- Written by Jason J. Tabor Jason J. Tabor
“We’re only here on this planet for so long; you have to do things while you’re here,” James Kleinklaus laughs when asked how he’s managed to fit so many experiences into one lifetime.
A racecar driver, published author, professional musician, and president of his own advertising agency, Kleinklaus arrived in Carlisle with his wife, Sherry, 15 years ago at the tail end of a career in newspaper advertising that took him around the country.
As a child growing up in Long Island, New York, Kleinklaus excelled in school, particularly in writing and music, and took up the guitar at a young age.
“My father was a violinist and there was always music playing around the house. I practiced daily, as much as 12 hours a day during the summers, and began teaching lessons at age 13,” he says.
By the time he was enrolled at Dowling College in Long Island on a National Merit Scholarship, Kleinklaus was dividing his time playing music onstage at legendary New York City clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City at night and studying literature and creative writing during the day.
“I idolized John Updike,” he says. “When I wasn’t playing music, I was writing short stories and working on novels. It was a real balancing act.”
After graduating in 1971, Kleinklaus continued playing music and writing, eventually getting the opportunity to open for an up-and-coming Billy Joel and having his own music copyrighted and released by Elektra Records.
“Between doing studio work and playing onstage, I was literally singing for my supper each night,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking in terms of having a ‘career path’ at that point — there was no Plan B to fall back on.”
After 10 years of music, he decided to move to upstate New York to live with his brother and figure out what he wanted to do with his life outside of the music industry.
“I was still teaching guitar but decided to get out of the music business,” he remembers. “There was too much ‘biz’ and not enough music, and I just didn’t believe in it anymore.”
Away from the music business in New York City, Kleinklaus fell into a job that would propel him into a career in advertising. He began selling advertising for small businesses in local newspapers.
“I had no formal training in marketing or advertising,” he laughs. “I just always looked for opportunities, was a good talker, and never gave up!”
After meeting the publisher of the Scotsman Press in Syracuse, Kleinklaus landed a job selling ad space to local businesses and started a magazine for the publisher where he did market research, sold ads, and wrote stories, often using pseudonyms.
He soon began receiving job offers from newspapers in larger markets around the country and began moving around from Syracuse to Hartford and Detroit as a high-level advertising executive.
He worked for the U.S.’s largest newspaper publisher, Gannett, and was a regional manager for Valpak and Auto Trader, before moving to Carlisle to work at the Carlisle Sentinel.
He met his wife Sherry at an industry mixer in 1990 — she was an account executive at a competing newspaper.
“We were both from the same world and met each other just as our previous marriages were ending. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone when we got married less than two years later,” he laughs.
Together, he and Sherry had several children from their previous marriages.
“It was kind of a Brady Bunch situation,” he says.
In 1984, at the prompting of one his clients who was involved in competitive auto racing, Kleinklaus purchased his first racecar.
“I bought it for $500,” he laughs. “It had no engine, wheels, or suspension, but I put some work into it and have been doing amateur racing ever since.”
A longtime fan of Formula One racing and vintage racecars, Kleinklaus likens racing to playing music.
“Both music and racing are a performance — you spend a lot of time getting ready, making sure everything is perfect, practicing, knowing your equipment inside and out, and dealing with pressure. I often have trouble sleeping the night before a race.”
Kleinklaus acknowledges the dangers involved in racing but feels compelled to challenge himself, despite being “definitely over age 25,” he jokes.
“I should be dead three times by now,” Kleinklaus says. “During my first race, after taking the first turn at 90 mph, out of the corner my eye I saw a red car coming out of the sky right at me, the driver holding his detached steering wheel in his hands. He crashed into me and put me into a concrete wall.
“You know these kinds of things can happen, and just get back on that horse!”
Over the years, he has won races in West Virginia, New York, and the Mid-Atlantic States Road Race championship in 2013, among others.
Two years ago, Kleinklaus began playing music once again in Jim Kleinklaus Duo.
“Originally, my idea was to start a jazz band, maybe play some lounges once in a while,” he says. “And now we play recurring shows at the Army War College in Carlisle, the Harrisburg Hilton, and other clubs every month,” performing a variety of classic rock and R&B covers.
“My bassist, Mike Kaufman, convinced me to sing again, and, as much as I put into the guitar, I realize my voice is what has opened doors for us,” he adds. “Next up, we’re heading to the studio to record some of the originals I’ve written over the years.”
Although he and Sherry both officially retired at the same time a number of years ago, Kleinklaus maintains a busy schedule with business, travel, and visiting family.
When he’s not doing laps around the racetrack or playing onstage, Kleinklaus runs his own advertising firm catering to clients in the medical field, riding his mountain bike, and canvassing for political candidates.
“I’ve always enjoyed getting out there and talking to people; that’s what my entire career was built on,” he says.
“I think the things that really matter in life are prizing the relationships you create with friends and family,” he says. “It’s always later than you think, so if you can blast some frets off a guitar or scare yourself in a racecar along the way, all the better. Do what you love.”
Kleinklaus’s memoir, Fran’s Tools: Finding Common Ground in the Fast Lane, is available on Amazon and Jim Kleinklaus Duo is on YouTube and Facebook.