Dodge chief's 12 death-defying laps were 'the coolest'

Dodge's Tim Kuniskis with his restored 1971 Challenger R/T: “I like fast cars, fast boats, fast motorcycles.”
Tim Kuniskis
Title: Dodge CEO since April 2013
Previous title: Fiat brand CEO in North America
Age: 47
Family: Married to Kristy, no children
Education: B.A., State University of New York, 1991
Hometown: Rochester, N.Y.

Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis got his first speeding ticket at age 17.

"I was driving a 1977 Firebird Formula with the original 350 engine that I blew up on purpose," he says. "My dad said I couldn't put a big block in it unless it broke. So I purposely drained the oil out and blew it up, and put a Pontiac 455 in it out of a Catalina wagon -- and I got a ticket in that.

"That was my early days of not knowing what I was doing -- putting a big block in there, and a high-rise intake and I couldn't fit the hood on it. It was a good learning car."

Kuniskis, 47, is still nutty about performance, which may be why Fiat Chrysler Automobiles this month consolidated its SRT performance line under him.

He chatted with Staff Reporter Larry P. Vellequette.

Q: How many speeding tickets have you gotten in your life?

A: Surprisingly, not that many. I've been pulled over a lot, but I learned a long time ago from a couple of friends who are police officers. They said: "You cannot come up with a story that they have not heard, so the best thing you can tell them is the truth."

You raced motorcycles, right?

Growing up, I raced BMX, a little bit of motorcycles, but as soon as I could get my license I drag-raced. That's it, really. Drag racing was by far the best, though.

Why? The adrenaline?


What do you do when you're not working?

Not working? When is that? When I sleep?

When you're not working and you are awake?

I don't follow sports. I don't watch football. I don't watch baseball. I don't really watch TV. I only really like mechanical stuff. I like fast cars, fast boats, fast motorcycles. I've never owned anything that wasn't modified. I hate stock stuff. I gotta tweak it. I've gotta make it faster. I've gotta make it louder. I've gotta make it more fun. That's what I like.

As a kid what did you want to grow up to be?

Car business, absolutely nothing but the car business. It's the only thing I've ever done except for 90 days when I had a job where I couldn't get out of my car in the morning. Every time I'd pull in the parking lot, I thought to myself, "I can't go in there. I can't go in there." And I would throw myself out of the car and I would walk in there and I would do it.

And it was a great job, a fantastic job with a great company and would have been a great career. That's why I don't want to say what it was.

So what did you do?

Ninety days into it, I had nothing -- no backup, no plans, nothing -- and I quit on the spot. Walked out with no job and bills and didn't know what to do, but I just knew that I couldn't do that one more day. I went the next day and got a job selling cars. And I never looked back.

Let's talk music. Beatles or Stones?

I'm schizophrenic on that. I like some Stones and I like some Beatles, but if you forced me to pick, I'd probably go Stones.

Van Halen or Kiss?

Van Halen, but not "Sammy Hagar" Van Halen; "David Lee Roth" Van Halen. But I've got some Kiss in me, too. When I used to work out as a kid, I had Kiss on eight-track.

Favorite band?

Probably U2. But if you look on my iPod, I'm all over the board. I was listening to AC/DC on the way down.

Favorite vacation spot?

I'm not really much of a vacation guy, honestly. It's not really my thing.

So what's the coolest thing you've ever done?

I did the Richard Petty Driving Experience when it wasn't open to the public. I just went to the track with the instructors, and they said, "Here's the keys to a NASCAR. Have fun."

The guy said to me, "Here's the rules: I'm going to drive in front of you, and your job is to hit my bumper. Stay so close that you're going to hit my bumper. You be on my ass, right?"

"You're sure?" I asked, and he said, "Look, this is like chasing a dolphin. You're not going to catch me, so you stay on my bumper. If you stay on my bumper, I know that you're in a safe line, that nothing's going to happen to you. If you get off my bumper, I don't know. You could slide, you could take an unsafe line. Stay on my bumper, and you're safe. As fast as you want to go, I'll go. If you want to go 75, I'll go 76. If you want to go 100, I'll go 101. But you stay on my bumper." OK.

So I'm on this guy's bumper. I'm doing about 140, not superfast for NASCAR, but 140 in a real race car, on a track with turns. I'm right on this guy's ass. I'm white-knuckled and it smells and it's loud and it's rumbling and you're on his ass and you're doing 140 and you're a nanosecond away from death, right?

And you come into the first turn. If you watch [racing] on TV, it's no big deal, right? Just this little turn. But you hit this first turn, and the G-forces, the car doesn't move, but your body wants to go out of the passenger window. So you're now fully holding on for dear life trying not to fly out of the car, while this car is turning at 140 mph.

Sounds like fun.

It was the most death-defying experience of my life. It gave me a whole new respect for NASCAR, because if you watch it on TV it's like no big deal.

But I got out of the car after probably 12 laps and I almost fell down because I was physically exhausted. After 12 freaking laps, and these guys are doing 500 miles. Anyway, I looked over and everybody was laughing. I was like, "Are you laughing because I'm tired? You guys get in and try it. Trust me, this is hard."

"We're not laughing because you were tired," they said. "We're laughing because you couldn't keep up."

"Couldn't keep up? What are you talking about? I was on his ass. If he would have let off the gas, I would have hit him and I would have been dead!" Then they said to come watch the replay, and I was like four car-lengths behind. Swear to God, I thought I was [inches] behind and it was ... well, it was very far. To the point where they were laughing their asses off. That was probably the coolest thing I've ever done.

Who's the coolest person you've ever met?

Vince Vaughn. I'm a huge Vince Vaughn fan. Huge. I love all his movies, even the ones that suck. I had the opportunity to meet him for the opening of the movie The Dilemma. It was about the car business and he was building a car, an electric car and it was a Dodge, so he was making it sound like a muscle car.

I begged to go to the premiere, which is unusual, because I never want to do anything like that ever. But this one? I was like, "I don't care who's going to this one; I'm going."

All my wife and I wanted to do was meet him. So we go to the premiere, in Chicago, and we watch the movie, and when it's over we go to this reception -- in an art gallery. Beautiful art gallery, soft music, very stuffy.

That doesn't sound like fun.

I was so disappointed, because this is not the Vince Vaughn that I know. I have this image of who he is, and this was not it. We're thinking maybe we should just leave. The next thing I know, the lights dim down and the music cranks up and they start walking around with platters of hot dogs and deep-dish pizzas, and I'm thinking, "Now this is the Vince Vaughn that I know," and I'm on a high.

And he's over in the VIP area, roped off, away from everybody else, having a little meeting there.

The next thing you know, we're hitting it off and the guy is exactly, exactly to a T, who you expect him to be. Lively, loud, awesome guy. Amazing guy.

Tim Kuniskis
Title: Dodge CEO since April 2013
Previous title: Fiat brand CEO in North America
Age: 47
Family: Married to Kristy, no children
Education: B.A., State University of New York, 1991
Hometown: Rochester, N.Y.

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