Fast-Track Celiac

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Gluten-free awareness is off to the races

Photo Courtesy of GIG

The appeal of NASCAR racing is the squeal of tires, bumper-to-bumper battles and speeds of up to 200 miles an hour. This fast-action sport isn’t usually linked with gluten-free living.

Now racecar driver Parker Kligerman and the Gluten Intolerance Group want to change that. They’re recruiting sponsors for a gluten-free awareness car that would showcase gluten-free foods and the benefits of living gluten-free. They want to spread awareness of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to 75 million NASCAR fans, putting celiac on the fast track.

Full Throttle for Celiac

Parker Kligerman, 24, wants to be the gluten-free face of NASCAR. He’s raced on several different NASCAR circuits, including the highest-level Sprint Cup Series. It hasn’t always been easy for Kligerman, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2010 after years of gastrointestinal problems.

“In middle school, in high school, as a young adult, I was constantly fighting stomach issues. I couldn’t figure out the reason. Nothing I did was making a difference,” he says. “In 2009 and into 2010, it was getting to where my head would be clogged and I couldn’t make decisions quickly. For a racecar driver, that’s a bad thing.”

To solve the problem, he developed a strategy: Stop eating.

“I would not eat the entire weekend I raced, because I knew that if I ate, I’d get sick.”

When a fellow racecar driver recommended he get tested for celiac disease, Kligerman immediately cut out gluten.

“I woke up five to seven days later and it was like a cloud had lifted. My whole world changed. I had all this energy. Suddenly I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the answer.’”

Based on his symptoms, Kligerman’s doctor diagnosed him with celiac disease. He didn’t undergo a blood test because he didn’t want to reintroduce gluten into his diet. (Accurate test results require that you be on a gluten-containing diet for a period of time.)

“The most amazing part when I went gluten-free was my energy level,” Kligerman says. “I started working out more. My body kind of transformed, in terms of being more muscular, looking more healthy. Overall my appearance, my feeling inside of myself and my energy level changed overnight. Ever since, I’m not the kid who’s always sick. I’m now the kid who’s full of energy and never sleeps. For the past five-plus years, I’ve had all this energy that I didn’t have for the first 18 years of my life!”

Link with GIG

GIG’s vice president of development, Chris Rich, is working with Kligerman to solicit companies to sponsor the gluten-free awareness car and to put horsepower under the campaign’s hood. His vision: A celiac driver driving a gluten-free racecar.

The relationship between the two men started when Rich was watching the Daytona 500 with his then 12-year-old celiac son. In an attempt to engage the boy, who had his head buried in his iPod, Rich googled “celiac” and “NASCAR” and discovered that driver Kligerman had celiac disease.

“So I sent a Tweet over to Parker and his team sent a Tweet back saying, ‘Glad to have a new fan.’ I showed that message to my son—and that was it. He watched the whole race,” Rich says.

Rich sent a thank-you letter to Kligerman and the two men started talking. Together, they came up with the idea of a gluten-free racecar.

“We want to show celiac kids that they’re not alone, that there are others out there just like them,” Rich says. “We want to give them a focal point where they can say, ‘I can do that, too.’”

Just as Kligerman found out about celiac from another driver, he hopes to educate legions of NASCAR fans about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. He also wants to introduce them to good gluten-free products.

“We want to bring gluten-free awareness to a larger public and show that being celiac or being gluten sensitive doesn’t mean sacrificing quality of life and doesn’t mean sacrificing quality of products,” Kligerman says.

Sponsors are a big deal for NASCAR fans. Thirty-six percent of NASCAR fans can name every sponsor of the top 30 ranked cars, according to statisticsbrain.com. Rich would like the gluten-free awareness car to be emblazoned with logos from gluten-free companies.

GIG and Kligerman hope to have sponsors offer samples of gluten-free foods at racing events, so fans can try the food, realize gluten-free products can taste great and think about whether going gluten-free could help their health.

“We want to get gluten-free products into the hands of people who don’t know about them or how good they are,” says Kligerman. “And we want to bring awareness to people who might not realize they should be gluten-free. It might be a lifestyle change that will make them feel better.”

Associate editor Eve Becker blogs on glutenfreenosh.com. She lives in Chicago.