In 2004, Kyle Larson -- who yesterday won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Michigan -- was just another kid with a dream. John Strand, an employee of ParkerStore, a network of independent distributors who provide hydraulic hose assemblies and service for heavy equipment, was, at least for one night, just a race fan who decided to check out some nearby Outlaw Kart races.
The next day he sent the following email to Brad Fischer, ParkerStore Director of Global Distribution and Sales Services:
"I took in an event at a brand new Outlaw Kart Track just south of Knoxville. There was a kid (Kyle Larson) there from the Sacramento area, and he is the shit !! I watched the 500cc open (adult) class and this cart was so fast and so smooth, nobody compared. I went over to talk with the driver (expecting to see an adult), and a 4 foot tall 12 year-old stepped out the of the kart. It totally blew me away! They also started this kid in the back row of the 250 cc class in his 125 cc kart, and he won that event.
I would really like to put some kind of sponsorship package together for this kid. He is the next Kasey Kahne or Jeff Gordon, there is no doubt in my mind."
Keep in mind Strand, and ParkerStore, were extremely familiar both with racing and racing sponsorships. ParkerStore customers enjoy motor sports; research shows they're a natural fit. "We stick mostly to grass roots racing," Fischer says. "Drivers come to open houses, they bring cars... it's great for our distributors because their customers -- and their staff -- are thrilled to meet and engage with the drivers. We've long felt racing is one of the best ways for us to reach our customers."
But still: sign a 12 year-old to a sponsorship deal? And call him "the next Jeff Gordon?"
Mike Larson, Kyle's father, was also taken aback. "That was the only corporate sponsorship of any outlaw kart driver in the country," Mike says. "People kept asking how we pulled it off. I told them that whenever we wrote up a proposal or made a cold call, it never panned out. ParkerStore came to us and said, 'We want to get involved with Kyle.' That was rewarding because it showed they appreciated his talent and his attitude and wanted to be associated with him."
The first sponsorship deal was for significantly less than $10,000, but for a family operation that in later years was bankrolled largely by Kyle's race winnings, it was a huge deal. "We paid all our bills first," Mike says, "and then whatever was left could go to racing." Once Kyle graduated from the outlaw kart ranks, Mike says, "The only thing I ever bought him was one tire."
The goal was for Kyle to not only learn to race but also learn that chasing a dream comes with a cost, one that Kyle was more than happy to pay.
But Mike and Kyle's mother Janet contributed in a number of other ways, driving to races ("We felt like the Beverly Hillbillies with our first rig, a Nissan Quest van and a rusted-out Ford pickup bed," Mike says), writing press releases and race recaps, sharing race videos, creating promotional materials, and managing social media.
"We've had such a great relationship with the Larsons," Fischer says. "All of Janet's work on the newsletter and the web site and updates helped keep us engaged and excited. You could tell they were very focused on helping Kyle get to the next level... but you could also tell they were very focused on making sure the relationship paid off for us, too. That's rare."
That relationship continued to pay off when in 2014 when ParkerStore began sponsoring Kyle at the Truck and Xfinity levels.
"It made perfect sense," Fischer says. "We have a great history with Kyle. It's a nice story to tell. It helps us engage our distributor audience and helps them promote the ParkerStore brand. We can active our channel and the 350 ParkerStore locations in the U.S., we can engage their customers, drive new traffic into the stores and leverage our relationship with Kyle in all the local markets... the relationship is exponentially more meaningful than just having our logo on the car."
Of course it helps that several weeks ago, Kyle won the XFINITY race at Dover in a ParkerStore sponsored car.
"That was very cool to see," Mike says. "There he was standing in victory lane in the ParkerStore colors, and all I could think about is how I painted his kart ParkerStore yellow even though they only asked us to put on a certain size sticker. We wanted show that we were appreciative, that we were loyal, and that we would do everything we could to nurture the relationship."
"But we had no idea where it would all end up," Mike continues. "When Kyle was 9 or 10 he started saying, 'I'm going to make it to NASCAR,' but thousands of kids have that same dream, and I just hoped he would deal with it well when his bubble finally burst. But," he says, laughing, "his bubble never did burst. Shows you what I know."
Maybe Mike didn't know... but John Strand certainly did.
When you spot a talented job candidate or identify a talented employee, take a chance. Bet on your experience and judgment.
You may just find your own superstar.