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Conner Sails to Lure Dollars : America’s Cup: Before a boat goes into the water to defend yachting’s most prestigious trophy, funding must be secured.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Obsessed is not the word that fits Dennis Conner this particular afternoon. The skipper who has passionately devoted much of the past 15 years to winning and keeping the America’s Cup is relaxed.

Slimmed down and well-tanned, he appears to be anything but someone who has spent much of his time recently in corporate offices chasing sponsors for another run at the America’s Cup.

He looks ready to the sail. But the next round of America’s Cup races in San Diego do not begin until 1992. Circumstances require a different kind of work, and a different shade of Dennis Conner.

Leave the competitive aggression and arrogance at the dock. Charm might not win a yacht race, but it can work wonders with the big egos of corporate America. So if you like the way Conner steers a boat, watch him turn a contract.

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“When it comes to fund-raising, Dennis is a real star,” said Thomas Whidden, Conner’s veteran tactician. “He is a good salesman who exudes confidence. It’s intoxicating to talk to him about sailing.”

To get a sample of the style, consider how Conner conducted an hourlong interview in his East San Diego office last week.

Not once did he demonstrate any of the behavior that has earned him labels as the winningest America’s Cup skipper . . . and its most temperamental.

No personal attacks on rivals. No smug answers. The few mild expletives were said with a smile. Not once did he raise his characteristic soft voice.

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He was patient. He was pleasant. He was accommodating. He flattered. He talked football, basketball and baseball. Turns out he is quite a Padre fan and can recite the recent rise and fall of Tony Gwynn’s batting average.

And when he found himself touting the talent with his syndicate, he apologized for the lapse, lest he sound too full of himself.

Yet under it all, there was this unmistakable confidence, as if he knows something the other guys don’t. As a veteran of six America’s Cup campaigns either as skipper or crew member, maybe he does.

While one of his U.S. rivals is staging match races against Danish and New Zealand challengers in San Diego Bay, Conner is sailing around Manhattan, home to much of corporate America.

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On his desk is proof of his trip: a color photo of Conner sailing one of the 1988 Stars & Stripes catamarans up the East River, its corporate-sponsored sails set against the Brooklyn Bridge.

The bridge is still there, but the impression is that Conner sold Wall Street something else, perhaps a multimillion-dollar sponsorship. If so, Conner isn’t saying--he knows how this game is played, too. Those announcements will be saved for this summer, he said.

This is how Conner likes to do the business end of sailing, quietly and effectively.

There are at least 30 recognized defender and challenger groups vying to compete in the 1992 America’s Cup, but there is only one Dennis Conner.

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“People like to be associated with a winner,” Whidden said, “and no one has won more than Dennis.”

The first America’s Cup races to determine which boat will represent the U.S. defense are more than 1 1/2 years off, the finals against a foreign challenger nearly two years away.

Conner said he fears the U.S. syndicates already are behind because of the two-year court battle with Michael Fay’s New Zealand group over the legality of the September, 1988, races between Fay’s monohull and Conner’s catamaran. While other countries were preparing challenges, the U.S. effort was tied up in legal briefs.

“You can’t buy time,” Conner said. “It wasn’t exactly ‘all get on your mark, get set, go.’ The other guys were already eight miles down a 26-mile marathon. They had a one-year head start on a three-year program.”

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The major delay was in fund-raising, Conner said. Not until the final New York court ruling April 26 upholding the defense in a catamaran were the U.S. groups able to approach potential donors with certainty.

“Until then, you didn’t know if the races were in 1992 or 1993,” Conner said. “You didn’t know if it was in New Zealand or America. You didn’t know what time the television package was on. You couldn’t go to corporate America and ask them to sign a check for seven figures with all that uncertainty.”

Before then, most of his effort was funded out of his pocket, Conner said. Since the decision, the fund-raising has accelerated, Conner said.

Conner has set a budget of $25 million for his defense effort, $8 million more than for the successful 1987 campaign. And the impression he presents, without being specific, is that corporate America has been receptive.

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Conner has not spent all his time knocking on doors. He has reserved his share of time on the water, was sailing in San Francisco just last week and plans more races later this week in West Germany.

But the skipper’s cap is but one of the many Conner must wear as the most successful and durable sailor in America’s Cup history. He must recruit a crew, assemble a design team, secure space for a dockside operation, choose a company to build the first of three planned boats and the sails to go with them, and, maybe most important, find the money to pay for all of it.

“I like it all because the competition for dollars is just the same as it is on the race course,” Conner said. “If you win that competition, it is very difficult to overcome, because money equates with speed.

“If you have enough money, you can buy the best sails, the best technicians. You can buy three boats instead of two. All of that translates to speed on the boat.

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“It doesn’t matter how good your sails or sailors are, because with a slow boat, you can’t win. We found that out in ’83 (with the loss to Australia).”

Or as Peter Isler, a former Conner navigator who now has his own San Diego-based defense syndicate, said: “There is more to the America’s Cup than technology and money--but not much.”

With Cup victories in 1980, 1987 and 1988, Conner is not about to change his methods: Raise the most money, build the fastest boat, hire the best crew and practice, practice, practice.

“That always been the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules,” Conner said. “That’s the way it has been in the America’s Cup from year one.”

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But there is at least one sign of some softening in his approach. His syndicate, Team Dennis Conner, has been participating in a U.S. effort to pool initial design work. Known as Partnership for America’s Cup Technology (PACT), the group is headed by John Marshall, head of design for Conner’s winning 1987 and 1988 America’s Cup campaigns.

Marshall said the partnership was formed because of concern that the court fight with the New Zealanders had put the U.S. effort behind some other countries, and that the change in racing boats from the 12-meter class to a new 75-foot class (dubbed the International America’s Cup Class) would require more design work than in the past.

The joint venture is something Conner might not have joined, Marshall said, if not for the lessons of 1983. Only after that defeat was there a realization that it was selfishness and arrogance about their alleged technical superiority that might have cost U.S. defenders the Cup, Marshall said.

Conner does not yet sound completely convinced about the benefits of the joint effort.

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“If you share information, you start at the same level,” he said. “I’m not sure what good that is.”

But he is more concerned with the challengers. French, Italian and Japanese teams already have launched boats. The first U.S. boat is not expected to be ready until early next year. Conner expects the first of his three boats to be ready by the spring.

The Japanese and Italian teams are particularly well-financed, spending about $2 million a month, Conner said.

Both groups have added some of the world’s top sailing talent to their syndicates. Japan’s Nippon Challenge group has signed Chris Dickson, the former New Zealand skipper. And the Italians have lured Paul Cayard and several members of former Conner crews.

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Changing allegiances are part of America’s Cup races. Participants can change national teams as long as they satisfy a two-year residency requirement with their new country. Conner might understand the rule, but it does not mean he appreciates the raid on U.S. talent.

“I don’t like that Paul Cayard and half of my crew is racing for the Italians,” Conner said. “Whatever we bid, they bid higher.

“But how can you ask a guy not to feed his family?”

No one dares say that any of this is a sign Conner has mellowed, but there are some other changes, starting with Conner’s appearance. He has shed some personal ballast, dropping his weight 35 to 40 pounds to 212 in the past year. And while not about to call it a health kick, he does admit to eating smarter.

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“I started to eat more fish and chicken and lay off the bread,” said Conner, an open diet soda on the table in front of him.

He is concentrating more on the Cup than in the past, having sold his drapery business last year to the grandson of the woman he bought it from. His office remains in the same building.

Common wisdom concludes that by losing the America’s Cup to Australia in 1983, Conner changed the event forever.

The loss took the event away from the New York Yacht Club, whose stewardship of the race, critics charge, had gone stale and made the event an infrequent footnote in the world sporting scene.

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The defeat moved the race out of Newport, R.I., taking it halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, in 1987 and then back to San Diego a year later.

More challengers, more television, more worldwide attention, more money, and with that, more advertising. That has been the Conner mark on the race. But the epitaph might need a few more lines.

The 1992 America’s Cup might be his last as a skipper, Conner said, but not the end of his involvement.

“I can see a time when I’m not sailing the boats anymore,” Conner said. “I’d like to do for America’s Cup what Roger Penske has done for auto racing. Do like a Team Penske, but instead it will be like Team Dennis Conner. That’s my plan. I want to have the sailors this time so that in 1995 I can be more the technical man, and I will have the guys to carry the torch.”

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