New Dodge boss Gilles a grassroots racer

December, 4, 2009
LAS VEGAS -- New Dodge president and CEO Ralph Gilles has a message for Sen. John McCain.

Last month while attending the NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix, McCain said Chrysler, including Dodge, was unlikely to survive, despite $15 million in government loans.

Gilles' response?

"I'd say stay tuned," Gilles said. "He's going to eat some humble pie."

Gilles spoke to a group of reporters Friday during a luncheon at the Wynn hotel a few hours before the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards ceremony.

Gilles, only 39, is an interesting guy. He was born in New York to Haitian immigrants, but grew up in Montreal.

He is known as a car-design genius who started drawing concept cars when he was 6 years old. When he was 14, one of his aunts wrote former Chrysler president Lee Iacocca to inform him of Gilles' talents.

That was a start of what has been a meteoric rise to the top of the automotive industry.

But the first thing NASCAR fans should know about Gilles is he's a racer. He has raced sports cars and motorcycles over the years. However, he admits his NASCAR knowledge is a work in progress.

"Racing is a hobby of mine," said Gilles, whose name is pronounced "Jheel." "I love all types of motorsports and I'm a big Formula One fan. I do watch NASCAR, especially when they're on road courses. Boris Said was a hero of mine in sports cars, so I really enjoy when he races in NASCAR."

You don't need to listen to Gilles long before you realize he's done his NASCAR homework and knows more about the sport than you might expect. And he is convinced it benefits Dodge's future to stay involved.

A lot has changed for Dodge in the past few months. Fiat now is the majority owner of Chrysler since Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy. Gilles was asked if he believes Fiat officials fully support Dodge's investment in NASCAR.

"We've only been together for five months now, so I could tell you better if you ask me that question a year from now," Gilles said. "But, obviously, they take motorsports very seriously over in Italy [Fiat is the majority owner of Ferrari]. I would say give it time. I think they will find the value in it that we see."

Dodge will have to make it work in 2010 with only one NASCAR team. Penske Racing, with drivers Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski, will be Dodge's only Cup operation next season. But Gilles sees a company benefit in having only three cars.

"That's been a debate among ourselves," Gilles said. "But we think we can do a better job having all our people focus on one team. Let's be honest. We don't have endless resources. We have to watch our dollars these days.

"This way everybody is on the same page. And Roger [Penske] loves it because our engineers will work pretty much in lockstep with his organization. I can tell you he is totally committed to us."

Gilles said he was "blown away" when he made a trip to Mooresville, N.C., on Monday to see Penske's shop, a state-of-the-art facility and one of the largest in NASCAR.

As is the case with any good executive, Gilles knows his people. He is thrilled about the controversial Keselowski joining Penske full time in 2010.

"If you look at his aggressive nature, he reminds me of a lot of other great drivers when they started out," Gilles said. "He's a bit of a media darling. He knows how to talk.

"He's extremely gifted, very intelligent and absolutely dedicated to the sport. He almost was born to do this. I think he's going to be one to watch for years to come."

Gilles likes to look ahead. He has some specific ideas on how to improve things from the manufacturer's side. He's excited about the Challenger going to the Nationwide Series, which is switching to the COT chassis and allowing the manufacturers to use a pony car design.

The new cars will run a few races in 2010 before going full time in 2011.

"We've worked really hard with NASCAR on designing the Challenger," he said. "I love it. The car really does look like the old door-slammers of the [1970s]. I hope it's contagious. I'd like to see it, hopefully in the next four or five years, happen on Sundays [in Cup]."

Better brand identity (making the cars look more like production cars again) is one goal Gilles shares with the other car manufacturers.

"If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense," Gilles said. "Everyone wants to see that. In my gut, I feel it's the right thing to do."

Gilles has come to some clear conclusions after studying the sport in recent months.

"As soon as I got the job [as Dodge president], I dug into NASCAR," he said. "I wanted to see what we could do to maximize our benefit there. I was pleased to find out that 30 percent of the people who watch NASCAR are between 18 and 34 years old.

"That is a very core part of our customer base moving forward. NASCAR is a great way to underscore Dodge's personality as we position ourselves as a sports car brand, not just a minivan brand. We want to amp up our fun-to-drive component, and that makes NASCAR a natural fit."

Gilles also wants a bigger tie-in between NASCAR and the Dodge product. "On our Web site, there isn't enough of a presence of NASCAR," he said. "I'd like to see more of it there. We should connect our racing and our commercial site together. Why not?"

Gilles is committed to making it work. He wants to make Sen. McCain eat his words, and he hopes Dodge's involvement in NASCAR will help Dodge succeed.

"How can anyone deny the effect of NASCAR?" he asked. "When you can get your product in front of that many eyeballs, you can't go wrong."

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer


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