EARLIER THIS YEAR, five entrepreneurs gath-ered inside the Waltham offices of venture capital firm North Bridge and talked NASCAR. They debated the merits of racetracks around the country and different cars. They delved into financial breakdowns of the multibillion-dollar sport, moving through prepared slides and writing ideas on a whiteboard. But mostly, they focused on one driver, Paulie Harraka, and his race schedule for the 2013 season, his sponsorship opportunities, and his long-term career trajectory. How could Harraka continue to climb the NASCAR ranks? How soon could he race in the top-level Sprint Cup Series? Where could he find new marketing deals? The conversation sounded like part serious-minded case study and part vicarious-thrill fantasy league. In reality, it was a board meeting of Paulie Harraka LLC, a company pioneering a new NASCAR business model. And dressed in a blue oxford shirt and black pants, far from his logo-covered race-day fire suit, Harraka sat at the conference table and joined in the conversation.
“I’m the product,” Harraka later says, “so these board meetings are a unique experience because you’re talking about your life and you’re listening to these great, creative, entrepreneurial minds help you see your dream through.” Given all that depends on the 23-year-old, he adds: “The model is not for the faint of heart.”
Backed by 60-plus investors betting on his driving talent, Boston-based Harraka competes part time on the Nationwide Series, the NASCAR equivalent of Triple A baseball. But unlike other competitors, he is not under contract with a race team providing cars, mechanics, and sponsorships and hiring multiple drivers to increase the odds of success and spread out the risk. Instead, Harraka is finding his own investors, each contributing from about $5,000 to $800,000, and calling the shots as part of his five-member board. “The board effectively is a replacement for what the Patriots would have in a Bill Belichick, a combination of a GM and a coach,” says Carmichael Roberts, a board member and North Bridge partner. “We focus on where Paulie is now and how we make sure we’re not too slow or too fast in his development.” The investors all believe they have something special in Harraka, a charismatic, fast-talking, business-savvy, Duke-educated driver, a unique brand if ever there was one. One minute he can analyze return on investment, the next shock-absorber design.
During the season, Harraka partners with different race teams for different events, bringing money and sponsors to the table in exchange for cars and crews. He also works with technology companies like Cambridge’s MC10 and develops products that will make him a better driver.
For an up-and-comer in a prohibitively expensive sport — top Nationwide teams spend roughly $6 million per year on operating costs, top Sprint Cup teams $25 million — strong financial support translates directly into prime racing opportunities. So far, Harraka is showing that an investor-funded model built around a single driver holds promise. If all goes as planned, Harraka will make his Sprint Cup debut this Sunday afternoon in Sonoma, California, realizing a major goal for his company and investors. Then, on July 13, he returns to the Nationwide Series, racing in the New England 200 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
“I’ve always been a bit of an anomaly to the NASCAR community and to the stereotypical NASCAR driver,” says Harraka. “I’m a kid who grew up in New Jersey and went to Duke, a Catholic kid of Syrian descent.”
IT STARTED WITH GO-KARTS. At 7, barely able to reach the pedals, Harraka spent Sunday afternoons speeding around industrial parking lots near his home in northern New Jersey. And he showed talent. It wasn’t long before Harraka won three state championships in go-kart racing, then 13 national championships and six world championships. From there, while still in high school, he embarked on the traditional climb toward top-level NASCAR racing — three-quarter-scale Legends Cars, the Whelen All-American Series, the K&N Pro Series West, the Camping World Truck Series. He moved to North Carolina for his senior year of high school and interned with Joe Gibbs Racing, a top team in NASCAR. Harraka appeared well positioned to develop his driving talent in the traditional way, bankrolled by a race team that gave him experience and business connections as he matured behind the wheel. All that changed with the recession and the chance to attend Duke University.
Money for race teams was scarce during the recession, leaving little to no funding for promising young drivers like Harraka. Teams needed drivers who came carrying cash. “It became less of a meritocracy and more nepotistic,” says Harraka. “A driver might go to a team and say, ‘Hi, my dad’s a CEO of a company or my family is independently wealthy. If you hire me to drive your race cars, we can contribute X amount of dollars.’ . . . I didn’t have access to large amounts of capital. It leaves a guy like me going, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ ” At the time, Harraka was pursuing a degree in markets and management at Duke, far from the traditional career path taken by future Sprint Cup competitors, who spend what would be their college years devoted solely to racing. Harraka took a longer, broader, some would say riskier view of his racing career. He saw value in a business education and alumni connections, even if it meant spending dramatically less time in race cars during a key developmental window and essentially breaking back into the sport after graduation.
At university functions, Duke alum Roberts, the North Bridge partner, heard about an undergraduate NASCAR driver. While Roberts appreciated the novelty, he had no interest in NASCAR or Harraka. That was until Roberts met Harraka. “We had lunch and it took me five minutes to realize this is an unusual human being,” says Roberts. From there, the venture capitalist who specializes in science and technology investment immersed himself in all things NASCAR. At a race in California, Roberts saw Harraka start in the back of the pack, work his way through the field, and stay in the top three for most of the event. It was clear to him that Harraka had natural driving talent, plus entrepreneurial instincts.
“We saw a chance to build a brand association and a long-term relationship with Paulie and to get behind a unique approach,” says investor Grant Carter, a former NFL and Canadian Football League player who founded Denver-based Cobalt Sports Capital. “Paulie was saying: ‘I want a team. We’re all in this together.’ He has a wise-beyond-his-years approach to life and to his career. That really attracted us.”
INVESTORS IN PAULIE HARRAKA LLC know it’s a long-term proposition. The big-money returns won’t come, if at all, until Harraka races full time in the Sprint Cup Series, where the top drivers make $25 million to $30 million per year. The Sprint Cup race in Sonoma this Sunday is, as Harraka says, “one chance to step up, dip our toe in, see what it’s like, then choose the lessons we learn from that.” J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, whose drivers compete against Harraka, figures if Harraka gets more driving experience, more “seat time,” he’ll do well. Still, full-time Sprint Cup racing is years away, with no guarantees of success at the next level. But Harraka and his investors say they have already seen returns of a non-cash kind. “The relationships that we’ve been able to create with other investors has cross-pollinated into other business opportunities independent of Paulie,” says Carter. The cross-pollination, though, is a testament to the type of investors Harraka attracts — they’re eager to do business differently and experienced with starting companies.
“For a lot of creative entrepreneurs, what drives them is changing how something works,” says Harraka. “Obviously, investors invest because they want to see a financial return. But I think maybe a big motivating factor, more than anything else, is doing things in a way that’s disruptive and has a potential to permanently change a model.”
For MC10, a start-up that creates virtually invisible, wearable high-performance electronics, a partnership with Harraka made sense. Harraka and MC10 are developing hydration and concussion sensors and testing new products during races. MC10 cofounder Ben Schlatka explains: “When you can work directly with somebody and share very specific information about how your products can be better for their sport, that translates into huge value for us.” For Harraka, it’s an easy commute from his North End home to the MC10 offices in Cambridge. In fact, the reason he chose to live in Boston, rather than in North Carolina NASCAR country, is the proximity to a large portion of his investor network and to sponsors. “The only way to get to know the entrepreneurial community in Boston is to be there,” says Harraka.
Even if he doesn’t take the checkered flag in a top race, Harraka has NASCAR paying attention. Gibbs sees potential in Harraka’s business model and figures others might try it, though it’s far from a fit for everyone. Gibbs cautions that the success of such an investor-propelled approach “depends on who you’re working with” and requires someone with Harraka’s unique talents on and off the racetrack. “When you first meet Paulie, a lot of people are like, ‘Dang, that’s impressive,’ ” says Gibbs. “But he’s real sharp and he’s a real good people person. When you combine that, he can do a lot. I was telling him for a while, ‘I know NASCAR is your passion, but you can do a lot bigger things than this.’ Even if Paulie stays in NASCAR, he will do big things.”
Shira Springer is a sports reporter for the Globe. E-mail her at email@example.com.