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With economic uncertainty and sponsor demands that find star drivers occupying more seat time, it’s getting tougher every year for young drivers to break through to any of NASCAR’s three top series–Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Series Truck. But for 21-year old Connecticut native Parker Kligerman, a solid go-kart career followed by a second-place finish in the 2009 ARCA Series was enough to attract the attention of Penske Racing and Cup regular Brad Keselowski (who runs his own truck team).
And while Kligerman fell short of winning the Rookie of the Year honors in the truck series (amid a glut of talented rising stars), the future seems to be bright with full-time opportunities next season in Keselowski’s #29 truck and a partial run in Penske’s #22 Nationwide car. In this interview, Kligerman talks about his earliest connection to racing, how early success turned into a harsh reality check and the role racing ministry plays in his life:
Chad Bonham: When were you first exposed to NASCAR and at what point did you decide that racing was something you wanted to pursue?
Parker Kligerman: It’s pretty simple. It all happened at the same time. I was five years old and ever since I was able to have words come out of my mouth I’ve loved cars. When I was nine years old, we got the Speed Channel because we got cable. I saw some kids go-karting and I said, “I need to do that.” Four years later, my parents got me a go-kart and I started racing. I liked NASCAR. But I was more of an open wheel guy. I loved F1 from Europe and such. But as I started to watch more NASCAR, I started to really love it and watch it all the time. As I moved up through the ranks, there was more opportunity on the NASCAR side of things so I went that way.
Bonham: After some early success (nearly winning the ARCA Series and winning a Nationwide pole in your first attempt), you made some comments about how back then you thought things were going to come easy. How have you dealt with the harsh reality that racing at this level can be a grind?
Kligerman: As I said in that interview, when you first start out you might win a lot and do a lot of good things and you start to get some confidence. When you go to a higher series, you have a lot of belief in yourself and what you can do on the racetrack. That’s what was going on with me and obviously I had that major reality check in 2010. I wasn’t racing for the highest funded teams so it was a big struggle. In that, you almost lose what made you so good in the beginning, but if you’re going to be a professional racecar driver and be successful in this sport, you’ve got to find a way to get back to where you were or you can curl up in a ball and cry and quit. I was lucky enough to find that. It was one of the toughest things in my life and I know there will be tougher things ahead, but I’m a better person and a better racecar driver for going through those tough times.
Bonham: What makes NASCAR unique from other professional sports organizations?
Kligerman: It’s the variables. We fight more variables than anyone else in any other sport, in my opinion. Let me give you an example. When we go out to practice, the weather is different, the track is different, the tire is different and you might be in a car you’ve never driven. All of those things add up to something you need to know and how it’s exactly doing to affect you and your racecar before you ever get on the track. I don’t think there are any other sports that combine so many unknown variables or even known variables that you don’t know how they’ll affect you, and you have to be ready to perform at the highest level of your ability.
Bonham: Do you enjoy the environment that allows you to interact with other drivers and teams?
Kligerman: Yeah, absolutely. It’s an awkward atmosphere sometimes, especially when you’re in such a competitive environment and there are times when you could be best friends with someone and then you go out on the racetrack and wreck each other and you don’t speak for two months. That’s how it goes. There’s an unwritten rule that on the track you should respect each other as competitors but at the same time you’re out there to beat each other. Different personalities will determine how you get along in the garage and within the sport. Some people might do their own deal and not make friends with anyone at the racetrack. I’ve been more of the type to make my friends away from the racetrack and bring them with me, but lately I’ve been more open to making friends in the garage and I’ve met some really good people. Then there are some guys who want to be friends with everybody and out and race their hearts out and then come back to garage and hang out and talk about it. It’s a weird dynamic for sure and it defines our sport and makes it unique from other sports.
Bonham: What are your thoughts on NASCAR’s strong emphasis towards promoting patriotism and faith?
Kligerman: I love the patriotism. That’s awesome. It’s an amazing feeling to bring together a hundred thousand people at one event that all love their country and support their country and are doing something we all get to do because of people that fight for our country. At the same time, it’s a very religious crowd in the NASCAR community. I think it’s a good thing. It’s nothing you should be ashamed of. It’s nothing that should be hidden. It’s a large part of people’s lives and a large part of the American lifestyle. Because of that, it adds to the patriotism and the overall camaraderie in the garage. There’s no reason to be in any way hesitant to embrace that at all. I think it just adds to our sports and it’s uniqueness. That’s what’s made this sport so successful over the past 50 years.
Bonham: What do you appreciate about the presence of Motor Racing Outreach and have you ever taken advantage of having them around?
Kligerman: It’s great to have them around. They do a great job. I go to all the chapel services before the truck series races and whatever Nationwide races we run. I support them as best I can. I feel like it’s a good thing. It’s gives you some peace before you go into a violent, very loud place. It’s somewhere to go and get away from it all for a second. As far as relying on them for things, I haven’t really done that yet, but I became more of a believer in the chapel services because of all those tough times I went through the last two years or so. It’s made me more comfortable at the racetrack then I was before.
Bonham: How do you deal with the highs and lows that inherently come from the day-to-day experiences within NASCAR?
Kligerman: I try not to think about it. I try not to dwell on it. I just look forward. I have faith. I have faith in myself. I have in others around me. All of those things combined sort of give me an air of calm. I know that what I’m doing is right and it’s going to work out in the end. I try not to focus so much the “ifs” and the “buts” and the “whens.” We’ll see where it goes.
Bonham: How much do you embrace the truck series and are you, at the same time, looking ahead to possibilities in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series?
Kligerman: That’s a good question. One of the best quotes I’ve lived by is, “It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.” In a lot of ways, dealing with the destination part of that is pretty tough. You want to be there. You want to win championships and win race. I’ve always felt like I’ll never be satisfied until I’m beating the best and the best are in the Cup. At the same time, you’ve got to work your way up to that point. Racing in Nationwide and the trucks, I’m having a ball. It’s very fun. It’s a cool thing because you have 25 races, not a 38-race grind. It’s not every weekend. Because of that, it allows me to do things as a young kid that, if I was full time in Nationwide or Cup, I wouldn’t be able to do. I have some time to work on the things I need to work on—small things like having your own apartment, paying bills, all those things you’re learning right now that would be tough to do at the same as traveling 38 weekends out of the year. But hopefully over the next few years, I’ll be ready and prepared for the Sprint Cup and do the best I can to win.
Follow Parker Kligerman’s racing career by visiting his official website HERE.