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Chrysler's Ralph Gilles: the new guy takes a look at NASCAR for the first time, and considers what he's got

 Ralph Gilles, the guy now running Chrysler...and the guy NASCAR has to deal with (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Ralph Gilles, polished, erudite, distinguished even, but with a hip edge – after all he came up in the automotive world as one of those right-brained car designers .
   One of the newest kids on the NASCAR block.
   Learning the ropes here.
   And, oh, by the way, the new CEO of Chrysler.
   "My life has dramatically changed over the past year...." he says with a laugh.
   He drives a Viper, a Ram truck, and a Dodge Caravan.
   And as the man now running Chrysler, having replaced Michael Accavitti in that surprising reshuffle a few weeks ago, Gilles says he'd like to meet up with Sen. John McCain in about a year....to discuss that comment the Arizona politician made back at Phoenix last fall about his views about Chrysler's chances of survival.
   McCain wasn't very optimistic.
   Gilles, of course, sees it all a quite different way: "We've got a plan and we're sticking to it. It's a very well thought-out plan, and we're well into it for real...and I'm living it. This plan is very robust...and I'd love to sit down with Senator McCain in about a year and reflect."
   And that plan includes marketing Dodge through NASCAR. More specifically through Roger Penske's NASCAR team, Dodge's only presence now, with Kurt Busch (fourth in 2009 standings), Sam Hornish Jr., and Brad Keselowski.
    Gilles' first impressions of NASCAR: "The high-tech-ness of it all. The high-tech tools they use, the almost military precision they employ.....That impressed me a lot.
   "Plus the reach the sport has. It's incredible.
   "I was impressed with how high-tech Roger's engine shop is...and all the carbon-fiber work. And the safety aspects. Just look at the new NASCAR drivers' seats; they're incredible. They are truly safety-cells...and that's some cross-pollination.
   "I'm really in just a learning mode here. NASCAR is new to me. But I'm really into it now. I wanted to come to a shop and hang out with the guys and experience all this first-hand, especially this media tour. I've heard a lot about it. And it marks the beginning of a new season.
   Ray Evernham helped launch Dodge's return to stock car racing some 10 years ago, and for several years it all appeared to be working quite well.
   But lately not so well.
   Yes, Kurt Busch and the Roger Penske bunch had a pretty darned good 2009. "We beat all the Fords, we beat all the Toyotas....we just have to figure out a way this year to beat all the Chevys too," Penske himself was saying Monday night during his stint on the Charlotte Motor Speedway NASCAR Media Tour.
   But Penske and Busch will probably have to do it all themselves again this season, with the George Gillett-Richard Petty jump over to the Ford camp. Sam Hornish Jr., Penske's number two on the driving roster, is still polishing his skills as this year, number three of his NASCAR venture over from the Indy-car world, gets under way. And the third man on the roster, Brad Keselowski, will certainly make some headlines, with his aggressive driving, and may even pull off another upset, like at Talladega.
   And Penske himself is already raising some eyebrows among rivals because as the only Dodge team owner his men are automatically included in every Goodyear tire test – testing that has become quite important, with NASCAR's general testing ban.
   Penske has been at this NASCAR thing since back in the early 1970s, he's won a bunch of NASCAR races, he once owned Michigan International Speedway, and he built California Speedway (why with just 14 degrees, instead of the 18 degrees as at Michigan is still the subject of debate)....not to mention all the considerable world-wide businesses he also runs.
   So Chrysler and Dodge and Gilles would be foolish not to keep Penske in play with Dodge in NASCAR.
   And Gilles, the auto designer (Chrysler's 300) who has been picked by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne take Accavitti's job as boss of the American division, is supposed to be an avid racer himself.
   However there is a sense that the Fiat side of this equation may not care all that much about NASCAR, except that it does seem to be a good marketing tool in this country. And that sense of general disinterest – whether true or not – leaves a cloud of uncertainty about the whole NASCAR thing here.
   So let's give a listen to what Gilles has to say:
   Do the Fiat people really know NASCAR? Do they even care about NASCAR? You'd think a company that has Ferrari and F1 in its blood would know racing, but the sense is in Fiat HQ NASCAR is just another billboard.
   "I don't even know if that particularly matters," Gilles says when asked about the Fiat corporate mentality when it comes to NASCAR.
   "I know my boss does. He understands the value of it; he understands that certain sports are very regional. Like soccer is huge in Europe but not very big here. And motorsports too. The viewership is obvious; this is extremely popular in America, and it does fit the Dodge brand very well.
   "So I think that's all you need to know. The rest of it is just putting the correct amount of backing to it."
   But Fiat corporate branding seems more small and green, while Dodge is big and brutish. What kind of fit?
   "We're very serious about our branding, and each brand has to have its own DNA," Gilles says. "We're sharing where we need to, and a lot of that is behind the scenes, and people don't even know it's there."
   Ah, Ferrari F1 tech perhaps for Roger Penske's guys? Or just wishful thinking?
   At least Gilles is certainly a race fan, getting up at 7 each Sunday to watch Alonso and Massa.
   "We don't need to turn Dodge into an Italian brand," Gilles adds. "Each brand needs to stand on its own virtues.
   "I love Formula One. It's like a religion."
    Gilles says his brief tour of the NASCAR world so far – he got a meet-and-greet with NASCAR's Brian France and Mike Helton this week – has been something of an eye-opener, on the technological side too. "We had dinner, and just talked...and they're going to come up (to Detroit) and see us in a few weeks," Gilles said. "And I'm going to do my best to get to Daytona for the 500...and Watkins Glen...and Indy. I really want to understand the sport from the inside out."
   After all, NASCAR right now needs Dodge perhaps at least as much as Dodge needs NASCAR...but the relationship is quite different than it was when Dodge first returned to this sport some 10 years ago.
   "America is such a fragmented market; it is such an unbelievable market. A lot of different people. A very, very diverse market. And you have to take advantage of that.  We have to create markets that respond to the people who are out there.
   "We have a lot invested in NASCAR, especially this year. Imagine what would happen if we pulled out of NASCAR: it would be 'Well, what happened to Dodge?' I don't need that right now.  
   "So not only is Dodge here, but we're here in a strong way. It's very positive.
   "We just all need transparency – we are very upfront about what we want out of NASCAR. The Nationwide car (the new version, with more character lines than Cup cars have) is a great example of NASCAR working very well with OEM (Detroit's car makers). They worked really hard to have aerodynamic parity among the designs. It's a new dimension of cooperation which we really welcome...and we'll see where it goes."
   And why not take it to Cup, and get rid of these common template cars?
   "In time," Gilles says.
   "But then by the time you put all the graphics on them you don't really see the character lines...except on the front end – where the cameras really spend a lot of time. So that's where the signature really comes from."
    Still Gilles is, by trade, a car designer. That's where he first came to the fore. "I'm definitely a right-brained individual," he says with a laugh, referring to the 'creative, abstract, wild-and-crazy' concept of thinking.
   "But I do have a business background, so I can measure both sides."
   So what does that mean for Chrysler – Ralph Gilles' Chrysler?
   "You're going to see a company that takes a few more chances," he says. "Designers tend to be a little more on the visionary side of things, and already with my 'creative agency' (advertising and marketing) we're trying things a little different. And we're having fun.
    "The public can feel that. It might not understand it all, but it will feel it.
    "We're pretty healthy with NASCAR (marketing) right now. We'll look at Talladega.
     "Everything is under review this year...and not so much the 'activation' but the quality of it. But there is a digital type of activation that needs to be done even better (via the Internet).
   "This year is a bit of a learning situation, so we're going to stick with what we've got on-line. And I'm going to monitor it and see how it works."
   So how did this guy get the nod for this job? What did Marchionne see in Ralph Gilles...that he didn't apparently see in Michael?
   "I don't really know," Gilles concedes. "Ask me a year from now. I really want to figure that out myself.
   "All I can do is learn to adapt to the market, keep an open mind. My strengths are my optimism and my will to succeed...and the rest will come."
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