Our series of NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with Parker Kligerman, who finished a career-best second in last week's Camping World Truck Series race at Texas. Kligerman, a Penske Racing development driver who pilots the No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing truck, is second in the Truck Series Rookie of the Year standings and eighth overall. We spoke with Kligerman at Charlotte last month.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
PK: Denny Hamlin.
SBN: Denny Hamlin? What makes you say that?
PK: Just because he doesn't do the whole Truck/Nationwide deal that Kyle (Busch) does and gets all the constant media. But if you look at his Cup stats since he's been there, he's been by far one of the top three Cup drivers. But he never gets the press and the talk about him. He's the only guy who could fight Jimmie (Johnson) for the championship, but I just think he doesn't get the amount of press the other guys do because he puts all his numbers up in Cup and not the other series.
SBN: What's a race you feel like you should have won that you didn't?
PK: There's plenty of those. The most recent would be Dover of this year. We were running third on the last restart, fighting for second. And I thought if we could get to second, I could beat Kyle on the restart – because we were getting such good restarts. But instead, I let the 60 pinch me down and take my air off my spoiler, and I spun out and finished 21st. That's the most recent one that got away.
SBN: If you could make your own four-car Sprint Cup Series team – yourself and three other drivers – who would you pick? And you can't pick anyone you're currently affiliated with, like Brad Keselowski.
PK: I can't pick those guys? Ah. I was going to say, Brad would be the first one, because he's so technical.
SBN: Nope, sorry.
PK: Well, obviously, you'd want Jimmie. He has such a technical background now because of what he's done, and just the history he has with the car. You know you'd have good cars with him developing them.
I'd take Denny, too. He'd be good. He's a methodical guy and he focuses on the Cup stuff real hard.
And for myself, a guy I'd love to be able to lean on a lot would be Mark Martin. I'd be a rookie if this Cup thing were to come together, so I think I'd want someone like him to get advice from and help me make the right choices.
The way I look at it is you can only be helped by guys who are really focused on developing the cars. So if you get guys who are very technical-minded, you can say, ‘Hey, I'm feeling this; what have you seen before with this?' I think that would just be a plus to have that sort of background.
SBN: Who is a driver you wanted to model yourself after growing up?
PK: You know, I've always wanted to have a more aggressive driving style than I have. In the car, I feel like, ‘Oh man, I'm moving around, I'm aggressive.' But when I watch it from the outside on video, it doesn't even look like I'm doing anything.
I think guys like Kyle and Dale Earnhardt and Brad, they have a driving style where you can really visually see them working in the car and being aggressive on restarts, just racing others. And I think that kind of translates to the fans – it builds the connection with them – because they see a lot of dynamic movement in the car.
So I hope to one day have a style that you can see from the outside and tell I was really pushing it. You could look at a guy like Matt Kenseth, you don't really see that out of him – he's kind of a laid-back guy. And because of that, I think he doesn't get the same sort of image that other guys do.
SBN: So when you watch yourself back on the video, are you saying you could have made a move that you didn't? Or are you already pushing it to the max and it just doesn't appear that way to the viewers?
PK: It's just my style is a little more smooth. That's just the way I've always been. When I was racing growing up, I had zero money. I wasn't allowed to crash. I had to always get to the limit by working my way up to it without ever crashing. Because if I crashed, I was done; because we didn't have money. My dad didn't like it, so he wasn't spending money on everything.
It was like I had one shot. So coming to a time now where I can maybe make a mistake here or there and get away with it, I have to kind of encourage myself to say, ‘Hey, you could kind of go over the limit here and gather it up and get it back and it won't be so devastating.' I've seen myself do that a little bit this year, just learning week-to-week in the Truck series. That's helped a tremendous amount, versus where I was just doing 10 Nationwide races all spread out last year.
Last year it was three different teams, two different types of cars and I never really built a comfort level to feel like I could really make a mistake and get away with it. I was always trying to be so perfect all the time that I almost put myself in a box.
SBN: What's a quick escape you've made from the racetrack to beat traffic?
PK: I was just a passenger in this story, but we were leaving Texas last year when we had all those rain delays. I had come down on Saturday morning to watch the Nationwide race and was going to leave on Saturday night on the Penske plane, but it rained. I hadn't brought any clothes. And I ended up staying for two more days, so I had to go to Wal-Mart and buy clothes.
We're finally leaving after the Cup race, and I'm riding with the pit crew guys. And all of the sudden, they pitch to the right down this dirt road. We're blasting through potholes, cars spinning out, guys blowing tires left and right. It was insane! And you couldn't see anything, because the dust was going everywhere.
I'll never forget, we come up on this corner, and there are literally three cars stopped for blown tires. We came in sideways, slid into the corner and went on.
We ended up first to the airport of anyone. And I'm like, ‘Was it really worth it?'
SBN: Who is somebody famous you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
PK: Jimmie Johnson.
SBN: What? Really? You've never met him?
PK: Nah. I've been wanting to meet him though. And I'd like to meet Kimi Raikkonen. I had a chance to meet him at the (Charlotte) Truck race – he was my idol because I wanted to go to Formula One when I was way younger – but I almost felt like you're not supposed to meet guys (you're racing against). So I didn't. I kind of just kept focused on the race and sort of forgot he was there.
At one point, I was going down the backstretch three-wide and I was in the middle. We had gone to the back because we had a tire go down. And we're coming through the field and Kimi's on the inside of me. I look left and see him with that helmet and I'm like, ‘That's pretty cool.' (grins)
But other than that, I'd like to just meet Jimmie Johnson.
SBN: What would you want to talk to Jimmie about?
PK: Just as a young driver coming into the sport. He was a prime example of a guy who maybe didn't have so much success in the lower ranks, but because of that, he kept working and working and didn't get complacent. And some guys kind of get complacent when they come through the ranks quickly and get to the top. They get there and they say, ‘Oh, I'm the best' and they stop trying so hard.
But Jimmie was always pushing, and I think it showed and all of the sudden he busted through and has never finished lower than fifth in the points.
SBN: Let's say in the Trucks this year, you could either win a bunch of races and not win the Truck title, or you could win the championship without winning any races. Which would you want?
PK: I'd rather win five races. You know, as a young driver, just look at Ricky Stenhouse – last season was a horrible season for him. But throughout that season, he showed speed, and that's one thing you can't teach. Winning races you can't teach.
You can always calm a guy down, but you can't fire him up, you know? If I was showing the speed and showing I could win races and such, I think there would be an opportunity (to move up). Winning a championship without any wins? I don't think that would be very well-respected.
SBN: How much does your personality differ from inside the race car and outside it?
PK: I'd say two years ago, it was completely different. When I'd put the helmet on, I'd become a monster. Some of it was I put a lot of pressure on myself; I didn't understand the differences in equipment. If you were running eighth, inside you'd be thinking, ‘I should be winning,' but you might be doing exactly what that car can possibly run.
But as a young driver, it's like, ‘Man, I suck! I'm terrible! I hate my life! I never want to do this again!' Once I kind of realized that, this year I've calmed down a lot. Especially because I'm on a really young team, new crew chief, all that. And I've kind of become the leader, I suppose, and because of that, I try to stay a lot calmer. When everyone is freaking out, I'm like, ‘Hey, hey. Everyone calm down. Everything is going to work out.'
SBN: Where does your motivation to win come from?
PK: I want to be the best. You shouldn't be here unless you want to be the best. I've said forever that I'll never be a race car driver just to say I'm a race car driver. By the same token, I want to prove you can do this without family funding. In an era when the odds are against you, I've been super lucky to have the rides I've had and to jump around.
My dad was never really behind it. He only helped me out for one year. So I've been kind of scrounging up the ladder. I want to get to the top and prove it can be done, and I want to be able to help other young kids and show them, ‘You can do this. This sport is a legitimate sport, you just gotta work really hard to make it happen.'
SBN: So are you optimistic that you will indeed make it to the top and you'll get those opportunities without bringing a sponsor?
PK: Uh...well, I'd say in the last few months, no. I almost get the feeling that if I went out there and won the Truck championship, won every race there was, there still might be no opportunities out there, the way things are. It's just reality of the sport right now.
But that doesn't mean I'm not pushing as hard as I can, doesn't mean I'm not going to try. I think in the end, if I focus on just having the highest performance possible, those opportunities will come up.
SBN: If you could switch lives with a different athlete from another sport, who would you switch with?
PK: I guess pre-(scandal), I'd take Tiger Woods. He's just the quintessential athlete. Good-looking, strong, worked hard at it. Full of talent – probably the most talented golfer of all time. And that sport is, besides racing, possibly the most mentally challenging sport – it's quiet, you've got millions and millions of eyes watching you and you have a little stick and a ball you have to get into a hole.
If you think about it that way, it sounds rudimentary, but you look at the Masters and there are 20 million people watching – that's crazy. And to be able to do what he did, week in and week out, I think he's the ultimate athlete of our generation and for many generations to come.
SBN: If you could take a year away from NASCAR and come back knowing you had a ride guaranteed, would you ever want to do that in your career?
PK: To be honest, I have kind of had that sabbatical. Last year, only doing 10 races, I had two months off at a time. And at that time, I just went to races, worked out, went home. I almost felt useless a lot of the time, like, ‘What am I doing here?'
But once you get to the top of the sport and have achieved a lot of the things you want to achieve, I think a lot of guys would say, ‘Hey, I'd like to take a year off and go do some things I've wanted to do my whole life – maybe go see Africa, maybe to go Australia, see the world.'
But honestly, the way this sport is, you're only as good as your last race and in two months, everything could be different. Everything could be flipped upside-down. So I almost feel like it's impossible, because if you're gone for a year, you could be completely forgotten.
SBN: Someday when you're done racing, what will you want your retirement story to say about you?
PK: I always thought about this when I was younger: I just wanted people to say, 'He was fast.' But when I got older, I thought about it more. You know, my favorite old-time driver was Tim Richmond, and his big thing was he wanted to be liked.
So I think, when I walk away from it all, I'd like to be very successful, but in the end I'd like to be liked. Having a fan base and a lot of people behind you who would say, 'That's a good guy' when you left, that's what I'd like. They'd say, 'He's successful, he does it well and at the same time, no one hates him. He could show up anytime and people would welcome him.'
SBN: If you won the Truck championship this year, would you rather have it wrapped up before Homestead or win it off Turn 4 of the last lap of the season?
PK: Well, I've lost a championship on the last lap before at Rockingham one year (in ARCA). Pressure-wise, and all that stuff, you'd want to lock it up. But as a fan, and knowing how much interest that '09 title chase drummed up, heck, I'd say they should all come down to the last lap. To come out on top of that has got to be the best feeling in the world. It means that at that time, you put everything you had into it and came out successful. What's a better feeling than that?