For the 2016 season, Parker Stephens has made the bold move to Bakersfield, California from his home in Olympia, Washington to pursue his dream of one day racing on Sunday afternoons. For many, that may seem an odd route to fame and stardom, but for this rising star, it was a logical step to give him the opportunity to race for the race-proven NTS Motorsports team in the highly competitive Spears SRL Southwest Tour Series. It also will give him a chance to compete in other special events to help him gain the much needed exposure to reach the upper levels of NASCAR.
The 18 year old, third-generation driver, was born in North Carolina to Pacific Northwest Super Late Model standout Dirk Stephens. Dirk had moved back east to compete in the XFINITY Series in 1994 and 1995 after a successful racing career that included a NASCAR Northwest Tour Series Championship and a championship runner-up effort in the NACAR K&N West Series. Parker and his family moved back to Washington the following year where he would grow up in the Pacific Northwest racing scene.
“I kind of started racing because of my dad and grandfather as it was in the family blood,” Parker told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I started out in the mini cup division at the age of ten and then raced a few years off and on until I figured out what I really wanted to do. During that time I got to work on my dad’s car and he was able to win a championship in his Super Late Model.”
When Parker was 13, he transitioned into Legends Cars and was the State of Washington Legends Champion in 2012 and 2013. In 2014 Stephens moved to the Super Late Model division. There he won his first of two consecutive Miller 200’s, South Sound Speedway’s (WA) biggest race of the season.
In 2015, Parker embarked on an ambitious schedule. It included a partial Northwest Super Late Model Series (NWSLMS) program with his family’s team, a partial NASCAR Whelen All American Series effort at Evergreen Speedway (WA), some special Super Late Model open shows and a run for Rookie of the Year honors in the Spears (SRL) Southwest Tour Series. Outside of “The Tour,” Parker won Super Late Model events in the Northwest Super Late Model Series, the Miller 200, the Ironman 125 at Kern County Raceway (CA) and at Evergreen Speedway. His focus however was on the SRL title and Rookie of the Year award with his NTS Motorsports Team.
Parker entered the final SRL event at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway third in series points and leading the Rookie of the Year standings. In a tight points battle that could see any driver in the top six take home the championship, Parker needed a win with a fifth place or lower finish from championship leader Greg Voigt and runner-up Jacob Gomes.
“We rolled into Vegas and unloaded with a top-five car in Friday’s practice, but as practice rolled on through Saturday, we just kept getting slower and slower,” Parker recalled. “We would come in and make changes, the car would feel good, but we would get slower. We were just fighting speed all day. Finally the motor blew and we realized that was the problem.”
With the lack of practice, due to the motor change, Parker could only manage a disappointing ninth-place finish. He would finish third in the championship standings. He was, however, able to secure the Rookie of the Year award over race winner Ryan Cansdale.
Following the 2015 season, Parker wasn’t sure of his plans for the upcoming year.
“We had some opportunities to go full-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series West racing or maybe some racing back east, but they kind of fell through,” Parker said. “You know it’s kind of tough going to a new team right now because you can lose your name going to a new team. We built up a pretty good name here and ran so strong that I thought I’d like to come back. With Team Manager Gary Collins, Crew Chief Travis Bennett and the whole NTS Motorsports crew, I wanted to do it again. I’m only 18 and I’d like to go out and win some more races and win the championship.”
This opportunity also gave Parker a chance to work in the shop and gain more experience on the technical side.
“I work on West cars, Tour cars, road course cars and stuff from back east. I get to work on anything and everything. I maintain my car as well as working on my teammates (Blaine Rocha and Christian McGhee) cars as well,” Parker said.
Parker opened the season at the Winter Showdown, an open event for Super Late Model and tour-type cars, promoted by the Spears Southwest Tour Series. The $30,000 winner’s share brought the best Super Late Model competitors from throughout the country to Kern County Raceway in Bakersfield, California. Parker would end up finishing second on the rear bumper of southeast standout Bubba Pollard.
“I think we had a better car than Bubba, but we had to go to the back on a late caution,” recalled Stephens. Losing to him is nothing to hang your head about. He has run a lot more races than I have and he just out-ran us at the end. I learned a lot, as I do every time I go to the track, and there are some things I would probably do different next time.”
Leading up to the season opener for the Spears Southwest Tour Series, Parker ran a handful of NASCAR K&N West races to get his first experience in the bigger cars. He finished 12th at Irwindale Speedway and then blew a tire while running sixth at Kern County Raceway.
“We didn’t have a lot of luck in those races, but I did learn a lot that I feel I can bring back to the tour car and other Super Late Model races this year.”
Entering the Spears Southwest Tour Series season opener at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Parker felt confident that he would fare far better than his ninth-place run in November.
“We came in prepared and we tested on Thursday (prior to the race). That was the best thing we could have done because of the rain situation that occurred over the weekend. To be able to compete for the win with Derek (Thorn), who is one of best guys ever there, was great for us as this is one of the tracks that I’ve struggled at,” Parker said.
At the end of the day Parker led a few laps and finished second in a race that saw only 36 green flag laps due to the inclimate weather.
Headed to Irwindale on April 30, for the Spears Manufacturing 100 Presented by Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse, Parker hopes the experience he obtained in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event will lead to a great finish.
“I’m really looking forward to going there because it is such a nice facility and we may not get to go back there after this year. It would be really cool to get a win there. It helps that we just raced the West car there and even though we didn’t have a great finish there it will help a ton.”
Looking at the rest of Parker’s season, he and the NTS Motorsports team will have a busy schedule. In addition to his SRL Championship efforts, he will run a few more K&N West races along with some possible East events. They also hope to compete in some CRA races in the Midwest and ultimately try to finish off the season with a trip to the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. Parker would also like to get in an additional event at Five Flags Speedway before the Derby in order to get some familiarity with the track.
Watch for Parker to have a great deal of success this season as he is one of the most promising young and upcoming drivers on the West Coast. Only time will tell if he can make it to the big leagues of NASCAR, but if his early results are any indication, the odds are definitely in his favor.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Roger Seymour