Westport's rising NASCAR star
Updated 3:14 pm, Thursday, December 5, 2013
Westport is on nobody's shortlist of places that produce stock car drivers. Yet one resident is taking left and occasional right-hand turns toward the sports highest level.
Parker Kligerman is a rising star in NASCAR, and speeding around a track has been the 23-year-old driver's passion since he was a boy.
"I wanted to be a race car driver, that's all I ever cared about," Klingerman recalled. "If it was a racing magazine, book, TV show, movie -- you name it, I knew about it. I sucked in all the info and it was a sole focus."
Kligerman was 10 the first time he took the wheel of a go-kart. It was on an indoor track in Las Vegas during a family trip. To meet the minimum height requirements, he stuffed his shoes with extra socks, then proceeded to set the track's best time of the day and the third best of the month.
Thirteen years later, the Staples High School grad has amassed nearly $2.2 million in career earnings -- traveling at speeds from 130-200 miles per hour -- and landed a full-time ride in NASCAR's highest level. He will be driving in Feburary's Daytona 500.
Kligerman now lives in Charlotte, N.C. but is visiting family in Westport for the holidays. During an interview this week, he talked about his creer path.
And it began on that go-cart track during a family trip.
"It got my parents thinking, `Maybe he's good at this,'" said Kligerman, the third of Dana and Robert Kligerman's four children. "For me, this is what I am doing. For the next couple of years I kind of pushed them to get into go-karting."
Entering the racing world
At 13, Kligerman took his own go-kart -- a Christmas present -- to the Norwalk Karting Association track, where he and his family entered the world of racing -- which wasn't exactly button-down Westport.
Dana took Parker there on the first trip. Standing in the pit area, she quickly discovered that she was overdressed in her blazer and high heels. But they quickly got accoustomed to the surroundings.
"I remember talking to him back then, and he always wanted to be a race car driver," Norwalk Karting Association President Ed Forcier said. "What made him stand out during the races was that the other drivers would horse around with one another while Parker always was working on his car. He was always focused on watching the other cars race, asking questions. You (could) tell you he was working on the future."
After winning races and local go-kart championships, Kligerman strapped into a race car at age 15 -- before he was old enough to drive on the street.
Kligerman won 11 of 14 races in the Formula TR Series -- a developmental circuit aimed at finding the country's best young drivers -- and was discovered by driving coach and manager Bob Perona.
The two have since worked together on all aspects of the sport, including physical, mental and professional development.
"He was just really fast, that's the first thing that stood out to me about him," Perona said. "We've had a lot of drivers come by, but he was by far the fastest. He was sharp; really smart for his age."
Blossoms as a driver
A 2009 Staples graduate, Kligerman was born in Greenwich and his family moved to Westport when he was in middle school. Although he initially kept his go-karting ventures to himself and his close friends, his success eventually became too loud to ignore.
Before he finished high school, Kligerman was competing across the country in the ARCA Series -- a developmental circuit that is roughly two steps below NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
"I never talked about it that much, I just tried to be a normal kid at school, and then on the weekend go off and race," Kligerman said. "I never brought it up; only my close friends knew about it. Kids just new that was the race-car-driver kid. Once people saw me on TV winning races, it changed."
In 2009 -- at age 19 -- Kligerman won nine of 21 ARCA races, including four in a row during a time when money for racing teams was tight. He would go on to finish second in the standings.
"We only had eight races funded," Kligerman recalls. "There was a point that if I didn't win, we wouldn't race the next weekend. There was a period of six weeks; I don't know any more pressure than that. Since that the underfunded thing has been my whole career."
Kligerman enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte -- conveniently located in the hub of auto racing. But after a year of college, the demands of a full-time race schedule became too strenuous to continue schooling.
On the track, 2010 was spent between NASCAR's Nationwide Series and Truck Series -- two of NASCAR's three main divisions.
A drive down victory lane
Kligerman captured his first NASCAR checkered flag on Oct. 6, 2012, with a win in the Truck Series at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama -- the track made famous even in non-motorsport circles by the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."
"That was one of the most gratifying things," Kligerman said. "We had a lot of second places finishes, and I think in a lot of people's eyes I could have been thought of as not a closer in some respects. There are few times in your life you get that chance; everyone on the team was on it."
Kligerman competed in the Nationwide Series in 2013. While driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports, he recorded three top-five finishes while coming home ninth in the standings.
But the ability to drive fast is only part of the formula for success in auto racing.
In a sport where sponsorship dollars are more important than anything else, young drivers like Kligerman have to be half driver, half salesman.
"It's extremely difficult. You can win championships, and that doesn't guarantee you a ride," said Bob Pockgrass, a veteran NASCAR writer for the Sporting News. "Sponsorships are tough to come by. You see Rookie of the Year drivers without rides. Give Parker credit, he's active on social media, and he does some things to get his name out there. He tries to generate interest; it's not just about the talent anymore.
Dream comes true
After years of proving himself to a variety of teams at many different levels, Kligerman finally got the opportunity every young driver dreams of. On Nov. 3 at Texas Motor Speedway, Kligerman competed in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race for the first time.
"The funny thing is, you're whole life has led up to that point," Kligerman said. "The night before, I never slept better in my life. I think I slept like 12 hours. It was one of those surreal things. You were so at ease because you knew you had to get to this point and wanted to get here so bad that when you got there it was like, `OK let's do it.'"
Kligerman exceeded all expectations, finishing 18th in a 43-car field driving the No. 30 Swan Energy Toyota.
"I'd been impressed with how he's handled his NASCAR career," ESPN's NASCAR analyst Ricky Craven said. "I think he has a ton of potential, I think in a different environment economically he has staying power. I think he has the desire, he's very engaged. I think he's going to be fine."
Swan Racing announced Tuesday that Kligerman will be a full-time Sprint Cup driver in 2014, starting in Feburary at the Daytona 500 -- the Superbowl of auto racing. Kligerman joins Joey Logano (Middletown) as the two Sprint Cup drivers from Connecticut.