It happens all the time in NASCAR. A driver who’s never won a race gets a ride with a well-funded team, and suddenly becomes a winner or even championship contender.
NASCAR is an expensive sport. The old adage “Money buys horsepower” has never been truer, and it applies to more than just the NASCAR Cup Series. It takes money just to reach NASCAR’s upper ranks. Most of today’s top drivers grew up racing in their youth, running quarter-midgets or other series. Whereas young soccer players or basketball players can take a simple ball and hone their skills on a field or hoop at the local playground, there is no inexpensive, entry-level motorsports for young drivers.
All this leads to a common question: Do top NASCAR drivers rise through the ranks based on talent alone? Or is it impossible to achieve success without strong financial support, sometimes beginning with wealthy parents?
Fans aren’t the only ones debating this topic. Parker Kligerman, who has competed in all three of NASCAR’s national series, says the topic has been a “massive debate” in the sport. Kligerman, now better known to many fans for his role as a NASCAR on NBC pit reporter, discussed the issue with host Brandon Contes on the latest Awful Announcing Podcast.
Contes cut right to the chase, asking, “How much of becoming a successful professional race car driver is dependent on talent alone and then how much of it is dependent on also having enough financial backing?”
“So that’s a really great question,” Kligerman said. “I think it’s a massive debate amongst the sport for a very long time, and I think it’ll continue to be a debate for as long as the sport exists.
“You know, I tend to believe the cream rises to the top and that if you’re gonna be in the NASCAR Cup Series or the Indycar Series or Formula One, you’ve got to be top 1% at something. Whether that is you’re the top 1% you know, stock car road course driver in the world, which would be an A.J. Allmendinger, right?”
But talent alone can’t make even a great driver a consistent winner. It’s no coincidence the top NASCAR Cup drivers drive for teams with more consistent and lucrative sponsorships. Tales abound of drivers who move from lower-tier teams to a super team suddenly finding success.
Yet even that move takes a certain talent, in marketing. It’s no surprise that many of today’s top drivers are well-spoken, marketing-friendly individuals.
“Whether you’re a top 1% short track racer, a top 1% marketer, I think that’s an important [skill], right?” Kligerman said. “If you go, you have an ability to garner sponsorship at a level that no one else can. That is a top 1% skill that can allow you to be at the highest level of the sport.”
So driving skill is important, but Kligerman concedes funding is critical in helping a driver climb the ranks and reach the top of the sport.
“Yes, is there a financial need and a financial barrier to entry?” Kligerman said. “Of course, and there’s, you know, probably the pool of people that can enter this sport and try to get to the highest level is lower because of that.
“I really think it’s not as big a barrier for the highest talent to get to the top. If they want to get there, they have the dedication and they’re willing to make the sacrifices, they’ll find a way.”
Without naming names, NASCAR has seen a number of drivers in recent years who brought lucrative sponsorships to a team, only to fizzle out because they couldn’t drive. So Kligerman says finding success in NASCAR takes both talent and funding.
Yet talent can take a driver a long way from humble beginnings.
“It’s not just the most talented that make it there, but it’s the combination of all those things combined,” Kligerman said. “And then I do think there is, you know, there is, a 1% that are just so damn good … they just are an elite level ability at driving a race car.
“They will find themselves at the top of the sport because there’s no other choice for them. And the sport will funnel them that way.”
Kligerman, who is driving the No. 48 Big Machine Racing Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series this season, is on track to make the playoffs.
[Awful Announcing Podcast]