CONNER KNOWS WHERE NICE GUYS FINISH

FREMANTLE, Australia — You hear lots of things said here about Dennis Conner, but you do not hear anyone say he’s a nice guy. That’s usually a safe expression, no? “He’s a nice guy.” Especially when people don’t know what else to say. But descriptions of Dennis Conner go from “dedicated” to
“ruthless” to “an absolute bastard.” People skip “nice guy,” frankly, because he isn’t one.

But here is your next hero, America, Dennis Conner, 43, the drapery king from San Diego, plump and tan and looking like your Uncle Sid on his vacation to Miami Beach. All he needs is the Instamatic around his neck and the black socks. This is a sports star? Well, remember, this is yacht racing, the America’s Cup. Everything is relative. The Australian press has actually nicknamed him “Big Bad Dennis,” which goes to show you what becomes of a country where they don’t have an NHL team. One caller told a television station Tuesday he would shoot Conner rather than let him take the America’s Cup back home.

“DENNIS DOES IT IN STYLE!” a headline read after Conner’s Stars & Stripes took a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven America’s Cup final against Kookaburra III. “HIS HANDS ARE ON THE CUP!’ And indeed, by the time you read this, Conner might have recaptured the ugliest trophy ever to travel 12,000 miles. But then, this isn’t about aesthetics. Dennis was the guy who lost the thing back in 1983. This is about revenge.

“Do you feel confident?” Conner was asked after his initial blowout victory Saturday over Kookaburra III.

“We have three more races to win,” he said, grimly.

“Do you feel confident now?” he was asked after the second blowout Sunday.

“We have two more races to win,” he said.

“Do you feel confident yet?” he was asked after the blowout Monday.

“We have one more race t-“

You get the idea. This is a man with one thing on his mind. Win that damn Cup back. Everything else can die and rot. T uesday, the day before Race 4, Conner was being shuffled around a press conference called to announce the signing of two new syndicate sponsors, Polaroid and Sprint. He’ll show for this kind of stuff. Sponsors are money. Money is success. Here’s a guy who spent $4 million and used four boats when losing the Cup in 1983. He has spent $15 million and five boats to try to win it back.

Not that Conner grew up rich. His father was a fisherman for a long time. But Dennis hung around yacht clubs and made friends with a lot of rich people, and he has certainly learned how to hobnob — he has the silliest, paste-on smile this side of a Herbalife salesman — and he was doing some hobnobbing Tuesday when an ordinary Joe snuck into the circle.

“Hey, Dennis,” the guy said, “will you still sail in the next Cup in 1990?”

Conner recognized the man as a nobody. His face tightened like a snare drum. “I plan to,” he said, coldly.

“You know,” the guy continued, “you’re the same age as me, and it just seems a long time to stay with one thing–“

“I enjoy what I do,” Conner snapped, “that’s the difference. That’s the difference between me and you. I enjoy what I do.”

Ooh. No fun. But then, this is the guy who many think took the fun out of yacht racing altogether. Develop. Design. Improve. The 1980 America’s Cup, which Conner won aboard Freedom, signaled the end of the good ol’ boy, hoist-the-sails, hoist-the-martini stuff that made Ted Turner a legend. Remember when Turner showed up half-smashed for his victory press conference in 1977? None of that for Conner. He was already thinking about the next defense.

And when he lost that in 1983 to the winged-keeled Australia II — the first time the Cup left the United States since its inception 132 years earlier — an obsession was born. Conner showed up for the post-race press conference, fought off tears several times, then left without taking questions. Someone reported seeing him wandering outside the yacht club aimlessly, as if not sure where he was going. That is inaccurate. He knew where he was going. He was going to war. D ennis isn’t a bad guy,” said Jack Sutphen, the veteran yacht man who helped select the Stars & Stripes crew. “He’s just feels everybody should be as dedicated as him. If he sails six days a week and meets every night with sail people or designers, well, he expects that kind of effort in return.”

Which can’t be easy. Conner’s crew went through a year and a half of grueling training in Hawaii — if “grueling” is possible in Hawaii — under security so tight, Conner controlled all photographs and occasionally even air

space. The Stars & Stripes’ dock here as been nicknamed “The Compound” for its military-like restrictions on access. But this, too, is vintage Conner.

Those who know him say that despite his skill behind the wheel, which is as

good as it comes, his most haunting demon is preparation.

By most accounts, Conner is happy only when everything is perfect before he hits water. Stars & Stripes led on every leg of the first three finals races here, as complete a thrashing as you can imagine. It is merely status quo for the skipper.

Asked whether he feels any pressure here, he said, “Pressure is defending a 132-year-old winning streak with a slow boat.” Get it? The slow boat was the enemy. Weakness was the enemy. Conner is certain he will win if he holds all the cards. Opponents complain he hires the best talent and puts them on his second boat — just so the enemy can’t use them. That’s not courage. That’s management. That’s Conner.

If fact, for all his excellence on the water, the record will show that the

one time Conner really had to mix it up for all the chips, he sat in it. We’re talking about the last race of the 1983 America’s Cup, when, with a 57-second lead on the fifth leg, he failed to cover Australia II and went searching for more breeze. He never found it. Australia II did. But why was he looking? Many think Conner was so psyched out by the winged keel of his competitor’s boat that he thought even a 57- second lead wasn’t enough, when it probably was. He was out of kilter. He knew at the start his boat was second best. His knowledge that it could happen might have forced the very outcome he dreaded.

“This time,” Conner said a few days ago, “I know if we sail correctly and don’t make mistakes, we can win.”

Translation: I have the faster boat. Let’s race. S o he is on top again, even though he won’t admit it. But then, Conner now seems to say only what serves him. Those who watched him in 1983 see a different man here in Australia. He has been accessible at organized media events, and seems to smile as often as he breathes. But it is a calculated smile, with calculated answers, as if someone were cuing him. And perhaps someone is. After all, Conner is wooing big bucks into yachting now. The Budweiser spinnaker he hoisted after winning Race 1 was a harbinger of corporate things to come — all with Conner’s blessing, and, occasionally, his begging.

But corporate money creates blandness, and Conner tiptoes around controversy as if he were spying on a rival sailmaker. Even the ridiculous will not get a rise. At a post-race press conference Monday, someone asked about rumors that Kookaburra III and Stars & Stripes — which both use Digital computers — had discovered each other’s codes and were stealing secrets. Kookaburra skipper Iain Murray simply laughed. Conner, ever the smoothie, answered, “We’re, uh, very pleased to have Digital on our team.”

End of statement.

He is robotic at times, reacting like a wind-up politician. Yet the man who turns even car rides into competitive games — “Betcha a dollar we reach that

building within 30 seconds” — retains a private ability to slice a visitor into pieces. His eyes can go freezer-cold. When people on the street try to get his attention, he often glides past them as if they are invisible. His voice is thin and at times unsteady, yet he can whip on someone like a stiletto.

No nice guy here. “He lives to sail” is the typical left- handed Conner compliment. Even his crew members joke that they have to take shifts talking sailing with him, so singular is his interest. But when pressed, few, if any, will confess to really knowing the guy. Even Jon Wright, who has sailed with Conner in 1980, 1983 and 1987 America’s Cups, simply shrugs when asked to explain. He mentions intensity, aloofness, pre- occupation with success.

“Dennis is Dennis,” he said. S o here is your cover of Time magazine, the People interview, the Esquire profile subject. Next hero, America, Dennis Conner, a self-confessed “not very good-looking high school kid who found out that sailing was something I could be the best in.” Pudgy, self-conscious, zinc cream on his lips making him look like he just came up from a box of powder doughnuts — and now an entire country refers to him as Big Bad Dennis because of the way he sails? Imagine that. He is living a nerd’s daydream, all the accolades he missed as a kid being showered on him in middle age.

“I came here to win the Cup,” he will say. “This is like a dream come true.” The words will look right in print. The stories will be complimentary.

He is missing heart, but he doesn’t need heart. He is missing warmth, but warmth is a luxury. He has lived for one goal the last three years, and by the time you read this, he might be celebrating its arrival, downing his drink and laughing with all the right people. The victory will be earned, the smile will be fixed like an open curtain. But no nice guy here. You remember where nice guys finish?

So does he.

CUTLINE:

Dennis Conner has charted a course for the Cup’s return.

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