Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harness racing, with a twist

Local moms license their Safe2Go harnesses to NASCAR, and now Disney has come calling

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If you're walking around the Daytona Beach Speedway with a kid on a retractable safety harness/backpack resembling Jeff Gordon's race car... you just might be a redneck.

You'd also be the proud owner of a children's product that is the brainchild of two made-in-Manitoba entrepreneurs who have managed to sprint their way into the multimillion-dollar world of NASCAR merchandising.

It's an unlikely success story for two Winnipeg mothers turned businesswomen; one who runs a ski hill in Stony Mountain and another who operates a family-owned restaurant in Winnipeg. And it could still have a fairy tale Disney ending.

About five years ago, Stony Mountain's Heather Campbell-Dewar, who designed Baby Sherpa diaper backpacks -- sales have hit 20,000 and counting -- joined with Winnipegger Nancy Vardalos Ginakes, who had developed a retractable 38-inch harness in the form of stuffed toys, such as frogs and ladybugs, called Safe2Go.

Vardalos Ginakes, who has a degree in textile sciences from the University of Manitoba, dreamed up her critters while raising a young son and twins (boy and girl), all the while working at her husband's restaurant, Bellamy's. The idea for the product, unfortunately, came after one of her sons, as a three-year-old, became lost in London's Heathrow Airport, en route to Greece some 15 years ago.

"Those were the scariest moments of our life," she recalled.

But Vardalos Ginakes, whose sister happens to be Winnipeg-born actress Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding Fame, despised products on the market that were either wrist bands or unretractable dog leashes.

So, she designed and built her own, where the fuzzy frog's tongue served as the handle at the end of a red tether or a banana is the handle for the monkey, and so forth. The product retailed for $30.

In short order, Vardalos Ginakes, who had found a manufacturer in China, began selling penguins, dogs and elephants "by the thousands."

"It had definitely paid off," she said.

That's when the two women met and partnered in an attempt to market their products to global retailers in tandem.

What happened next was sheer serendipity. Far away, a man named John Lewensten, who happened to be the manager for NASCAR star Jimmy Johnson, had been told by a racing reporter about the Baby Sherpa backpack. The reporter also told Lewensten's wife. So, they both bought one, unbeknownst to each other.

When Lewensten contacted Campbell-Dewar to see if he could return his Sherpa, which retails at $90, as the former sat behind the counter at the Stony Mountain Ski Area (which Campbell-Dewar operates with husband Gary), she gladly obliged -- but not before offering Lewensten one her partner's toy-like tethers.

After all, being strategically aggressive isn't unusual for Campbell-Dewar, who went out of her way to make sure that a Baby Sherpa found its way into the dressing room of Hollywood heart-throb Brad Pitt, when the movie star was in Winnipeg shooting The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2005.

Lewensten, with two young kids, became an instant fan. But he had an idea. He sent the Safe2Go frog tether to NASCAR marketing types with the orders: "I want one of these with a No. 48 (car) on it. Make it happen."

It did. Last November, Safe2Go harnesses -- now officially licensed by NASCAR -- made in the likenesses of Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 and Jeff Gordon's No. 24 available on the company website.

For the record, NASCAR boasts 75 million fans who purchase about $3 billion annually in licenced products.

"It's a huge brand," said Vardalos Ginakes.

"We're very, very lucky to not only have one cool dad endorse our product, but two cool dads (Gordon and Johnson, who both have young children). We're just over the moon."

"I have no idea what the market is going to be," Campbell-Dewar added. "I just ordered 2,000 each (from a manufacturer in China) and see where it goes. But it's exciting to be involved in something as cool as NASCAR, especially since we (along with husband Gary) both enjoy racing."

Question: Do rednecks want their kids on a harness? Well, there's a misconception of NASCAR faithful right there, Dewar-Campbell said.

"That's the beauty of being involved with NASCAR because you have access to a lot of their marketing information about their fans," she noted. "These people have money (annual average income of $70,000-plus). There's the stereotype of rednecks (and car racing) but it's far more mainstream than that. I was amazed at how sophisticated they (NASCAR) are with their research."

Significantly, Campbell-Dewar cited that females -- the prime target for her product -- make up nearly 50 per cent of NASCAR fans.

Campbell-Dewar will have to move a few race cars to lap her initial investment of $70,000 -- including moulds for the retractable device that cost $20,000.

Vardalos Ginakes conceded some parents still are judgmental about tethers or leashes for children. "It's a real dilemma for a lot of parents," she said. "But that fear of losing a child, even for a minute, is more real than the slight bit of discomfort in using a harness."

Safe2Go "creatures" are now available at several U.S. zoos, including in Phoenix and Cincinnati, where the most popular selling backpacks are elephants, monkeys and penguins. The tethers are also available at nearly 200 retailers across North America, and websites such as and

Now, Disney is calling. Campbell-Dewar has signed a letter of interest with Disney that could see the Winnipeg partners team up with the Jungle Book franchise, which is scheduled to release a Christmas movie this fall.

Meanwhile, one of Campbell-Dewar's next efforts will be to attract the interest of the NFL. Maybe design backpack leashes in the likeness of team mascots, such as Dolphins, Bears or Bengals.

"The sky is the limit," Vardalos Ginakes said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 B8

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