Parker Kligerman’s Big Adventure

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.”

ARCA now had a three-week break between events. Kligerman relaxed in Westport and golfed with friends. (He declined to reveal his scores.) He also traveled with Dana to attend orientation at UNC Charlotte, where he would be matriculating in August. Meanwhile, she started e-mailing me. Signing her witty messages Racermom, she narrated the family’s story. Dana and Robert met at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Their idea of fun was an architectural tour of Manhattan or a European vacation. Their son Parker, born August 8, 1990, in Greenwich, Connecticut, has two older brothers, Land and Bard, and a younger sister, Madeline. The family moved from Stamford to Westport in 2001. Parker was the household’s anomaly. “He slept with his arm around his model cars when he was little instead of stuffed animals,” Dana wrote. At age eight, he found the Speed Channel and spent the next four years stalking her for a go-kart, daily giving reasons why he was meant to be a racing driver. Robert and Dana had launched a commercial real-estate business in the mid-1980s, were accumulating a modest collection of art, and couldn’t have distinguished a go-kart from a land yacht.

For Christmas when he was twelve, Kligerman received a beat-up, black Coyote kart, purchased for $1200. Norwalk Karting Association president Ed Forcier recalled him arriving on race mornings the following season. “Parker turned the wrenches,” Forcier said. “He wanted to learn. He was one of the few kids who really paid attention to what was going on. He always watched the more experienced drivers. I remember, one day, he really did win a race. His dad came in and said, ‘Good job!’ But Parker was disappointed because he missed an apex. I saw a difference between him and the other drivers.”

At fourteen, with a slew of karting trophies and Michael Schumacher posters in his bedroom, young Parker informed Dana, “I’m ready for cars.” She said, “Cars?” After successful Skip Barber racing courses at Lime Rock Park, he attended the Speed Secrets camp at California’s Buttonwillow Raceway Park in November 2005. There, he caught the eye of instructor Perona, who became his coach. Kligerman signed on for the Formula TR developmental series. Dana recalled 2006 as “a very, very expensive year for us in Formula TR.” Races were on the West Coast, so she and her son would fly out of
LaGuardia or Newark on Thursday and return Sunday with the laurels. He won prodigiously on his way to a championship. Parker would snooze on return flights while Dana made notes for a book she wanted to call Racing to Rehab – “due to all the wine I would consume after each race to calm my nerves.”

Although Dana wanted to replace her fifty-year-old kitchen in 2007, Perona insisted that the kid was a “once-in-a-generation driver.” Dana’s dad even helped with the purchase of a used midget car to enter in USAC meets. Perona and Kligerman worked on the racer in motel lots before competing at Anderson, Indiana; Indianapolis Raceway Park; and Grundy County, Illinois. They learned to persevere. Having an Ilmor engine in 2008 helped them to form the connection to Cunningham Motorsports and Penske Racing. (Roger Penske is one-third partner in Ilmor Engineering.) Briggs S. Cunningham III, who happened to have grown up in Westport and now raises Angus cattle in Kentucky, couldn’t help being charmed by Kligerman when Perona brought him to Kentucky Speedway. Cunningham’s father, the sportsman Briggs Cunningham II, left a tremendous legacy in American racing, and part of it was his support of the young Roger Penske.

Kligerman had first set his heart on Formula 1 but now found himself in the hopper with other young NASCAR hopefuls. ARCA is full of them, many backed by inexhaustible family fortunes. Finding early success in this milieu, Kligerman started to rhapsodize about stock cars. He characterized them to me as being heavy, with little downforce, lots of horsepower, and relatively narrow tires. “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,” he said with his usual verve. “So you have to kind of coerce it into doing what you want. Whereas with open-wheel cars, they’re designed to go fast and designed to go around the racetrack, so they can kind of be thrashed and thrown around, and they’ll take it.
You can make more mistakes and get away with it.” The delicacy that a stock car requires is a rare thing, he explained. “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.”

The ARCA Nation was ready when racing resumed on a lovely summer’s day at Iowa Speedway. The three-year-old track is a gem: a tri-oval, seven-eighths of a mile, with progressively steeper banking in the turns. Kligerman had practiced the course at home on a computer simulator and knew the desired setup. He started second and took the lead on lap 47. After a bad pit stop on lap 136, he dropped to fourth. Soon regaining the point, he breezed across the finish line on lap 200, three seconds ahead of Richard Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon. I went away thinking I’d finally seen Nureyev.

Briggs S. and Beth Cunningham, as well as the Kligermans, were in attendance the next week at Kentucky Speedway for one of the year’s best races anywhere. After Kligerman missed the pole by a whisker, Cunningham told me, “Penske used to win for my dad.” He said Kligerman’s cars are based in Penske’s Mooresville, North Carolina, shop, and a “whatever Parker wants” decree had been issued. I challenged Cunningham to put Kligerman’s special essence into a word. Crew chief Chris Carrier, of Bristol, Virginia, had simply said, “He’s pretty durn good.” All Cunningham could produce was that the midget racing had been good experience.

Kligerman led fifty-six of the first sixty-two laps on the mile and a half, but he fell to twelfth after a pit stop as Steve Arpin took the lead briefly before Grant Enfinger streaked by. Kligerman caught up, and for the final twenty breathtaking laps, they ran cheek-by-jowl. More than once, when the challenge nearly succeeded, Enfinger slyly shaved Kligerman away against slower traffic. Finally, in the very last turn, with the tires on both cars as useless as skinny jeans in a fat man’s closet, Kligerman slipped by and won. The Kligermans and the Cunninghams celebrated deliriously. As Robert had earlier said, “It’s not like watching him play soccer when he was six years old.”

After Kentucky, Justin Lofton, the masterful, bright-smiling, twenty-three-year-old Californian who remained a close second in the championship, announced the redoubling of his team’s efforts. Lofton comes from the Imperial Valley, where the family’s operation fattens Holstein steers cast off by the state’s huge dairy industry. Lofton raced mountain bikes until fracturing his femur at sixteen. Still on crutches, he climbed into a super-stock Ford Mustang in the Colorado Hill Climb Association. He subsequently drove a desert buggy in the Mojave and a stock car at Irwindale Speedway. He directed his own team in NASCAR’s western series before moving to Charlotte and entering ARCA competition in 2008. Unlike Kligerman, he puts little credence in sim-racing. “I don’t find it a lot of help,” he said. “To sit down in front of a computer with no sweat or anything just doesn’t do it for me.”

Lofton captured the pole next time out, breaking the record at Berlin Raceway, and went on to win the race. The track is on a fairground just outside Marne, Michigan, and tire smoke wafts over the village when a car spins out. The boyhood home of former General Motors president Ed Cole, father of the Chevy V-8, stands not far from turn 2. Kligerman, who was flu-stricken and pallid, ducked into an ambulance for a liter of saline by IV before the race. Sixth place – despite being spun out early and later receiving a pit-road violation penalty – seemed pretty good. “That’s what championships are made of – making the best of a bad night,” he said.

When ARCA returned to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway on August 1, Kligerman began to hemorrhage points. He’d slithered into second place with three laps to go when a desperate move by Arpin checked Kligerman into the wall. Lofton won with an illegal carburetor but received a mere twenty-five-point penalty. Later in the month, Kligerman won at the Springfield Mile, his first race on dirt in any car, and Dana reported, “Everyone in my world is flabbergasted.” But five days afterward, at Chicagoland Speedway, he sat third with two laps to go when his Dodge ran out of fuel. Instead of delirium, this time devastation reigned.

Labor Day was the Magic Mile of Du Quoin. After a hard-fought third place at Toledo on the preceding Friday night, the Cunningham team killed the weekend in Marion, Illinois. Everybody attended a Southern Illinois Miners baseball game on Sunday, and Kligerman proved surprisingly ignorant of the other national pastime. Race morning found him eating a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich on pit road when funnel cakes and fried Twinkies (and Oreos and Snickers) could be had beyond the grandstand. After overcooking his exit from turn 4 and scraping the outside wall in qualifying, he started at the back of the pack beside Lofton, who wrecked in turn 2 on his own attempt. Kligerman inexorably worked his way forward and led the last forty-six laps, becoming the youngest driver to win either of the one-mile dirt races and the first rookie to win both. And no Du Quoin winner had ever come from so deep in the field. Fans mobbed his trophy presentation, but one woman in her early twenties walked away telling another, “He’s too young to sign our boobs.”

On September 19, Lofton and Kligerman – Westmorland, California, versus Westport, Connecticut; the cattle car versus the Cunningham car – commenced the season’s nineteenth of twenty-one races tied at 4520 points apiece. In third, out of contention some 355 points behind, the classy nine-time champ Frank Kimmel drew a cheer at Salem Speedway, his home track in southern Indiana. But Lofton grinned knowingly and expressed his own love of the bumpy, heavily patched, steeply banked 0.555-mile oval. He qualified second, picking up ten points on Kligerman, who was fifth-fastest. Kligerman fell back initially but at the end carried on a rousing battle with Lofton, who did the season’s biggest burnout after nipping across the line a tenth of a second ahead. “I could have moved him many times,” Kligerman said, “but I don’t want to get into a pushing match for the championship.”

Lofton’s twenty-five-point lead looked big heading to Kansas Speedway. Kligerman led most of the race but found himself second, behind Lofton, on a late restart. “I know his tricks,” he said after outfoxing the Californian to win his eighth trophy and nudge to within fifteen points. Hanging around Kansas City for his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut two days later, Kligerman went out for time trials and unceremoniously plonked none other than Kyle Busch off the pole. A twenty-three-second pit stop hindered his race, and he finished sixteenth.

ARCA’s title was decided on October 11 in Rockingham, North Carolina. Lofton’s qualifying lap put him second on the grid and again earned ten precious points, but valve-seal particles in the oil filter forced the decision to replace his Toyota engine. He would start dead last of forty-one cars on the tricky mile. As fourth-fastest qualifier (earning no points), Kligerman’s strategy was to lead the most laps (good for ten points: five for leading one lap, and five extra for leading more than anyone else), win the race, and hope that Lofton finished four spots behind, each position being worth five points. Kligerman seized the lead for good on lap 137, but Lofton miraculously pulled out a third-place result to take the cup by a dragonfly’s wing stroke, 5715 points to 5710. At season’s end, the equivalent of one position on the track in any given race decided the championship. At once thrilled and disappointed, Kligerman summed up his accomplishments: “Anytime you go through such an emotional and physical struggle, you’re going to grow up.”

When Kligerman was fourteen and wanted to move up from karts, his father voiced skepticism. Dana finagled a solution and told their son, “You have to be extraordinary, or this story will end.” Last season, given a rare opportunity, he won nine of twenty-one races in what ARCA officials called their most competitive era. His performance inspired and enriched those who followed him. It sometimes left me searching for words, but not crew chief Chris Carrier. After the Springfield triumph, Carrier invoked hound dogs when he said, “I’m gonna be honest with you. This boy here – he can sniff it. He is not here to run second.”

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