McLaren's Dennis tunes NASCAR pitch

July, 29, 2010

Having a few days earlier spoken to a reception at the Houses of Parliament on the state of the British economy, McLaren executive chairman Ron Dennis was speaking with a gaggle of NASCAR reporters in heartland Indiana.

He was touting electronic wares he wants to sell to Cup teams. Considering the unimaginable sophistication of the systems I knew he could offer, I couldn't resist one mischievous little interjection.

"They don't need launch control," I said to him.

For the uninitiated to Formula One, launch control is a computer-driven system with which, for the standing start of a Grand Prix race, a driver simply sits there and does nothing when the light goes green.

Moments later the passenger finds himself in the lead in the first corner, then takes control and becomes the driver.

It's cheating of course -- to a degree of sophistication that would cross the eyes of every crew chief from Junior Johnson to Chad Knaus. It has never actually been caught by FIA inspectors in F1.

But its use has been highly suspected at times, and leaks from within teams have given the stories credence. And there is no doubt that F1 teams are technologically capable of deploying such systems.

NASCAR of course has rolling starts, and so truly doesn't need launch control.

Dennis' reply was barely above a whisper, which is his normal tone of speech: "You're trying to get me to say something to get me in trouble, aren't you?"

And he smiled that tiny smile which is the most facial expression I've ever seen from him, in 20-plus years of various interviews and news conferences. By the way, from our first meeting in 1990 in Phoenix to last weekend at sweltering Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I've yet to see him shed a single drop of sweat.

The man's demeanor is pure dry ice.

That comes across as aloof, even contemptuous, to some upon first encounters with him. But it's actually keen observation, listening before speaking, seeing more than most, telling little of what he has seen.

We all wanted his impressions of NASCAR, which during my time around Formula One was considered an oafish, showbiz form of exhibition that was motorsports' version of wrestling.

Now it's business, and in order to sell fuel injection systems -- and perhaps electronics beyond that -- to NASCAR, Dennis must learn about NASCAR.

"I have a saying which is somewhat morbid: The last thing I'm going to learn is how to die," he said. "Only a fool doesn't learn at every opportunity."

He'd been visiting with some of the team owners in Gasoline Alley as they prepared for the Brickyard 400.

"I find the whole trip so far fascinating -- and not as I expected it to be, to be honest."

I asked how he'd expected it to be, and how he actually found it.

"It's more sophisticated than I anticipated it to be," he said. "The cars are beautifully prepared …

"There's a big commitment from the NASCAR officials to be even-handed." And, "There's definitely a more relaxed atmosphere than what I was expecting."

His big-picture perceptions of NASCAR were keener -- and considerably different -- from what I'd expected from him on his first visit ever to a NASCAR event.

The man from the realm of quantum leaps in technology, then sudden restrictions of it, then quantum leaps again, admires NASCAR's slowness to change.

"I hate change in F1, because it costs money. But the upside is, 'Keep changing things, guys.' Because as a team [McLaren has long been one of the elite, like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing here] we're better equipped, more resourced and everything, to adapt to change.

"So if you want to stretch the grid, all you've got to keep doing is introduce change. The top guys will always be on top, because they'll have more brainpower and resources.

"If you want to squeeze the grid, add more stability. And the reason you've got a grid that is constant [in NASCAR, with relatively equal cars and several potential winners], is because they don't keep mucking around with the rules all the time."

At least not as often or as drastically as in F1.

Yet he disagreed with my suggestion that NASCAR has more different winners than F1, where annually there are only one to three winning teams, usually including McLaren.

"I would say 90 percent of all the winning in NASCAR is between four teams," he said, quite reasonably. "You've got 43 cars, which is double the number of cars [on a Formula One grid]."

So percentage of winning teams is "roughly the same. You've got about the same winning cars that we've got. So at the end of the day, it doesn't matter."

On the universal motor racing issue of cheating, he said he can guarantee NASCAR "tamper-free systems."

Again in that near whisper, in his most subtle deadpan, Dennis proclaimed that "I wouldn't accuse any competitor in any form of motorsport of deliberately setting about trying to circumvent a control system."

And then of course the gaggle of reporters busted out laughing, but Dennis' expression remained entirely suitable for the final table in the World Series of Poker.

"But motor racing is full of suspicion," he said. "And if the teams absolutely, categorically believe that it [cheating] can't be done, then they relax and trust in the supplier."

Ah, the sales pitch. To do business with NASCAR, the baron of McLaren is learning NASCAR -- and fast.

Awhile later, out in the garage area, I ran into Chip Ganassi, the versatile team owner who fields cars in NASCAR, IndyCar and the Rolex Series for sports cars, and follows F1 closely.

I told him Ron Dennis was pitching cheat-proof electronic systems.

"Isn't that interesting?" Ganassi said, breaking into that rowdy Pittsburgh grin of his. "Ron Dennis saying cheat-proof."



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