Kevin Duffy: Salesman Kligerman biding his time, waiting for right Cup ride
Published 2:51 pm, Sunday, May 4, 2014
FAIRFIELD -- "Hi, this is NASCAR driver Parker Kligerman calling on behalf of my company, Nootelligence. We are a two-ounce brain supplement, and we'd love to talk about getting into your retailer or distributor."
This is Parker Kligerman, in between racing teams, working the old 9-to-5 shift at his Fairfield office on Post Road. Well, the 9-to-whenever shift. Kligerman wants to be clear on that. Because there's much work to be done, and these are long days.
This is Kligerman: A 23-year-old race car driver from Westport, one of the rising stars in his sport. This is Kligerman: Square jaw, parted blonde hair, checkered dress shirt tucked into dark skinny jeans. A natural behind the wheel and in front of a camera.
Kligerman dissects the business world as if he studied it at NYU. Sometimes he sounds like a professor. Actually, he never went to college; he became a professional racer at age 19.
Kligerman wants to be clear again: Nootelligence isn't an energy drink. No, this is a two-ounce nootropically-based supplement. A neuro-enhancer aimed at improving focus without the jittery side effects.
That's all part of the sales pitch, which, as of Wednesday, is Kligerman's primary responsibility.
His first call was to a gas station chain in Indiana. He got straight through. Got the retailer to agree on an email proposal and a sample.
O'Connell, the co-founder of Nootelligence, got a bunch of voice mails.
"I looked at him," O'Connell said, "and I told him, `You're doing all of the calls."
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Parker Kligerman grew up in Stamford, moved to Westport in the sixth grade and already had a deep fascination with racing.
He remembers the start of it: When he was 9 years old and his family got cable television, he found the Speed channel and was mesmerized by the Go Karts.
It wasn't until four years later that his mother and aunt took him to buy a Go Kart as a "birthday-slash-Christmas" present. His dad, who had little interest in racing, wasn't thrilled. (In fact, Kligerman says his father stayed for only 20 laps of the Daytona 500 this past year; it's worth noting that Kligerman was involved in a wild three-car crash during practice at Daytona).
Kligerman got his start at the Norwalk Karting Association. Races were held every Saturday at Calf Pasture Beach. Two years into it, he won Mechanic of the Year.
"I was the only kid ever to win it because every other kid's dad worked on their stuff," Kligerman said.
Shortly after, Kligerman asked his father to help him with cars.
"Just for one year," Kligerman told him. "I'll make the rest."
Dad agreed, and Kligerman went to Skip Barber racing school, won his first two races at Lime Rock, and then, as a 15-year-old, enrolled in the Formula TR Pro Series in California. He missed school sometimes, and at Staples High he became known as "the kid who races cars."
"When you would go over to his house in high school, he was always on (simulated) racing," O'Connell said. "Parker would be on it, and he'd be whipping around the track."
Kligerman didn't talk much about his hobby because he didn't think many classmates would be interested. After all, this was Westport, Connecticut. Not quite a NASCAR hotbed.
"In racing, I don't want to say it's incestual, but there's a lot of nepotism," said Kligerman, whose family has no history in auto racing. "Families upon families and generations and very few interlopers. That's just who's in it."
Kligerman graduated from Staples in 2009, already well on his path to crashing the tight-knit NASCAR family. His friends would head to college: O'Connell to Boston University, Moss to NYU. Kligerman would join Penske Racing as a developmental driver. He'd win nine races in the ARCA series, debut in the Nationwide Series in October 2009, and then join Brad Keselowski Racing the following year.
After parting ways with Keselowski in 2012, Kligerman made his Sprint Cup debut this past November for Swan Racing. He finished 18th, the best result for Swan in 2013.
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This is why Parker Kligerman is in the Nootelligence office and not on the track: Business.
Swan Racing, which had expanded to two cars in its second season, against Kligerman's wishes, was forced to fold in late April due to lack of sponsorship funding. His teammate, Cole Whitt, brought his No. 26 car in a merge with BK Racing. Kligerman's No. 30 car was sold off to Xxxtreme Motorsports, which already had a driver.
Kligerman came home for Easter and hasn't left.
"When you build a Cup team, Cup is a process," he explained. "You don't walk into Cup and spend a lot of money and win. Red Bull racing spent $50 million per year on two cars every year for five years and won two races and made the Chase once.
"You don't just show up and spend money. It's just like NFL. It's a building process. It's maturing. It's building with people, and everything adds until you finally have something that's worth anything. Look at the Seattle Seahawks."
"(Swan Racing) was doing that in 2013," he added. "In 2014, going to two cars broke the back. It wasn't very solid, and so we are where we are."
Since Swan Racing folded, Kligerman has had opportunities to join other Sprint Cup teams, but he's turned them down. As he put it, they were rides that were surviving, not thriving.
"I'd rather survive here than never have a chance to thrive on the race track," he said. "... When the right Cup ride comes along, I'll be ready."
Here's the deal at Nootelligence: O'Connell, one of Kligerman's best friends at Staples, took prescribed ADD medication all through college. The side effects bothered him. As a senior, a finance major unsure of his future, O'Connell discovered nootropics, legal cognitive-enhancing supplements available in bulk powder and pill form. He mixed the powders, found it supremely effective and wondered, "How come I don't see this on the market anywhere? How come there are only caffeine shots?"
O'Connell told Kligerman about his idea, and his friend saw the potential in it. They co-founded the business in the summer of 2013, Kligerman handling the name and the design of the bottle, O'Connell and Moss taking care of the product.
Here was the deal Thursday in Fairfield: It's three guys with their laptops in a newly leased, somewhat disheveled office space. There are about a dozen seltzer bottles clustered on the table near O'Connell's computer because, well, O'Connell can't get enough seltzer. Kligerman is polishing off a vanilla milkshake. They've spent the entire day preparing for a presentation they'll make to a distributor. They still need to plan social media strategy. Vital for business, Kligerman says.
They've gone door-to-door in the area. Nootelligence is in stores on Post Road, on the Fairfield University campus and on the NYU campus. They recently picked up 30,000 bottles from the manufacturer in New Jersey.
Kligerman drinks one of them as he flips through a notepad filled with his ideas.
"Between Ian and myself and Jeff, there are a lot of decisions in terms of `how fast do you want to grow?'" Kligerman says. "That's one thing, you want to grow fast enough so the general public knows you're there and can become a leader, but at the same time, don't grow so fast that you can't keep up with it."
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When you talk to Parker Kligerman, you think Nootropics -- this start-up business -- is his life. He's so consumed with the subtlest of details: the bottle, for example, is rectangular, not circular like a five-hour energy drink or any of the knockoffs. That's key.
"Groundwork in this industry is really important," he said. "Just pounding the pavement around here. The more stores you're in, the more distributors see it at these places, and you'd be surprised. They might see it and say `what's that?' And this distributor might be doing 4,000 more stores around the Northeast. Just because you're in that store, you might get that distributor."
He's an entrepreneur, completely invested in understanding this market, yet he's also Parker Kligerman the NASCAR Driver, a card he's not afraid to pull on sales calls. Although he's been removed from racing since April 23, he hasn't really left.
"Right now I'm driving a lap -- say it's Texas ," he said from his swivel chair. "I'm talking to you and I'm having this conversation but in my head somewhere I'm in a race car ... It's always in your mind. It's always going. Jeff Gordon said he can't turn it off. That's the scary thing. As a race car driver, you can't not think about driving."
When news leaked of Swan Racing's restructuring, Kligerman received texts like "Are you OK?" If he isn't, it doesn't show. He says there's an opportunity -- he can't yet disclose the details -- that will take him out of the Nootelligence office for about a week. He says any driver, even Jimmie Johnson, would agree: "If you could have one year where you could drive a ton of different race cars and then come back (to the Cup), you'd take it in an instant."
"As a race car driver, you want to do something different."
For now, Parker Kligerman will keep making his sales calls, waiting for the right one to come his way.