond Memorial 200 at Mansfield Motorsports Park, in Mansfield, Ohio. His victory there over a tough field of Automobile Racing Club of American (ARCA) competitors—he led the last 103 of the 200 laps—occurred on the eve of the summer solstice. It was his third win in nine ARCA races. The season started back in February at Daytona, and he finished seventh there. His outstanding performances after that at Salem, Indiana; Kentucky Speedway, Rockingham, North Carolina; Talladega, Alabama; and others established him quite early as the leader in ARCA championship points standings. He briefly lost the lead, but by winning the Racing for Wildlife 200 at Michigan International Speedway on June 12, Parker regained the number one position over Justin Lofton and nine-time ARCA champ Frank Kimmel. The triumph at Mansfield emphatically backed up his primacy.
Parker raced karts during his early adolescence and then won a Formula TR championship before hammering through two seasons of USAC midget racing. Late in 2008, just after starting his senior year in high school, he hooked up with Cunningham Motorsports and Penske Racing. He took the wheel of the Cunningham Dodge Charger at the New Jersey Motorsports Park, his first attempt behind the wheel of a stock car. He stunned many observers by qualifying second behind road racing veteran Andy Lally and ahead of third-place qualifier and Formula One veteran Scott Speed. The next race, on the short oval at Toledo, was instantly noteworthy for his spin-and-run maneuver: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtSL5GFstvY.
In my first conversation Parker, I wanted to emphasize the transition to stock cars after his previous five seasons of open-wheel racing:
Q. Would you talk about making the transition into stock cars and how has that been for you, what is it like to drive one?
A. It’s very different in that, the biggest thing you find—I gave this a little bit ago on a radio show—a stock car is 3400 pounds, which is probably the heaviest race car in the world. It has [unintelligible] on the skinniest, smallest tire in the world, with the least amount of downforce and a lot of horsepower. All those equal something that doesn’t really want to go around the track the way you want it to, or do anything you want it to. So you have to kind of coerce it into doing what you want it to. Whereas with open-wheel cars, they’re designed to go fast and designed to go around the racetrack, so they can kind of thrashed and thrown around and they’ll take it and you can make more mistakes and get away with it. Whereas in a stock car everything, has to be slower. Your movements are slower—especially at a short track, you’ll lift off at the start-finish line before a corner, get on the brakes and be out of the brake, coasting the thing all the way through the corner. Because it’s all about momentum. And it’s all about not having to make the thing do anything it doesn’t want to do—and if you can kind of free it up and keep the car from binding up. Therefore, you’re able to go faster and make the car react better. And that’s the biggest thing [unintelligible] you get to is like the braking aspect. Whereas a purpose-built race car, you can kind of bang it off in the corners, get on the brakes really hard and rotate it, and get off. Whereas a stock car has to be kind of slowly put in the corner, slowly slowed down, slowly sort of accelerate off the corner. And therefore make it so it doesn’t feel like a 3400-pound car on very skinny tires.
Q. You say the objective is to make it feel that it doesn’t weigh that much?
A. Yes. Exactly.
Q. There’s a lot of irony in that because the biggest, heaviest car requires—what you’re saying—is the most delicate touch and the least amount of brute-force driving ability.
A. Exactly. And that’s why the guys at the top of the sport are very well-regarded as race car drivers—because it’s the toughest car in the world to drive, in my opinion. You can say that a Formula One car is faster, et cetera, but to do a lap in a Formula One car is not tough, it’s the physical aspect that’s tough, it’s not actually driving the race car. It is designed to do that, whereas a stock car’s not designed to do what it’s trying to do.
Q. So you really had not driven in stock cars until you went to Daytona this January?
A. I actually did two races last year, one at the road course [New Jersey] and one at the Toledo oval. So that was quite an experience.
Q. So your first time in a stock car was late last season at New Jersey?
A. Yep. Road course.
Q. And how did that go?
A. We qualified second. We run second for a while and then we had our pit stop and it got rain-delayed when we were running sixth when it got canceled for rain.
A. Yeah. It was all right. We wanted to win that, so it wasn’t perfect.
Q. You’ve been able to make the transition pretty well. I guess that indicates a lot of driver discipline.
A. I think a big part about it, if you watch the higher open-wheel drivers come over, they all came over kind of at too high a level in the sport, and also almost with too many tricks in their bag from open-wheel cars that you couldn’t use here. You have the old adage you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s kind of that sort of deal. And I came over so fresh-minded and all that. It wasn’t that tough for me to just jump [in] and learn something new, being so young and not having driven open wheel cars that long. I think that was a big part of it also. And another big thing is that my coach-slash-manager, Bob Perona, he had already started coaching kids in stock cars a little bit. So when I came here, he had seen some of the things that open-wheel drivers struggle with. Therefore, before I even got in the car, I kind of knew what to look out for and knew, like, ‘Hey, I’m starting to do what that kid was doing. OK, I won’t do that.’ So I kind of came in with a little better knowledge than most kids.
Q. What you’re saying is that you have turned over the old adage on its head, and that is: Youth and talent are no match for old age and treachery. You’ve proved otherwise. When you got to Daytona this year, what was your reaction to be out on that big track. That would’ve been your first superspeedway, correct.
A. ARCA is the only series that you can actually get into that before you get to the NASCAR series. Everyone who goes there is a rookie. I think the biggest thing is that we came there with the idea that we probably weren’t, we knew we weren’t going to be that fast off the tests because it takes a lot of money to run those races really well. So we definitely were not one of the fastest cars but we came there with the idea that Daytona can become a little bit of a handling track, more than you think, way more than Talladega, and therefore we were just going to move our way up and muscle our way to the front and hope we get there. We had done that and then we got caught up in one of those big wrecks. By that point we were just struggling to get back up to the front. We had bent up fenders and all that. And we moved up. With that one-lap restart we were able to get by one guy with our screwed up car and block him down the backstretch and finish seventh. That was our goal in that weekend: to move up steadily and have a solid run. We knew we didn’t really have the car to win, the car to run up front. We were just going to be a little bit smarter than everyone else and move up. And that’s what we did.
Q. You gave me a nice summary of the race, but what I’m wondering—just the experience of being on that big track—it must feel like a wilderness when you go out and practice and run time trials when you’re on it by yourself, having not been on a two-and-a-half-mile track before.
A. It’s not that bad. Daytona—there is a sense of speed. Because it is a little bit tighter and it’s bumpier, there is an actual handling aspect to it. Talledega, on the other hand, you do get that ‘Where the heck am I?’ feeling because going down the backstretch you can be doing one-ninety and you don’t even feel like you’re moving when you’re alone. They’re different animals. Daytona feels more like a real racetrack, whereas Talladega, you feel like, ‘Oh, wow! We are on something big and high-banked, and you’re just flat-out the whole way around.
Q. Is it a thrill?
A. Yeah. It’s interesting. When you’re in the race, the cars move around a lot. You bump and you’re banging, and that’s all really fun. But when you’re out there alone, it’s probably not much of a thrill. Alone, your grandma could do it. That’s the difference between… In the race, the cars are moving around, there’s the aero part of it, you’re bumping and banging. That all becomes really exciting and tough, trying to move up and play the aero game and make deals with each other. But when you ride around alone, it’s probably a little bit too easy.
Q. As far as the delicacy that’s required, and staying within yourself as a driver, once you get into competition and somebody else is barreling into the turn—like last Saturday with number 16 on your tail, and then number 17 did at times, too—how do you stay within yourself and not put your mind outside the car? That’s what I would be inclined to do, I think, and make a mistake.
A. Back when I used to do open-wheel cars, we have a whole mantra that me and my coach came up with, that is, ‘Pressure from the front.’ Which means you didn’t look in the mirrors, you didn’t look at anything, you just focused out front, and you focused on doing the best laps and driving the car the best possible way you could. Everything behind you would take care of itself. When you run these little short ovals and someone’s running on your bumper for sixty laps, same deal. I didn’t even—that whole time, I never looked in the mirror more than once or twice, and had my spotter just let me know if he gets more than half a car length to our bumper, then I’ll do something. He never did, therefore my spotter never said anything, and therefore I never looked back. It may look really close out there, but having him more than half a car-length back, that’s normal. It’s all about focusing out front and not even ever looking behind you.
Q. I wanted to ask you if you’re aware of the tradition of ARCA and also some of your feelings about whether this summer represents a big adventure for you.
A. ARCA obviously has been going on for, I think, more than fifty years or so, and it was kind of one of the first stock car associations that ran, besides NASCAR and USAC stock cars, too, at the time. But obviously it has a long, storied history of being a springboard for drivers trying to make it to the NASCAR ranks. That’s obviously why a lot of these young drivers are here, because it’s a great springboard to that position. Whereas, the adventure of the season, yes, it definitely is kind of an adventure, in that we’ve got to look at is a kind of fun sort of ‘Journey is better than the destination,’ and that’s kind of how this championship is. We’re just kind of treating it like a fun journey and see where it goes. We’ll try to win as many races as possible, and hopefully that championship will end up with us in the end.
Q. Some of these destinations—I realize that you ran USAC midgets and probably have been in Salem several times now, for example—but these places like DuQuoin are kind of off the beaten path. But they do have a certain…the names themselves resound with tradition. I just wonder if you’re really looking forward to getting into some of those tracks and towns.
A. Definitely, a place like Salem, when we went there, it was the second race. That was exciting because everyone knows Salem is a high-banked, rough-and-tumble short track that everyone was excited to go to. I thought that was definitely an exciting experience. We ran well there, so that was great. I think those kinds of tracks are the kind of tracks that kids should run, because it gives you sort of like the roughest part of racing, and then you can move up from there to a cleaner part of racing. But that is like the roughest tumble. Whereas for the dirt tracks, I have no idea. I’ve never run dirt. No one on my team has run dirt—besides Mark Gibson; he was a good dirt guy—but on our little Seventy-seven team, none of us knows dirt from asphalt.
Q. Even in midgets, you never ran dirt?
A. No, I only did pavement.
Q. I asked Frank Kimmel to give a forecast of the tracks, and specifically I wanted him to talk about the two dirt tracks. He said the way those tracks are groomed, quite expertly, the surface ends up being more like a slippery asphalt. He said that you and the other younger drivers will do fine.
A. Well, that’s what I hear. But when you go on an asphalt or a concrete track, you generally know from your experience what that grip level is. And a lot of these kids who have run there before can before, if I can look at an asphalt track and know what that grip level is before I ever get in the car, they can look at that dirt track and go, ‘Oh, that’s x and x grip level.’ I’m kind of sitting there like, ‘Man, I have no idea if this thing—it looks shiny, it looks grippy, but maybe that’s really slippery or that’s really tacky. There’s all those different dirt words I’ve never seen in my life. We’ll have to learn a lot really quickly.
Q. Tell me about iRacing.
A. I’ve been sim racing since I was about thirteen years old. I met a couple race car drivers on there. I’ve sim-raced with Dale Earnhart, Jr., Martin Truex, and all those guys in the NASCAR sim racing. But also I met a friend of mine, now, who’s A.J. Allmendinger, and we used to sim-race all the time and still do occasionally. Probably not so much this summer, but just up to like a couple of months ago we were still sim-racing a lot. It’s a great tool for race car drivers to learn and practice different tracks, et cetera. With this newest sim, iRacing, they have laser-scanned tracks which are within one centimeter of the real live track. People ask me, ‘How real is this racetrack?’ I go, ‘Don’t ask how real it is. It’s exactly the same as real life.’ It’s like, you go to this track, and every bump, dip, and crevice in the track is on there, and every way you run it in real life is right there. If you avoid a bump in real life, you’re avoiding it in iRacing—that’s how amazing it is. There’s another sim called ARCA Sim Racing, which is their licensed sim. I use that a lot for testing for the ARCA tracks. You can go in there and almost take an exact setup that we have in our car, put it into that sim and run within half a tenth of a lap time you ran in real life. I mean it’s very close. And it’s really cool to have that kind of tool to work with, and I think since I’ve had so little running compared to a lot of the kids I’ve ever raced against in terms of, like, seat time, all the sim racing I’ve done over the years has kind of made up for that. It’s been a big tool in my learning curve per se.