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A Few Words With: Ralph Gilles

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, December 20 2009
Ralph Giles is new head man with Dodge.

Ralph Gilles is new head man with Dodge.

Ralph Gilles, the new president and CEO of Chrysler and the company’s former head designer, sat down recently with a small group of media members, including RacinToday.com senior writer Mike Harris, to discuss his background, his new job and Chrysler’s future in racing:

Question: You have an interesting background in grassroots racing and product testing. Could you share some of that with us?

Ralph Gilles: I do. I’ve been involved in developing the Comp Coup  (Viper Competition Coupe is a non-street legal, high-performance race car sold  by Dodge Motorsports).  I do mileage accumulation. We go to race tracks with the SRT team and put miles on the race cars. I love it because it’s a hobby of mine. I race my own Dodge Viper and I’ve been doing either autocross or spec racing for at least 14 years. I love all kinds of motorsport. I’m a big Formula One fan…drag racing a little bit, not as much.  NASCAR I do watch, especially when they’re on road courses.  I really like to see stock cars[C1]  shifting body weight and jumping curbs; I find that fascinating.  I love it.

Q: What you think that you get out of your NASCAR program and what are the things

RG: The tracks that we do activate, and I’m learning a lot about this because as soon as I got the job, I dug into NASCAR.  I knew that we would stick with it.  I wanted to see what we could do to maximize the benefit (of being involved).  I was pleased to see that 30 percent of fans that watch NASCAR are between 18 and 34 years old.  That’s a very core part of the customer base that we’re trying to reach going forward and I think that NASCAR is a great way to underscore Dodge’s personality.  We’re positioning ourselves as a sports-car brand as well, not just a minivan brand.  We want to amp up, so to speak, our fun-to-drive component and I think by being involved in NASCAR, there’s a natural fit.

Q: Dodge will have only one factory-backed team in NASCAR this year. Is that a plus in your mind?

RG: Talking it over with (Penske Racing president) Tim Cindric, that’s been a debate even within ourselves.  We think we can do a better job to be focused (with one team).  Let’s be honest, we don’t have endless resources.  At the end of the day, we really have to watch our dollars.  By teaming up with Tim  and Penske, I think that we’re doing a better service to ourselves.  He loves it because now everybody is on the same page.  Our engineers can work directly with them almost lock-step.  I’m blown away by Penske.  I went down there to visit their facility.  They are really committed to us.

Q: Dodge unveiled the Dodge Challenger Nationwide Series car in Talladega this past fall. How important is it to the company to have a race car resemble the street car version?

RG: Ultimately, I think so, yes.  We worked very hard trying to get the graphics.  We worked really, really hard with NASCAR on the Challenger to do that and they worked with us. The trick was the wind tunnel.  We really kicked butt in our wind tunnel to make sure that it was fair and found a way to get that look, get the car right and have the aerodynamics be identical to the others.  That’s a big challenge, but it’s something (NASCAR) supported us on and for me, I love it because people see that Challenger and it really looks like a door slammer…almost like the ‘70’s when they use to look like door slammers.  I’d like to see it over the next four or five years maybe that’s what we see happen on Sunday’s (in the Sprint Cup Series).

Q: You said that you were an F1 fan. What you think of F1 driver interest in coming over to NASCAR?

RG: When I first saw (Juan Pablo) Montoya come over, I was actually impressed because everyone thought that he’d come over and show them (NASCAR) a thing or two.  It was interesting to see that NASCAR was a lot harder than people think.  That really got my attention.  I followed him to NASCAR to see how he would do because I was curious to see how he would do.  I think what people don’t appreciate about NASCAR is what I learned in my own private racing is that it’s race craft.  It’s just not skill.  It’s just not being able to balance the car on the edge, it’s race craft and I think that’s what a NASCAR driver is…these guys are genius’.  I talked to Kurt Busch and I asked him, “What does it feel like the last five laps when everything is on the line, you’re right there, any little thing could go wrong”?  It was amazing to me all the things that he listed that are going on in his head and I was like, “Oh my God!  You can do all that and stay two inches behind the car in front of you?”  It’s amazing.  I think that they are very gifted drivers.  I think the F1 guys have the same tasks, but different.  The proximity of NASCAR racing is a challenge in of itself.

Q: What do you think of Brad Keselowski? Will he be good for Dodge?

Gilles: I think that he’s a great media darling.  He’s extremely gifted with the media.  He knows how to talk.  He’s very articulate and very intelligent and absolutely dedicated to the sport.  He was almost born to do this.  He’s extremely good at it and if you look at his aggressive nature, it reminds me of other great drivers when they started off being relatively aggressive.  I think he’s going to be one to watch for years to come.

Q: With only one team next year, is it important to have a personality like Brad’s?

Gilles:  Of course. I think that’s one thing that Roger (Penske) understands, that the driver is a very special part of the whole thing.  In some situations with the fans, the driver is more important.  For us, the brand and driver have to come together and I think going forward, we plan to find very interesting ways to have the fans connect with the drivers because I think it’s a personal interest story at the end of the day.  A lot of people follow NASCAR drivers like a superstar.  So I think that we want to make them more accessible in a fun way, yet at the same time, educate people on our products.  It will be fun.

Q: In recent years, NASCAR has made a big push for diversity. Are you interested in helping NASCAR with their diversity initiatives?

RG: Yes. I looked into the numbers and I think that the Hispanic viewership is about 6.5 percent; the black viewership is about 7 percent.  I think that it’s our job to help NASCAR do that. I think we can find ways to connect and position NASCAR in fun ways and there are a lot of things that we can do outside of Sunday and Saturday to bring NASCAR to those communities.  I think racing is great to watch, very entertaining, but I think that it’s back again to our lifestyle… Dodge’s lifestyle…how can we blend it and introduce it to black communities or black events.  I look forward to that challenge.  I think that it’s a nut that we have to crack because I think the NASCAR viewership has to match the complexion of America eventually.

Q: Would you be willing to do that as a personality?

RG (who is African American):  It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think that most people care what I’m up to (laughs).

Q: What is your impression of Fiat’s interest in NASCAR? Do you sense they know a lot about it?

RG: We’ve been focused heavily on the company. We’ve only been together for five months now, so I would say ask me that question a year from now.  Obviously, they take motorsports very seriously over in Italy with their affiliation in Formula 1.  They understand the benefit of motorsports and the marketing value it has, so I don’t think that it has any issue there.  But give it time.  For me, NASCAR is very complex, very busy, thirty-six races as compared to 20 races in other sports.  I think they’ll find the value in it that we see.

Q: What products does Dodge have coming down the pipeline and how do they apply to racing?

RG: The fourth-quarter of 2010 is going to be chock full of product.  It’s actually going to be a challenge for us to launch so many products and some of that is relevant.  Our replacement Charger is going to be a delicious car. It’s going to be an outstanding car with an absolute natural fit between the new Charger and what we can do at NASCAR. That’s going to be a wonderful avenue for us to promote that new vehicle.

Q: You have Kurt Busch, the established star. You have Brad Keselowski, who stirs things up. And then you have Quiet Sam (Hornish Jr.). What’s your feeling on Sam and what  he can do for your guys?

RG: He’s a racer. I asked him that same question and he’s got the carrot. He wants to succeed. He wants to win. He’s tasted victory in IndyCar and has done a lot of amazing things there. He’s got the drive for it. It’s the race craft that I think he has to work on and we’re going to give him the car to do it.

Q: You talk about Dodge being a sports car brand. Does that make winning even more important from your activation standpoint?

RG: Yes, of course. How can winning be bad?  I think being there is half the battle and how you present it, how you feature it, how you tell that story.

Q: I assume that Dodge is moving away from pick-up trucks to lighter vehicles. But, in the past, NASCAR has been a place to sell pick-ups. Can NASCAR be a place to sell fuel-efficient cars?

RG: You look at the audience that watches NASCAR and they’re an enthusiast’s audience. You look at the parking lot of a typical NASCAR event and I’m assuming there are going to be enthusiasts-type vehicle being driven. Some are pick-ups, some are everyday sedans.  I think that’s the right place to sell the right type of car…Charger for example, and we do really well with pick-ups.  A lot of these racers also need tow vehicles and what not.  I think we’re going to use a lot of different avenues to sell our cars and NASCAR is just one part of that.

Q: A lot of executives put emphasis on ROI (Return On Investment) in NASCAR with a certain number of car sales. Do you believe in that philosophy?

RG: How can you deny the effect of NASCAR? It’s the number one sport in the country in terms of viewership.  If you can get your product in front of that many eyes, you can’t go wrong.  Even though it’s not as measurable, it’s definitely just as beneficial as a car commercial for us.  The trick is for us to be winning, run up front, and get our name out there and be visible.  Yes, a big part of it is business, but the whole thing is a business.  A lot of it is passion and it’s a mixture of both and I think our goal is to win races and that’s how you get your marketing value out of it.

Q: Do you have an response on Sen. McCain’s comments in Phoenix last month regarding Chrysler? (McCain slammed government aid to Chrysler and said the company would never survive.)

RG: I’d say stick with us. Stay tuned. He’ll be eating humble pie.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, December 20 2009