Parker Kligerman couldn't have looked more vulnerable. He had just completed a 200-mile race at Michigan International Speedway, driving with brio and making a daring late pass to win. Now he sat before reporters, a microphone in one hand, the other arm wrapped protectively around his ribs. A mop of toffee-colored hair swept over his eyes and ears. The blemishes on his cheeks threatened to outnumber the bristles on his chin. He spoke of returning home to Westport, Connecticut, for his high-school finals before next week's graduation.
In the press box earlier that day, other reporters had recounted Kligerman's accomplishments the previous week at Pocono Raceway, where he ran down the leader, Joey Logano, only to suffer tire failure and finish sixth. Prom was that night, and Kligerman, a Penske Racing development driver, soared away from Pocono in one of the Captain's airplanes. Originally signed for just the first eight ARCA RE/MAX series dates with Penske's affiliate, Cunningham Motorsports, Kligerman had now won two of them and led the championship points. Next week, the team would go to Mansfield, Ohio, for the season's ninth race.
Listening to Kligerman unleashed my curiosity. Why would a kid from tony Westport - median family income, $193,540 - not play polo or sail yachts? Why wouldn't he at least drive sports cars instead of these ripsnorting beasts? An avuncular impulse awakened in me, and I decided to follow his season. Primarily a Midwestern series and increasingly important as a farm system, ARCA sometimes supports NASCAR or IRL dates, on which occasions TV presents the races. Otherwise, the series disappears for short-oval meat-grinding sessions in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Just for laughs, ARCA also embraces road racing in New Jersey. And a cult follows the two Illinois fairs, with 750-hp former NASCAR Cup cars loosed on horse tracks. How would Kligerman, who uses words like "iteration" and "therefore" and "per se," endure these travails?
So I went to Ohio the next Saturday, the last day of spring, and introduced myself to Kligerman and his parents, Robert and Dana. (Their surname is pronounced with a short i sound, as in twig.) They had all flown commercial this time. Starting third on the Mansfield half mile behind his main rival, Justin Lofton, and a sixteen-year-old speedball named Chris Buescher, Kligerman led the last 103 laps to win, rewarding my instinct. After the trophy presentation, his driving coach, Bob Perona, said, "He's gonna be mega. I think he's Tiger Woods." But Garry Newbury, a grizzled ARCA official in the tech-inspection area, had another thought: "Wait and see what happens after somebody gets rough with him - hits him in the side or turns him upside down. Some drivers never overcome the fear afterwards."