In 2009, 19-year-old Parker Kligerman was in the midst of one of the most memorable ARCA Menards Series championship battles.
While race fans may recall the Stamford, Connecticut native’s mind-boggling consistency, Kligerman’s 2009 championship run seemed like a story from a Hollywood film. Racing for Cunningham Motorsports’ No. 77 Dodge entry, Kligerman and his team were like ARCA’s version of the 1967 Boston Red Sox with an improbable title run.
Against all odds, Kligerman and the Cunningham Motorsports team defied expectations and put on a spirited fight against Justin Lofton and the Eddie Sharp Racing efforts. The 2009 ARCA season equipped Kligerman with the optimistic perspective that he’s needed through the ups and downs of his racing career.
Recently, Frontstretch caught up with Kligerman to get his perspective on battling for the ARCA championship and the lessons that he’s learned from racing in this stock car series. Below is the edited interview:
Rob Tiongson, Frontstretch: You and Justin Lofton fought a competitive, pitched battle for the 2009 ARCA championship. With both of you winning a combined total of 15 races during this 21-race schedule. Describe how it was like to go the track each weekend that year and how you responded to the challenges from Justin and his team.
Parker Kligerman: Man, that was an incredible year because it was actually a fight that was supposed to never happen. A lot of people don’t even know that year, we only had, when I basically went to [Team] Penske at the end of ’08, I was driving a USAC midget car for Cunningham Motorsports’ midget program. And I’d done two ARCA races the year before. At the end of the year, I tested in a Cup car for Penske when they needed a test driver, but I was not a full development driver.
It was one of those things where that was happening. But at the same time, the recession had just hit, everyone was sort of figuring everything out, and when we went into the ARCA deal, it was sort of a (situation): “Here, we’ve got enough money for a couple of races. How do we want to do this?” And one of the funniest and best things was, I can’t remember who said it, but someone basically said, “Why don’t we frontload it? If you go win races, we’ll see if we can find money to go to the next one.”
So, we had enough money for eight races. In that time, we went on to go win races and we ran so well that we still went week-to-week even when we were battling Lofton for the championship. I think a lot of people thought that being affiliated with Penske and that sort of thing was a big dollar deal.
But it wasn’t. We were still scrounging the money together each week. And there would be weeks where we’d come up, win the race, and we’d be like, “Are we going to the next race? We’re not sure.”
So, it was a wild time, and it was an incredible battle with Justin and so much fun. It was cool walking in the track each week and you’d just knew that you and this other guy were just the top dogs. You just knew that everyone was looking at you and everyone wanted to know what you were doing.
And it was just a cool thing to be a part of. When I look back at that year, how we lost the championship was kinda crazy. It was all the qualifying points because we almost won half of the races.
When I left ARCA that year, I basically had almost won half of the races I’d been in. The numbers were crazy but when I look back at that year, there’s so many things that 30-year-old me now looks back and is like, ‘Man, you should have won that championship by about 1,200 points if you knew all that you knew now!’ It was a cool time, I had a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of great times.
Tiongson: As I recall, you were only supposed to run eight races in 2009 but you and the No. 77 team were able to race for the full season after the win at Michigan International Speedway. During that season, you won four races in a row from Michigan to Kentucky, an incredible run. When you got on that winning streak, were you feeling superstitious with your race week routine?
Kligerman: I think this goes back to being young, dumb and naïve. I was 18 years old and turning 19 that year. And I think as in my time of racing, I basically started racing at 13 in go karts and found a way to win pretty early. And then when I moved to cars, I won my first races, I won the first series that I was in and set records.
So, it was almost like there was an element that I had expected it for myself (and) to go out there and be really competitive and to dominate and find a way to win and to break records. So, when we were going through that win streak, I remember a lot of people, a lot of media around it, and there was a lot of people paying attention and I was sort of surprised. I didn’t think that anyone was paying that much attention.
No one, when you’re that young, is prepared for somebody getting the attention of your idols and owners and all that stuff, and people reaching out to you like the media. It’s one of those things where at the time, I just expected it, so I didn’t really take time to smell the roses and think about how cool it was. It was sort of like, “What’s next? What’s next?” But, when I look back, I can think back to that time and be like, “Wow, that was really cool!”
There were all different types of tracks. We wound up winning the Bill France Four Crown where you win at all the different types of tracks. I think that’s the part I’m most proud of from that season. We were able to win on mile-and-a-half (tracks), short tracks, dirt tracks, we should’ve won the road course and it was an awesome battle there.
We probably were pretty close at winning some of the superspeedways. It was like we almost won on every single type of track there was. That’s the part to me that was just one of the coolest things.
Tiongson: That’s one of the neatest things when I look back at that season. You didn’t have a weakness. If you had a bad race that year, you’d either get a top five or win afterward. You had an average finish of fifth. When you mentioned about qualifying points, I was thinking, you only lost by five? That’s insane.
Kligerman: Yeah, it was frustrating. At that last race, well, we never won a pole all year. The worst thing was when you go back to my first ever Xfinity start in October and I win the damn pole! I was just like, ‘Where did that come from?” The whole year, I’m telling you, I was terrible at qualifying, I obviously didn’t know how to qualify.
Honestly, there was questions about being a development driver for Penske. Undoubtedly, there were questions like, “Why can’t you find a way to win a pole? You’re winning races. Why can’t you win a pole?” Some of the things that we looked at was at the beginning of the year. We didn’t think we’d run all the races. So, we didn’t care about qualifying as much as just learning to drive a stock car.
I’d come out of USAC midgets. The only stock cars I had driven was an ARCA car. I never drove a late model or anything like that. So, there was a lot of trying just to learn what to do in a stock car. And it was so frustrating not to go out there and find a way to win a pole to get those points.
When we went to the last race, I was convinced. I was like, “I’m going to win this pole which is going to put us in perfect position to go win the race, lead the most laps, and win the championship.”
And we qualified fourth. I’ll never forget just being like, “What the heck? I thought that I won the pole in Xfinity and I obviously know how to qualify if I can go to the second highest stock car series in the world and qualify on the pole.”
And I come back to ARCA and still couldn’t do it. So, that was frustrating. But we went into that last race, we led the most laps, we won the race, we did everything you could possibly do in the race. It was just that funky deal of qualifying points that stopped us from getting that championship.
If I had to sum it up, I would have to say at the time, it was frustrating and it was something, and this is going to get kind of deep, mentally as a driver, when I look back, I can see where, almost at times, it hindered me a little bit in the following years. No matter what you do in terms of going out there and rectifying it and getting a pole in Xfinity, there was that element of like, ‘Why couldn’t I find a way to qualify better?’
And that was definitely a theme in the subsequent years where I had to really work hard on the mental side of qualifying to sort of overcome that stigma. It was definitely something that annoyed me and ate at me at times, and I had to find ways to push it aside and get rid of it. I think it was maybe a year or two later that it was solved, and I was able to go out there and win poles in Trucks. It was a challenge to overcome mentally.
Tiongson: Qualifying is a premium and part of a race weekend. You could give it everything you had in practice but then you’d have the sun shining on the track during qualifying which changed things up. The funny thing is that after that championship run, you won two poles in ARCA in 2016. I have to imagine if you could be Marty McFly from “Back to the Future,” you’d probably gift your younger self those two poles, eh?
Kligerman: I actually forgot about that! So, the funniest part about those was that I got called to that deal filling in for John Wes Townley at Lucas Oil Raceway Park and we won the pole by like a tenth or two tenths.
We won it convincingly. And I remember thinking, ‘That was a pretty good lap, but I don’t know. I never win poles in this damn series!” And then they were like, “Hey man, that’s P1 by about four tenths!” I was like, “Ah, OK!”
And then we did the New Jersey Motorsports Park race and that was where I made my first ever ARCA start in ’08 and I qualified second to Andy Lally. The lap that I was on in that first race in ’08, I wheel hopped it on like the third to last corner and lost two tenths and that’s when I lost the pole to him by.
And so, the next year, we came there, and we qualified second again to Patrick Long. And so, we went there in 2016, it was like, “Alright, this is my time.” And we won the pole by about a second. That’s funny stuff.
I like to tell people and I think anyone reading this will get a kick out of this. I’ve always said, “If ARCA was the Cup Series, I would be on Easy Street.” For whatever reason, ARCA was my jam and has always been my jam. It isn’t the top level or lucrative one. I love it and I think it’s a great series. It’s always got a soft spot in my heart. But for whatever reason, I’ve always found a way to be competitive there.
Tiongson: I know it’s an old adage, but the saying that things happen for a reason seems applicable for you. You always keep yourself out there and relevant despite what’s happened, an admirable trait for you as a person and driver. I’d like to think you’re on the forefront of people’s minds because of what you have done, including in ARCA.
Kligerman: Well, I think that a lot of that, there’s always the idea of when I look at my time in the last 10 years in NASCAR, there’s been very few times where I’ve been in that tier one, top equipment like I was in ARCA. When I look at those times, I can hang my head and say, ‘You know what? When I was in that situation, I knew how to win.’
And ARCA showed me that. And the times that I was driving top-level trucks like the Red Horse truck or the couple of starts in Penske’s Xfinity equipment, to me those are the times that I’ve said, “Alright, if I was given a chance in one of those at the same level, I knew I could perform.”
And that’s something that I think, as a driver, I’m lucky to have because I think there’s many out there that never get that chance. And they’ll always wonder, ‘If I got that chance in really good stuff, what could I do?’ I’m lucky enough to know I know what I can do.
Now, does it pan out that I got to go into a tier 1, tier A Cup ride at the end of that road? No. But, I know that because of that time, I can look at that and say, ‘I know what I can do and it’s go and win, dominate, and fight for the championship.’ So, it definitely makes it easier when it doesn’t all work out.
Tiongson: Which ARCA track was your favorite and why when you were battling for the title in 2009?
Kligerman: I would say Rockingham [Speedway] is just one of the coolest tracks in the planet in terms of ovals and also Salem [Speedway]. I was really upset to never win at Salem. We finished third and second and had that awesome battle with Lofton in the fall race. Salem is just one of the most wild, craziest places and such a step back into another era and time. The pits are nonexistent. It’s grass.
You walk up to the track and it looks like the asphalt is a 1,000 years old. And the line that you take around there and the way the tires fall off and the difference of how fast you’re going at the start of a run to later in a run and running right up next to the wall in [turns] three and four, it’s just gotta be one of the coolest racetracks that’s ever been built. Even though I never won there, Salem was probably one of my favorite racetracks that I’ve ever been to in my life.