Parker Kligerman has already seen it all. The 23-year-old Cup rookie, who made his first ARCA start nearly six years ago has been hired for rides lucky to have enough money to buy tires. He’s been a part of deals with potential, funding on the table only to have it all fall apart, days after being told otherwise. And he’s been bathed in riches, a part of Penske Racing’s prestigious development program where anything and everything was at his disposal. It’s one of the unique stories on the circuit, leaving him well-positioned to grow at new employer and Cup Series upstart Swan Racing.
Both Swan and Parker are optimistic about 2014, after two top-25 finishes together in two starts to close out last season. And while the Daytona 500 didn’t meet expectations – Kligerman got caught up in a wreck late and slumped to 29th – simply making the race, after a flurry of moves and late expansion was an accomplishment in itself. At Daytona, Kligerman talked to Tom Bowles about the development of the program, how people like Brad Keselowski have molded him and why he feels this opportunity, over all others out there for him can build into a championship contender over time.
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch: What made Swan Racing attractive to you over all the opportunities you had for 2014?
Parker Kligerman has faced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in his career. Now, in a new ride for 2014 he’s hoping to stabilize and build a Chase-contending program.
Parker Kligerman: The other opportunities I had, I will admit were not at the Sprint Cup level. I had opportunities to do the full Truck season, that sort of thing. Nationwide didn’t look like it was going to come together more than just a couple of races, in a certain car. So I was looking at that, and at the same token I did that race at Texas and it started to get people to say, “OK, that was good.” And we did Homestead as well, but Texas was the best career debut of any rookie that year. And there were a lot of rookies that debuted – with a lot more fanfare and a lot better equipment. We were in a 2008 Ganassi car, so…
Bowles: Were you shocked by that run? (Kligerman was 18th in his first ever Cup start)
Kligerman: You know, I’ve always loved driving the Sprint Cup car. All throughout testing at Penske, the funniest thing was that when I’d get in a Nationwide or Truck car, I’d be two-tenths off Brad [Keselowski] or Kurt Busch. But then I’d jump in the Cup car, and a lot of times, I’d think they were joking but they would say, “Yeah, you’re right on pace with them. You’re actually a couple hundredths faster.”
My driving style, coming from high-horsepower cars meant I always wanted to be in a car that had too much power. More power that you can use the pedals, drive the pedals… Jimmie Johnson, he does not like the Nationwide cars. He likes to drive the pedals. So when I get in a Cup car, I just feel more comfortable. I just feel like it’s something that suits me, and when I drive it, I say, “This makes sense” in my head.
A lot of times, in Nationwide and Trucks, I’m constantly thinking about what I need here, what I need there. And so that’s definitely something… I don’t think as much in a Cup car.
Bowles: So, in one sense you could say people get stuck in lower series if they have driving styles that don’t suit the cars.
Kligerman: Exactly. I really could have gotten stuck in a lower series if I didn’t get the opportunity [to move up]. I’m grateful to have this chance… and at the time, as a single-car team they were really growing. They were hiring people; the owner was very committed (Brandon Davis). They looked very professional. A lot of people were talking about Swan Racing late last season.
When I did my due diligence, when they came to me and asked, “What do you think about doing this?” through Toyota, I asked everyone around. And everyone said, “Hey look, that team’s the real deal. These guys are serious, coming in here, doing it the right way. They’re not just busting in with a ton of money, they’re trying to spend it correctly and build the infrastructure and such.” And I was like, “OK, that’s the kind of place I want to be a part of.”
So we go into Homestead, we had another great finish (25th), solid run, on the lead lap that time. And our average finish was a 22.5 for the season. If you did that over a whole season, you would have finished 21st in points and been in the running for rookie of the year last year. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. finished 19th in points. So you look at that and say, “OK.”
Now, did I know we were going to go to two cars? No. That was something that started to come about after Homestead. I’m grateful for us doing that, having that big expansion. It’s a tougher thing, and it’s definitely shown the weak areas of our organization. But it’s also going to make us better six-to-eight months down the road. Because we give Triad, our engine manufacturer, more data. The cars, we’re going to be able to slowly develop our own parts and pieces. We’re actually buying MWR cars. But we’ll be able to, with having two cars, gather a lot more [information] with the big rule changes. Especially because we’re not treating one car as an “A” car and one as a “B” car. It’s two “A” cars. We’re going to be able to get the data out of it. Right now, it’s put a huge strain on our organization but hopefully, it will be for the better.
Bowles: You don’t see a lot of new owners and money in NASCAR recently. Yet here you are, with 50 Cent walking around Daytona and big investors, like former Denver Bronco Bill Romanowski involved in Swan. Who’s the key behind all this growth when so many others have struggled?
Kligerman: That’s Brandon Davis, man. He’s an exciting guy. That was one of the biggest things that attracted me coming here was the young ownership. I did drive for Roger Penske, and he’s still a friend to this day – wished him Happy Birthday the other day. He was monumental in my career and becoming the driver I am. At the same token, not to say this the wrong way, but him, Richard Childress, Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick are not going to be around forever. Sadly, that’s just the reality of life… and sport.
These guys have done so much for this sport, and are the absolute kings of it in every way. You have to say, “OK, wait a second. What happens? Who’s the next guy?” So Brandon Davis, Anthony Marlowe, these guys that have come in here are really young with the capital to make this happen. They’re interested in racing and these are the kind of guys in ten years, you’re going to turn around and say that’s the “new” Penske Racing. There will still be the “old” Penske Racing, but I hope it’ll be something along those lines.
So it’s an opportunity to grow an organization, which I saw Brad Keselowski come into Penske Racing and finish 25th in Cup points, his first year. To go in the next year and make the Chase, and eventually win the championship his third year. I watched the whole thing because I was driving his Truck, sitting in his plane, riding on his bus, and at Penske Racing testing his cars for him. I watched him grow and build that organization to where it was through himself and the good people around him. I thought, given the opportunity at the Cup level, with the resources and funding it provides, I could have an influence on an organization like that similar to what I saw.
Kligerman, at just age 23 is part of an eight-member rookie class at NASCAR’s highest level this season.
Bowles: Let’s talk about managing expectations. You said the other day, “I want to be a Chase contender over time.” But let’s be realistic; you know what you’re working with now. How do you manage the growth process, with your team and sponsors to say, “We’re not a 2014 team, we’re a 2015 team in terms of playoffs or reaching Victory Lane. Please stick with us.”
Kligerman: So how that works is I’ve actually devised an idea that I look at average finishes, statistics, creating the idea of what you need to do to hit a certain points goal. My biggest gripe with our sport is there’s only one winner each weekend. To the fans, to the media… to everyone. But in all honesty, just like in football, there’s 16 winners throughout a 43-car field because unlike any other sport, we put all our top teams, and every other small team all on the field at once.
So we can’t “say” there are 16 winners, but there are actually 16 cars in the field, sometimes more each week that have overachieved, done well, done something above and beyond. At Texas, for example, with 18th we would be considered a Jacksonville Jaguars that went out and beat the Philadelphia Eagles. We achieved above what we were supposed to. You would see that in the NFL… you don’t see that here.
So how do you prove to your crew, and your fans at home what you’re doing is actually good moving forward? I think especially within the organization, the guys can get down. They say, “Hey, we’re not winning. Hey, we’re finishing 25th. But when you look at it a different way, you look at your average finish and say, right now we’re 23.8.” And then you go out, lower it by two places and suddenly you’re 20th in points — that’s huge.
So what I actually devised with a buddy of mine who’s a junior engineer now at Swan Racing — he’s actually been my roommate — is make an Excel program. It shows the plot of what you want to accomplish, how you’re getting there, what you’re doing and we’re going to put that on the screen. We have screens in our shop, the guys are going to see that each week and say, “Wow. We’re past our goal or we’re not past it.” And then we can talk about it, educatedly, and say, “Look. We’re ahead, behind, or at our goal and this is why we know.”
Setting the goal is the toughest part. But for us, we know the goal: top 25. A top 25 organization is a big jump from a 33rd-place organization, but we’re making the investments and doing the things that say, “We can do that.” Our ultimate goal this year? 20th but that would be a huge jump. To me, that would be like winning the championship.
If we were to absolutely somehow nail a season, I would say 20th would be an awesome, awesome year for this team. I might be wrong; could be better, could be worse. We know we want to be top 25, and I’ve always thought 20th in points was a very realistic jump for a team to say we are now be a part of it. Because when I look, from 15th to 25th we are so competitive and there are so many teams, your RPMs, your Ganassis, your JTGs, Furniture Row last year, the No. 13, teams that are on the same $13-$18 million in funding per car. They’re in that scenario, and you say, “Wow. That’s a tough place to get to and a tough place to be.” But if you can get there, and stabilize there you’re putting yourself at now, a Chase berth at 16th [under the new format].
Crazy times at the Kligerman household, huh? Yeah, let’s make a spreadsheet on a Friday night… seriously, it’s clear Parker’s one of the sport’s most intelligent drivers, and he’s got a lot more going for him than just NASCAR. Come back tomorrow for Part II of our sitdown with the series rookie where we talk about his new business, Nootelligence, and what it could mean for him both in and outside the sport.
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