Bob Perona Q&A

I spoke to Bob Perona on July 6, while he and Parker Kligerman were driving from Indianapolis to Kentucky Speedway for a Cunningham Motorsports team test. Bob has been Parker’s coach since Parker was fourteen or fifteen. I met Bob last month after Parker won the ARCA race at Mansfield, Ohio. (Alas, I didn’t snap a picture of him.) Parker led the last 103 laps of that 200-lap race. Bob told me then, “I think he’s Tiger Woods.” I was interested in learning about the 2007 and 2008 seasons when they ran a USAC midget.

Q. I wondered if you could talk about the chronology of the midget racing, and I’m kind of shooting for the value that was attained from all of the mechanical work you guys did yourselves and also the track experience.

Parker, left, and Patrick Sheltra before the Click It or Ticket Buckle-Up Kentucky 150 last Saturday. Parker won the race, Sheltra finished ninth.
Parker, left, and Patrick Sheltra before the Click It or Ticket Buckle-Up Kentucky 150 last Saturday. Parker won the race, Sheltra finished ninth.

A. When we stopped doing open wheel, the Formula car—not when we stopped, when we knew that it was imminent that it was going to be the end—the search was on to try and figure out how (a) we keep him in the car (b) what I could possibly talk his parents into—and him at the same time because it was going to be a stretch to find something. The focus had always been open wheel/F1/Indy Car kind of stuff. Interestingly enough, when I was working at Speed Secrets (http://www.speedsecrets.com), one of the other coaches was working with a kid in midgets. He suggested to me that I look into that. So I looked into the midget thing. Honestly, at that point, I had never seen a midget in my life. I had seen a sprint car once, a winged sprint car, and that was so long ago I didn’t even remember what they looked like. When we looked at it further and kind of got some numbers on it and what it would cost, it wasn’t even, “Hey let’s go to NASCAR.” At that point, it was something to drive. It started to make sense from a financial standpoint and at least we could keep racing and we could scare up some money to move back into open wheel. So that is the way we started seeing what we could do. And then it became, “You know, the NASCAR side of things is a pretty good option.” It went in that order. It wasn’t, “OK, we’re done with trying to go to Formula One. Let’s go to NASCAR. How do we do that?” It was, “What do we drive?” And then it kind of became this natural, “Hey, this would be a good way to go to NASCAR.” The first time we saw the car we were going to buy was when we came up to Seattle to test it—to race it. We rented a truck, and I had a trailer, and we drove up there. The person who had the race car was a friend of the coach that I told you about, and he had it for sale. Everything kind of fell into place. “Hey, you should do midgets and I know a guy who’s selling one.” We went up there and tested. I was just taking notes at this point. I didn’t know the first thing about this car. My background in racing was, I did all my own work on my car for a long time until I advanced far enough so I had mechanics taking care of it. So I had done it before. I had done it in trial-and-error fashion when I was coming up and learning how to be a driver, trying to take my career somewhere. No one in my family had ever been around racing. Nobody liked it. My parents hated it. It was all me. So I had to do all that—which I’ve always been a fan of, and it’s no big surprise to me that drivers that have the most hardship are usually the ones that succeed.

Q. Yesterday I tuned into the IRL race at Watkins Glen a few laps after the green flag and Marco Andretti was already flailing around at the back.

A. Absolutely. I’ve worked with drivers that have a lot of wealth and I’ve worked with drivers who are poor, for lack of a better word. Of course, that’s all relative in racing. Poor in racing is probably wealthy in the real world. There’s drivers that don’t have enough money to do it properly and there are people that are dead broke trying to do it, and I’m sure you’ve seen that. I’ve worked with both. The thing that kept me going was hard-headedness, because I didn’t have any money when I was doing it. When I arrived on the scene and finally had the means to do it, I had the drive and the motivation and the will to do it well. When you have all of the best equipment all of the time, you’re never really tested. The first time you get tested, it’s usually at a very high level and you don’t know how to react to it. That’s where a lot of drivers fail. You really have to be tested early, so then you know how to deal with it. So I’ve always been a fan of shoestring budgets and flying by the seat of your pants and learning how to do it. There’s so many people in racing that say that’s the wrong way to do it, but I don’t buy that, I don’t think that’s the case.

Q. I wonder what sort of mechanical prowess and insight Parker might have gained from helping to work on a car, and how that affects him as a driver, how it assists him.

Parker hurries along while leading early in the Kentucky race.
Parker hurries along while leading early in the Kentucky race.

A. Well, yeah. He’s always been really good at understanding what’s going on. He’s a student of the game. He spends a lot of time watching racing. When he does sim racing, he’s working on setup stuff. He really understands it. That’s been a learning process. He didn’t always understand it. He’s learned things in the Formula TR car, Formula BMW, and midgets that translate. He picks up on certain things. There are little tiny things in racing, little tiny lessons that you pick up on, that stick with you forever that are really important. It could be as simple as, “When I feel this, that means the shock absorber’s doing this.” Or as complex as really understanding vehicle dynamics and what makes a race car get around a racetrack faster from an engineering standpoint. When we started working with the midget, it was just he and I. We were literally putting the race car together, at times, at parking lots at hotels. We’re not the first to do that, by any means. To me, it was no new thing, even though the race car was new and it was a different kind of understanding of how to make this car work, it wasn’t new to be up all night working in a parking lot. I’ve done all that before. It was new to him, it was new to his parents, but it wasn’t new to me. I think Dana really took a big leap of faith when I told her what we were going to do. She thought it was crazy at first. I explained it to her kind of the same way I’m explaining it to you, which is, Hey, a little bit of hardship is a good thing. A lot of hardship will build—you know, either he’ll sink or he’ll swim. It’s that simple. You get thrown into the deep end right away and then you have a little bit of success, it just strengthens you as a driver and a person. When you get to a situation like he’s in now, it makes all this stuff a whole lot easier because when you get to the point where you have a lot of talent around you on the race car and all you’ve got to do is drive, it’s a piece of cake. And you have so much understanding of what’s going on. I kind of knew based on my experience that if we were able to have a little success, it would make him that much better and I think it’s important, especially now, to have a very good understanding of what makes a race car work. And to be able to have a picture in your head of how things are moving around on the car… Understanding that the torque ball is connected to the torque tube is connected to the rear end gear…

Q. You had two full seasons of USAC racing in midgets? And how many events there were altogether? Talk about some of the highs and lows during that time.

A. In racing, I guess there always are a lot more lows than highs. We did the first year, I think we did fourteen races. You know, it was interesting. When we went to Seattle for that first race, it was a regional deal up in Seattle. When you’re a rookie up there, they make you start dead last. It doesn’t matter where you qualify. And we had done that test and he did really well. A race car driver will jump into a race car and figure it out. He had a lot to learn, but he figured it out pretty quickly. He actually was pretty fast. He qualified reasonably. We had to start at the back, and he came right to the front. I was thinking, “This is going to be easy. This is going to be a snap. We’re in good shape here. This is our first time, and we’re capable of running in the top three.” We had what’s called a Chevy-Gaerte engine. Gaerte is a company that’s in Indiana. There’s this whole world in Indiana that revolves around the midget/sprint car thing. The first season we were doing the midget thing, our original plan was, “OK, we’ll do a race in Seattle. We’ll come to Indy. We’ll do a couple of races. Then we’ll take it up to Connecticut, because they have the Northeast Midget Association up there. And we’ll run all the races up there, and we’ll leave it up there because that’s where Parker lives and I’ll travel out when we have races and I’ll run it out of there. Well, we did that first race and then we brought the car to—”

Q. Do you remember where he finished in that first race?

Joey Coulter's car gleams in the setting sun at Iowa Speedway on July 11.
Joey Coulter's car gleams in the setting sun at Iowa Speedway on July 11.

A. We didn’t. We were running, I think we were fourth and we had some kind of an issue and I can’t remember what it was. The car didn’t make the finish. And this was, this would be a normal thing. In midgets, the things are, I mean, they’re hand grenades. The joke is: You pull the pin and you deploy it on the racetrack. When you’re trying to extract three hundred and some odd horsepower out of a four-cylinder, it’s just, it’s a hand grenade. And they’re really kind of finicky until you figure them out. There are some guys that never figure them out and there are guys that seem to make them run all the time. But even the big teams, DNFs are not altogether uncommon—mechanical ones. And so we didn’t finish that one, but we ran it really well. We knew we didn’t have a really big engine. I did a lot of research and I talked to a lot of people. I knew, OK, if we’re going to go and do the national races, we probably don’t have an engine we can win with. We were hoping maybe we had something we could run fairly competitive with, makes some fields to get some experience and see where it goes from there. The goal was that first year, “Hey, this might be it. This might be everything you get. Go out and win a national race.” And it’s kind of funny on that vein. It’s always been that way for Parker: “Hey, you’ve just got to win.” I told him that early on in [Formula] TR. I said, “I know you don’t have all the money in the world and you don’t have some of the resources and such. Just go and win. That’ll fix everything. If you just win, I promise you it’ll fix everything that’s wrong and eventually it’ll all work out.” That was kind of the mantra. He did that in TR, and it was the same thing in midgets. I said, “Let’s just go win. If you win one of these national races, we’re going to turn it into some kind of momentum. So we brought the car out to Indy. The second race we did in the midget was the Night Before the 500 at IRP. That was an awakening. We really discovered what we were up against there.

Q. Because there’s a lot of really fast, fabulous, experienced drivers running these things, right? And great cars, too?

A. For a national midget race, there are fifty cars that will show up for a twenty-four-car main. And they’re all good. They’re all fast. The guys that are winning regional races are at the back of the whole field—they don’t even transfer a lot of times. We found out real quick what we were up against. There’s so much talent out there. Midget racing is definitely the most competitive racing I’ve ever been involved with. It just blows everything else out of the water because of what you have to do to be competitive and what it takes to win. Even if you’re the fastest car out there, because of inverts and everything, doesn’t mean you’re going to win anything. We got our butts kicked. That’s the best way to put it. I mean, we got beat bad. We didn’t have the horsepower to compete anyway. We had this little three-hundred-and-forty-horsepower peashooter, max. There are guys out there with Effingers [?] and they have three hundred and eighty horsepower and we just didn’t have it—on a big track like that, especially. We quickly reevaluated what we needed to do, and the decision was made. We don’t need to go to Connecticut. We need to stay here. Indy is where it’s at. We can run with these guys, we can run with anybody, and this is where it’s at. We decided we’re going to run some national races, we’re going to run some regional races. Try and win one of these things. If was an all in. This whole thing’s been all in.

Q. And at that point were you still living in Colorado?

A. I still hadn’t moved to Indy at this point. I never had any intention of moving to Indy. Parker wasn’t my only client. I was working with a lot of other drivers. But after that first season, when I realized what I felt he could do, it became a very high priority for me. I’m still a very competitive person and I don’t feel that I got to accomplish everything that I wanted to in my racing career, so a big part of this for me is, there’s a lot of unfinished business that I have in the sport. It’s the way to be a part of some of that. My racing career is over. I’m not going to be in the car ever again.

Q. How old are you?

A. Thirty-four.

A crewman sweeps up after a Kentucky Speedway pit stop.
A crewman sweeps up after a Kentucky Speedway pit stop.

Q. That’s what I was going to guess.

A. I’ve been out of the car since I was thirty. The funny thing about it is, I don’t feel like I’ve lost any speed. Actually, last season, I did a race in the midget car. It was the first time I’d ever driven the thing. It was no big deal. I took to it right away, and it was a lot of fun. If anything, I’ve sped up since I was driving. But I’m a better coach, I think, than I was a driver. So it would be a really stupid decision for me to try and be a race car driver again. For one, it took an unbelievable effort on my part to fund it when I was doing it. I couldn’t do that again. I just don’t have the energy to do it again. And, two, you just kind of land where you land for a reason. I’m perfectly happy with this.

 

Q. Let me go back to the first season. You ran fourteen races. Did he win a race?

A. No. At the end of the season—we struggled the whole season. At the end of the season, we had a race at Anderson, and it kind of became, “All right, rather than trying to win one of these national races, let’s just make one, let’s just make a main. It was just so hard to make a main. We had this race at Anderson, and he qualified in the middle somewhere. We started the heat race in seventh or eighth and you have to finish in the top four to transfer to the main. Anderson’s a little quarter-mile track, high banking, really hard to pass. We made the car work pretty good that night, and he drove around the outside of a whole bunch of people and finished the thing third, and we transferred. Which was good. I mean, it was like a win to us. It was huge. And a lot of people took note. People were noticing all season long. It’s not like he had the best car on the grid. I guarantee you we transferred into that main with a car with an engine that would never see a national main if driven by anybody else. It went unbelievably well to do that. We didn’t finish the main because he got caught up with somebody else’s wreck. But it was a big deal. At the same time I was coaching Tayler Malsam in the ARCA car and people were kind of taking notice of Parker. I talked to Kerry Scherer. He’s my partner—he owns Cunningham Motorsports. And I’d been talking to him about Parker, saying, “Listen, we’ve got to find a way to get him into the ARCA car. He’s really special. I’d been preaching on him, preaching on him, preaching on him about it. When Ilmor started building engines for Cunningham [Motorsports], we found out that they had this midget program, midget engines that they’d never run. They’d built the thing but they’d never had anybody run it. We had been talking about trying to do a second year of midgets because we’d just started to have success. But we needed to have an engine. We couldn’t do it if we didn’t have an engine. We had to have something we could compete with.

Q. Did you run the whole season with that Chevy-Gaerte engine? Did you ever have to tear it down?

A. Never.

Q. It lasted all season?

A. It was a workhorse, yeah. It was a good engine for that.

lugnutsandcup01Q. Go ahead about the Ilmor.

A. So we had the Ilmor and, well, we did a deal with them through the Cunningham connection. We got a smoking deal with it. I told Dana, I said, “Listen, I’ll work for free. I’ll even put some of my own money into this. I know we can do it.” I’ve been telling her and Robert the whole time, “He’s going to be great. He’s going to be great. Give us a chance. We’ll make it.” So we got the Ilmor. We got a little bit of help from Cunningham and from Dodge. I put a little bit in. We ended up doing the second year on very little money, but we had a big engine. We had another driver as a teammate for Parker, and that’s Danielle [Dickson]. Her sponsor brought some money. Between everything, it kind of all worked out. I had moved a driver over to Cunningham, one of my drivers, so Kerry put money into the midget program for me. So we were going to run a second year, but now we had a real motor. And it was good chance for Parker to develop a motor for somebody. The second year became a lot, I mean a lot, easier. We had some struggles getting the motor to run at first. But once we got it, we were fast everywhere, really fast. We qualified up front at all the national races, made all the national events, ran at the front, qualified first or second at all the regional events. Which was a big problem because, the regional events, they invert the field. So we were too fast to win. It’s one of those things I really don’t like about regional racing and midget racing, is the invert. They do it for the fans. But in a thirty-lap race, you start eighth, by the time you get to the front the thing’s over. So it’s really unfair to the guys who are really fast. We never really were in position. We won a trophy dash, but were never in position to win any of those races. He was the fastest car on the track, but by the time he’d get up there, it was over. But he was doing so many great things in the car and learned so much, I finally convinced Kerry, “We need to have him in a race car, in the ARCA car. We just have to do it. The plan was, OK, let’s put him in the car for the road course race because he’s a road course racer and he’ll do great and we can do this. It’s not going to be really expensive. So he’s just going to do the one race. We had a decent road course car, but quite literally we were putting that car together at the race track when we got there. It was still coming together. His team was basically three of us. We didn’t have road course brakes on it—it had short track brakes on it. We didn’t have the kind of brakes you really need to do road course racing. It was fast. He was fast. We pretty much knew there were going to be three or four guys we even had to worry about. The rest of the field was completely out to lunch because it’s a road course. It’s amazing how bad some of them are. And the fact that they don’t get anybody to help them learn how to get around a road course is really what amazes me. So we were second-fastest in practice, we qualified second. We out-qualified Scott Speed, which was really great—that was kind of the goal. Andy Lally out-qualified us, and I know Andy. I actually raced against Andy. He’s a good driver and he had a great car and he knows that track. He used to drive GT cars [unintelligible]… If I’m coming through a little weird here on the phone, it’s because this road has been absolutely the bumpiest thing I’ve been on.

Q. Go ahead about New Jersey.

A. We qualified second and we were really fast. Actually, I felt like we had a pole lap going and made a small mistake at the back half of the track. We missed pole by a tenth. We were a tenth ahead of Scott Speed, and we were a full second clear of fourth. There were three cars there. My other driver, Tayler, was there as well. He was fourth. We had the second [unintelligible], which was great. Parker got a reasonable start but not a great start. His first start, everything was new. It was the first time he’d ever driven a stock car—ever. First time he’d ever driven anything with that much horsepower. So when he took the start, he jumped on the throttle and spun the tires, didn’t get a great start. He got passed by Scott Speed and ran third. Basically kind of hung in there in third, ran Scott Speed down. We were going really well. We made a pit stop. Our plan was just to take two tires because we didn’t have a pit crew. We had kind of a “OK, who’s ever done this before? Raise your hand.” Any time we spent in pit lane we knew was going to be bad because we were going to be slow. We were going to lose positions, and that was the way it was going to be. We’d have to make them up on the track. Well, if I had it to do over again, I would have tackled somebody just to put fuel in that thing, not taken tires, and gone. Because we would have won. But our crew chief for some reason at the last second decided, “Hey, let’s put on four tires.” So it was a really long stop. And we went to the back. He raced it through the field and was ahead of Scott Speed, behind Andy Lally. We wouldn’t have been behind Andy Lally if we wouldn’t have taken four tires. And the rain came. Justin Allgaier ended up winning that race. Justin Allgaier never turned a lap within a second and a half of us all weekend long. We finished sixth, but every car in front of us, with the exception of Lally, belonged behind us by a lot. It was one of those results that was kind of … it was nice to run up front, but we should have won the thing. All the guys in front of us, they didn’t pit. They called the race, but we should have won it. After that, there was the second Kentucky race and I brought Parker with me. I said, “Hey”—I was coaching Tayler at the time—”it’s important for you to be at all these races and meet the team and talk to Kerry and get to know everybody. Hopefully we can find a way to get you into the car next year. It just so happened at the Kentucky race, Briggs Cunningham came. Briggs doesn’t come very often. He doesn’t like to travel too much. Parker and Briggs hit it off, just got along famously. They talked about racing and it was just like—

Q. Dana mentioned there’s also the Westport connection.

Brad Reithmeyer was involved in a Lap 60 accident at Kentucky.
Brad Reithmeyer was involved in a Lap 60 accident at Kentucky.

A. Oh, yeah. There are a lot of different connections. But really the racing thing. The fact that Briggs likes to talk about racing and Parker likes to talk about racing and they both like—Briggs was impressed by how much he knew about not just what currently is going on in racing but kind of the history. That impressed him. Briggs is eighty years old [actually, he’s seventy-six] and Parker was seventeen, but they got along like they were the same age. Kerry called me the Monday before Toledo and said, “We’re going to put Parker in the car for Toledo. Briggs wants to pay for it. You want to do it?” I had told Kerry that I did not want to do an oval race without a test because I figured we would get at best two or three shots at it and we have to win. If we didn’t do something like that we were going to be in big trouble because it was all or nothing. It was kind of an all-in moment again. I felt like we had our opportunity to win at New Jersey and we didn’t because we did a half, kind of half the effort, in my opinion. Should have had a professional pit crew. We should have had a car with road course brakes. If we had those two things we’d have qualified first and we’d have won it and we could say, “OK, we win the race, maybe that would attract some stuff.” So I was really disappointed with New Jersey. I mean, very disappointed. So when he called about Toledo, I said, “I don’t want to put him in something that he’s not going to be able to win in. And I don’t want to put him in a situation that he’s not going to be able to win in.” But sometimes you can’t turn those things down. You never know when you’re going to get another opportunity. Briggs wanted to pay for it. He wanted to see Parker drive. So I said, “All right. I’ll call Parker, talk to him, tell him what it’s all about.” And I remember the conversation because I’ve had the same conversation with Parker so many times: “All right, here’s the deal. You’re going to get no time. You’re going to get the lesser equipment. You’ve got to win. Are you willing to give it a shot? Do you think you can do it?” He always said, “Yeah, let’s try it. I’ll give it my best and we’ll see what we can do.” I called Kerry up and I said, “OK, we’re in. Make sure I’ve got a pit crew this time. Make sure I’ve got somebody who can make some good decisions and we’ve got a good race car.” So we went and we had a good race car, but it was set up very, very conservative, very tight. We knew it was going to be tight but we didn’t know it was going to be that tight. If we would have tested, we would’ve figured that out. And he practiced somewhere around fifteenth to eighteenth, somewhere in that range. Which wasn’t bad for his first time driving a stock car. Practice was his first time ever in a stock car on an oval. And that was with other guys out there. I remember he came on the radio and said, “I know I don’t know a whole lot about this yet, but my feeling is we’re too tight.” We brought it in, and I asked the crew chief at the time what the crossweight was. He gave me a number and I said, “Oh, my God! We’re way too tight, way too tight!” So he cranked the crossweight out. We kept the thing reasonable. It definitely turned a little bit better. He went out and put in a phenomenal, phenomenal lap in qualifying—first time ever doing qualifying [on an oval] with a stock car. Just incredible! And I think we qualified eleventh. It was just an awesome lap. And he ran a great race. Again, we didn’t have a car to win. We had a good car, but we didn’t have a winning car. He finished seventh—probably could have finished sixth—drove really clean, really smart. Had to come from the back a couple of times. Just did a great job. I was hoping for a top five. We didn’t have it in it, but that was a very good result. And that was two top tens. And everybody said he did a great job. So Briggs, after that race, said, “All right, I want to support this. I like Parker a lot. He’s got a lot of ability, but he’s also very humble. He loves racing. He’s earned it, and he’s deserving. I want to support him. I’ll pay for eight races next year. At that point I knew, “OK, we’re going to make it now, because that’s all we need, is eight races. You give me eight races, we’ll win four of them. And I told him, I told Kerry, “I guarantee you will win four races if you give me eight.” I don’t know how many races we’ve done so far this year.

Q. It was nine at Mansfield.

A. And we’ve won three. There were three of them that I didn’t want to do. The way we had actually put it together originally was, I picked eight races that I knew we could go and win at: the Kentuckys, the Poconos, Michigan. And I wanted to stay away from the places I didn’t think we needed to run at because we weren’t going to run for the championship. So we were going to do Daytona just because it’s Daytona, but there was no way we were going to do Talladega, no way we were going to do Salem, no way we were going to do the dirt shows. We were going to do Toledo, obviously. And we did Daytona, and Daytona was a nightmare in so many ways because we didn’t have a provisional and the car was not fast. It was not fast.

Q. I noticed that he qualified something like thirtieth out of forty.

Late in the Kentucky race, Parker chases Grant Enfinger (83) while the eventual 23rd-place finisher Tim George, Jr. poses a serious obstacle in going thre laps down.
Late in the Kentucky race, Parker chases Grant Enfinger (83) while the eventual 23rd-place finisher Tim George, Jr. (2) poses a serious obstacle as he goes three laps down.

A. We were sweating bullets. We came within a couple of tenths of a second of not making that race. That was the most stress I’ve ever been [under] during a qualifying session. We went out early and we had to watch all these people go out and run. Some guys drove quicker than us but we thought we had it in the bag. It was tough. We ended up making it, and he drove a fantastic race. He came right through the field, ran as high as fourth. Actually, we were running fourth, and I thought, “OK, we might have a chance to—I don’t know if we can win this thing but we can definitely push somebody across the finish line and finish second. I knew our car was not fast. If we got out front, we’d be a sitting duck. But let’s see what we’ve got. Then of course a wreck happened in front of us, like it always does in the ARCA race. That’s just the way it is on the superspeedways, which is why I didn’t want to do Talladega. We got a piece of it and it took off the left side of the car and they brought it in and cut the left side off and sent him back out. He almost missed it—he did a really good job. We were back in the back and he fought his way back and he made a great pass on the last lap and finished seventh. I mean, that car had no business being seventh. It was beat up. After that, through this whole process in USAC, I was trying to get him in front of a team that would pay for him to go race, a Ganassi or a Penske. And we had met with the Ganassi people. They had no interest. As a matter of fact, every time I see the person we talked to from Ganassi, I just revel in it right now because I know they’re that going, “Oh, my God! We let one get away.” I talked to the Penske people. I talked to Mike Nelson very early on, because they were interested in Tayler—

Q. Mike Nelson of Penske Racing?

A. Mike Nelson is vice president of Penske Racing. He’s in charge of the NASCAR side of things. They had some interest in Tayler. And Tayler’s a great kid. I coached him for a couple of years—really quick, just a super kid. And I talked with them after a meeting, because it looked like I probably wouldn’t be working with Tayler the following year, and I said I’ve got another kid that you need to look at. I’ll tell you right now, he’s got no money, but he’s the best I’ve seen. And I’m sure they’ve heard that a million times. They’ve heard, “This kid’s the best.” But I just stayed on them like you couldn’t believe. And Kerry started to understand what Parker could do. So he would tell them the same thing: the kid is unbelievable. And Briggs. So we started getting all this momentum. Well, they saw him drive at Daytona and heard about how he’d done in the other races and said, “We’re really interested.” And Mike Nelson said, “We want to help you in some way, because we think he’s got a lot of ability. But we want you to do all eight races up front. We want you to do the first eight races of the season, because maybe you can find some sponsorship and keep him going and run for the championship in 2009. I was absolutely dead-set against that, because I thought, “Man, there’s so many races up front that we don’t need to be at, that it takes away from the Poconos, the Michigans, the Kentuckys, that I know we can win at and we don’t have to worry about running into anybody else’s wreck. But they convinced us. And it’s hard to say no to them because it’s Penske and they have a of interest in him. So they prevailed. And thankfully so, because it’s turned out to be a great thing. He’s leading the championship and obviously we passed our magic eight number and we’re still racing. I believe that as long as he’s in the lead in the championship, we’ll find a way. I kind of feel like, I know, we should have won the last five races. We should have won Kentucky. A light switch went off at Kentucky with about fifteen laps to go. We hadn’t been able to run with the two race leaders all race long. We were a real solid third, real solid, but could not catch the leaders. They just had a little speed on him. And I kept telling him the whole time, “Listen, you’ve just got to want it more than these guys. You’ve just got to want it more. If you want it more, you will beat them. There’s more there in the car.” And that’s the thing about driving stock cars. You can kind of dig deep and come up with some speed. And all of a sudden, we got a caution and he’d turned a couple of really great laps right before the caution. He came on the radio and said, “I’ve figured it out. I know what you’re talking about. I can catch them.” And the caution before that, I had asked him, “Can you catch them?” And he said, “I don’t know. I just don’t know if I’ve got the speed.” Then he said, “I’ve figured it out. I can catch them.” And he took the restart and just turned it on. He was the fastest thing on the racetrack. He did his fastest laps by a couple of tenths. And it was like, “Oh, gosh, here we go.” He chased down Lofton. He was a lot faster than him. He was in the process of passing him, and just probably a combination of running underneath him for a few laps and getting a little too much air on the nose at the wrong point, and he spun it on the front straight.

Q. Is this where I saw the YouTube video? 

A. Yeah. And he went into the grass. Now if he would have cleared Lofton, we would have beat Buescher, no problem, because we were catching him like crazy. He’d have caught and passed him. We’d have won Kentucky. So he spun—made a mistake. But he learned so much from that. And I knew, I knew, “OK, this is it. We’re going to win races hand over fist now.” And the one thing that was always worrying me from the beginning of the season was, we need to win one early, because he’s going to have the speed to win one, but I don’t want to be in the situation where, “When is he going to win a race?” So that was the thing going to Toledo. You’ve got to win this race. You’ve just got to find a way. Just dig deep. Find a way to get it done! Win this sucker, you will never look back. You’ll win all the time. And he did. He won that one, did an awesome job getting himself in position—he had led some laps at other places, you know—but getting himself in position, leading, fighting off a couple of really big challenges, and won it. Then it was going to open the flood gates. Should have won Pocono—

Q. I heard about Pocono. This is where I started paying attention to Parker’s story. I was in the press box at MIS, and they were talking about how he chased down Joey Logano and passed him and had not been on the track—there hadn’t even been any practice—never been to the track before. And then he had a flat tire, I guess.

A. He was the fastest car there, by far. Logano was a little bit quicker than us the first stint. But once he came in and made changes on the car, made it a little bit better, he chased him down, he fought him, I mean he just out-fought him, just flat out beat him up, and then drove away from him. He was driving away. He was off into the distance and would’ve run away with that thing—and flattened the left front and did it in Turn One, which is not a fun place to have a left-front tire go down.   

Q. Why is that? Because it’s such a tricky corner, you mean, in the first place?

A. Well, you’re doing two hundred and three miles an hour down the straightaway. You turn in so fast. It’s hard to—just keeping it off the wall is a big deal. Plus, you’ve got to go all the way around the track to get back to Pit Lane. So he went a lap down. Got the lucky dog. Charged back through the field from, like, fifteenth up to fourth and was the fastest car on the track and had it happen again. And he charged back through the field and ended up sixth. But he was just the class of the field. And that was when he finally started turning heads and everybody started realizing how good he really was. Everybody realized, “Man, this kid’s got some ability.” But nobody really knew how good he was until— And you know the other person, I should say, that was extremely pivotal in getting Penske so excited about this was his crew chief, Chris Carrier. Chris met Parker when he went down to test the CoT car, I think for the first time at the Proving Grounds, because Parker, he was on board with the Penske deal, so that’s what you did. And he’s been telling them the same thing. He’s telling them the same thing that Kerry and I would be telling them, which is, “The kid’s amazing.” Once they kind of figured it out and had it going right after Kentucky, there was no stopping him. We should have won Pocono—

After Parker's stunning last-lap victory at Kentucky, his mom, Dana, looks for someone to hug.
After Parker's stunning last-lap pass of Enfinger, his mom, Dana, looks for someone to hug.

Q. I’ve picked up the story from there, and I detected his confidence going into Mansfield. I talked to him after his qualifying lap, so I think I have a sense of it. I went down there thinking, “He’s going to win this race, too. After Michigan, he’s going to win this race, too.” And he sure did. He utterly dominated. Don Radebaugh, the ARCA PR guy, was saying, “Well, there were two other cars on the track that were running faster laps.” But no one even close to passing Parker. No one even pulled alongside him once he took the lead. It was interesting to hear him talk about how you’ve trained him to race forward and just run the best lap you can and don’t worry about what’s behind you. He drove flawlessly through those laps. The car never got out of shape once.

A. The first time we ran at Buttonwillow in the TR car, I was a little concerned during the race because, on the restarts, he’d be driving in his mirrors and it would take him a little bit to get away because he was worried about [unintelligible] behind him. So I told him, “Listen, you’re the fastest thing out here. And there are a lot of ways to apply pressure. When you’re behind somebody, you’re pressuring them from behind and you’re trying to get them to run in their mirrors and look at you. When you’re get in front of somebody, you need to apply pressure from the front. You need to show them that you can control the pace, and unless they’re willing to take massive risks they can’t keep up with you. It demoralizes them. You do that to somebody for three or four laps, the wind comes out of their sails—especially if they’re fast—the wind comes out of their sails. They drop back and they go, “I can’t catch him.” I think the worst thing that ever was put on a race car was a mirror. It allows somebody to get in your head. That was our thing for every race. Get a good start and pressure from the front. Get out in front and run off and hide. You could just see that point where everybody realized, “If I don’t catch him in Turn One, I’m never going to see him again.” They could hang with him for a lap and that would be it: gone. And he’s doing that now.

Q. Bob, I have about three minutes of tape left. I just wanted you to explain the hookup with Cunningham Motorsports. You’re saying “my partner, Kerry Scherer.” How do you know those guys and how did you transit from midgets to Cunningham?

A. I was working with a driver that did a lot of open-wheel stuff and I’d been working with him for three years. His dad wanted to try stock cars. I basically just got on the phone and called up a bunch of teams and said, “I’ve got a driver that wants to test.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Cunningham Motorsports, so I called and talked to their PR guy who put me in touch with Mark Gibson. And [unintelligible] … Rob ended up doing some races for Cunningham. While he was doing that I was also working with Tayler Malsam who wanted to move up. He was doing late-models and sprint cars and wanted to move up to ARCA and I told his dad, “Listen, this is a good team. A really good team. And there’s a lot of connections here and I can get you together with them. Let’s do a test and see what happens. So I brought Tayler along. I really had a relationship building with Cunningham Motorsports and Mark and Kerry and those guys. I’d worked closely with them because I’d been coaching Rob and Tayler. I told Kerry after our first season of USAC, “You know what would be great—and it was kind of a selfish reason as far as that goes—it would be great if we had a junior program that we could move drivers from the midget program up into the ARCA car. So let’s build a midget program, call it Cunningham Juniors, and we’ll run Ilmor engines. It’ll just be our feeder program.” And he said, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea.” So that’s how we got that second year of midgets going, really. Kerry and Mark Gibson and Briggs Cunningham and everybody at Cunningham Motorsports have been so instrumental in this. They’re the best. The thing about Cunningham Motorsports is, I’ve worked with a lot of teams in my career, and it’s so unusual to have a team that really kind of cares about you—just basically good humans. So that’s how the hookup happened and how we got together. It’s a good fit, you know. There’s nobody in that program that is there just to make money.

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One thought on “Bob Perona Q&A

  1. Years ago I read an interview with Ivan Lendl (tennis player that won almost everything except Wimbledon). He was a former Czech and had a bit of the Communist Bloc robotic demeanor about him. But he won and won a lot. He was asked if he were a coach, how he would make a champion player. His first step would be to have the player enter tournaments where they win everything for a few months. Then he’d enter then in tournaments where they were outclassed, and lose everything. Learn the thrill of winning, the hunger for winning, then get trounced, and learn how to handle being down, keeping composure all the while.

    Some of that echoes in this coach’s comments.

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