The Weekend Read: Marcos Ambrose & Daytona

Marcos Ambrose left V8 Supercars a two-times champion at the top of his game. In 2011, after two years in the premier NASCAR division, the Tasmanian was primed to deliver in the longest, richest race that opened the season. We were there to watch his fortunes unfold.

"Top of three. Hold your line, hold your line.”

Tim Fedewa’s reassuring drawl is crystal clear in my radio headset. Fedewa hails from Michigan, but to my un-American ears his laid-back diction sounds straight from the wilds of Texas. He used to race NASCAR himself – you’ll find a couple of his most spectacular crashes on YouTube. But now he’s a spotter, an eye in the sky, and the Daytona 500 is his first time working with his team’s new signing, Marcos Ambrose. If there’s any tension here, there’s none to be found in Fedewa’s flat inflection.

“Okay, now you’re middle of three. Keep diggin’, keep diggin.”

On the far side of the 4km-long oval I can just make out the vast number ‘9’ on the roof of Ambrose’s Team Stanley car. He’s in the midst of a scrapping pack, moving at 320km/h as he tries to catch up with his draft buddy, David Ragan. Recovering from a disastrous pit stop, Ambrose is moving through the midfield mass with a vengeance.

“Wreck in front of ya…”

There’s a calm urgency in Fedewa’s voice. It takes me a second or so to find the trouble – a car is spinning on turn four, seemingly in slow motion. It tags another and sets it turning, too. Within a couple of seconds a chain reaction has filled the entire width of the track with spinning, smoking cars – and Ambrose is approaching at speed.

One of a spotter’s jobs is to help his driver find a way through crashes like this, but Fedewa stays silent for the very good reason that there isn’t one. Ambrose tries to go high, banging into the car above him, almost sneaking through. But one of the earlier spinners – now running backwards – swerves up the track and collects him. From my kilometre-distant vantage point I can see Ambrose has become nothing more than a passenger as his car runs hard into another, bounces into a third and comes to a rest at the bottom of the banking.

Fedewa stays deadpan:

“You’re alright, buddy. Now let’s get back to the pits.”

The previous day – the Saturday before the race – I get a chance to talk to Ambrose next to his XXL motorhome in the paddock. A PR minder hovers nervously nearby throughout our interview – NASCAR teams seem paranoid about keeping their heavily sponsored stars on message – but it’s soon clear that the Tasmanian is more than happy to give us the straight version.

NASCAR may be America’s favourite form of motorsport, yet its appeal has never really spread far from its homeland. Born from stock car racing in The South, and still proud to trace its origins to moonshine runners proving who had the quickest car, it’s become a vast (and vastly successful) business. Now there’s a 36-race calendar, a billion-dollar TV deal with Uncle Rupert, corporate sponsorship splashed across every surface – and enough cash to ensure even the lower-midfield runners can earn themselves comfortable seven-figure salaries. 

Yet despite the money, NASCAR’s insularity has always cut two ways, with few outsiders managing to make an impression on it. Even after six years the best known recent convert, former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya, is still struggling to regularly finish in the top 10. But Ambrose is determined to become the rule-proving exception.

“I still feel like an outsider, to be honest with you,” he says, “to some degree I feel like I’m within the game, but then flip the coin and you can see how very quickly you won’t be missed. Have I made an impression on the sport? Probably not. Do I need to feel secure? Yeah, I do – and to do that you’ve got to do something special.”

After enjoying major success in V8 Supercars back home, with back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004, Ambrose took the decision to risk everything on trying to break into NASCAR – “a roll-the-dice kind of moment” – starting out in the most junior truck series and slowly working his way up to his current drive in the top-flight Sprint Cup for Richard Petty Motorsports. So just how hard has it been for someone with his inarguable racing talent to break into this alien world?

“Toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, no question,” he answers. “You’re talking a difference between first and 20th place of less than a tenth of a second a lap on average. That’s why it’s hard for drivers; why it’s unique. If a European race team wants to come here and build a NASCAR then good luck to ’em, because it’s taken 60 years to get to this point. There’s so much inside knowledge on how this stuff works, so much art, so much grey area. We can’t run data systems – it’s all down to a driver’s feel and the crew chief watching through his binoculars.”

But preparations for the Daytona 500 haven’t gone well. The big story here is the arrival of two-car drafting. (By the time I get to the circuit the local newspaper, the receptionist at my hotel and a guy buying beer at a 7-Eleven have all given me their considered opinion of it.) Daytona is a ‘superspeedway’, basically a 4km banked oval, and to keep ultimate speeds under control the cars run with restrictor plates. These strangle the output of the deliberately old-fashioned V8 engines from the 640kW they make when breathing naturally down to around 330kW. This relative lack of power means that cutting air resistance – by drafting the guy in front of you – becomes the key to outright speed. And on Daytona’s freshly relaid tarmac, two-car drafting formations – where the car behind actually pushes against the front car’s bumper – have proved to be the quickest.

“We got caught out on it,” admits Ambrose. “We didn’t anticipate it was going to be like this and we haven’t done any drafting practice. So when I got here for the first practice session only two or three people went out who I could draft with, and I could only hook up with a slower car. The basic premise is that if you run your car right on the bumper of the car in front – literally touching him the whole way – then the wind will go over the blade [rear spoiler] of the car in front and you’ll both go faster. But if you fall off, even half an inch, then you’ll lose it and get dragged back.”

The result, after two qualifying sprint races, is that Ambrose is starting the 500 back in 35th place. At least he’s confident that he’s got a strategy for the race itself.

“Yeah, the whole week has been about knocking on people’s motorhomes and saying ‘would you work with me if the time came?’ – trying to get a feel for it – to find the right dance partner… The guy who wins the race isn’t going to win it without the guy who pushes him to the line – but then that guy’s only going to get second place. It’s a complicated game.”

Saturday afternoon’s practice session gives a chance to get close to both the cars and the fans. NASCAR prides itself on its accessibility, with windows in the pit garages and open radio communications with published frequencies meaning anyone with a $50 scanner can listen in. It’s a long way from the swipe card snootiness of an F1 paddock.

Seen up close, the cars have a compelling brutality to them, with massive razor-like spoilers in place of rear wings and cockpits packed with old-fashioned dials. Regulations keep everything deliberately simple – one of the big recent controversies was the decision to switch from four-barrel carburettors to fuel injection next year. Power comes from 5.9-litre pushrod V8s and gets transmitted to the track via four-speed manual transmissions. Underneath their fibreglass bodywork, the cars are all based around similar spaceframes, only minor cosmetic differences distinguish them as being (supposedly) Fords, Chevrolets, Dodges or Toyotas. By racing standards, they’re whales, with a minimum weight of 1560kg.

In the pit garages the big difference from other top-flight racing is the lack of technology. Without telemetry or electronic systems there’s no need for laptops or computer screens. Instead there are boxes of tools, and mechanics who seem to relish the chance to get their hands dirty. We watch as damage to Montoya’s front bumper gets repaired with what looks like regular panel-shop filler – bog.

Outside Ambrose’s garage, watching his car get fettled through the window, we find a small contingent of Aussies who’ve travelled all the way here to lend their support. “With our dollar at parity against the US dollar there’s never been a better time,” reckons Neville from Melbourne – making flying halfway round the world to watch a race sound alarmingly rational.

But it’s well away from the paddock that we find some more traditional fans. A vast campsite has grown in the infield, right next to turn three, and it’s mostly filled with battered trucks and SUVs teetering under the weight of homemade viewing platforms. This is where the hardcore hang out, with a majority of the licence plates seeming to be from the sport’s traditional heartland: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. Despite some right-wing T-shirt rhetoric the guys down here are friendly enough – we’re invited up to a platform teetering on the top of an ancient Jeep that we’re assured will carry the weight of 40 people for the race itself. But there are clearly some intense tribal loyalties at play, with banners proclaiming allegiances. Or, sometimes, the lack of them. ‘Jimmie Johnson You SUCK!’ proclaims one in a childish scrawl.

BEING most keen to follow Ambrose’s fortunes, I opt to watch the race from the roof of the main grandstand – right next to the spotters – with my scanner locked onto the team frequency. On the first formation lap Ambrose’s voice comes through loud and clear: “Time to make some history here, boys. Thanks for believing in me. Thanks for being here with me.”

It’s a rolling start, with the pack of 40 cars crossing the line making a sound that, even through thick headphones, feels like it should be audible from space. Ambrose is moving up quickly. The electronic leaderboard only lists the first 16 runners, but by the end of Lap 3 there’s a red ‘9’ next to position 14.
A car near the back spins and we’re into the first of the many caution periods that will punctuate the race, the pack circulating slowly behind a Camaro safety car as the track gets scrubbed clean of debris. Fans rise and head off to buy food (or take a slash). It’s NASCAR’s equivalent of an ad break.

As the restart approaches, the radio channel gets busy.

Ambrose: “We need to think how we’re going to line up here.”
Fedewa: “Ten-four. I’m gonna talk to him now.”
Ambrose: “Tell him we’ll hook up as soon as this thing gets going.”

Over at the spotter’s stand I see Fedewa in intense negotiations with another spotter. The radio goes silent; 

I presume they’ve switched to the other guy’s frequency to iron out the details.

The green flag comes out – and Ambrose slots neatly behind the number ‘6’ car of David Ragan. This is his dancing partner, his draft buddy. They’ve formed one of the two-car ‘bubbles’, and it’s not long before they’re pushing away from the midfield pack, launching their own challenge on the other two-by-two leaders who’ve already built up about a 100-metre advantage.

Another impact brings another caution. Most of the runners pit. Ambrose is called in for fuel, but gets baulked when the car in the pit in front of his blocks him. He rejoins down in 38th place, and – once the green flag waves – starts his slow climb through the pack.
Which brings us to Lap 29 – right where we began – and Fedewa’s calmly delivered warning: “Wreck in front of ya…”

Ambrose limps back to the pits, but even from the top of the grandstand I can see the car is suffering from major front-end damage. Over the radio I hear the crew chief ordering him back to the paddock garage – and it’s nearly half an hour before the car reappears as the pack passes on lap 64.

In competitive terms, Ambrose’s race is run, but NASCAR’s scoring system rewards drivers for laps completed, hence the attempt to get him back out. He accelerates down the pitlane – “I’ve not got much clutch here, boys” – but the heroic effort peters out in the very first corner as the car coasts to a halt on a service road.

Ambrose gives his valediction over the air:

“Ah, sorry boys, the motor just let go big-time.”

Watching as his car gets towed back to the paddock, I know that Ambrose must be bitterly disappointed. The 500 is the biggest event of the season, and the one everyone wants to win, and his race was over pretty much before it began.

He was wiped out by an accident he did nothing to cause and was unable to avoid. But that’s NASCAR: huge crashes have always been as big a part of the show as heroic overtaking moves. Race drivers know that introspection is an indulgence they can’t afford; and NASCAR’s hectic schedule will give him plenty of opportunities to bounce back.

But there’s one detail that might end up playing on the mind of even somebody as professional as Ambrose. At the end of the race, after 74 lead changes, it’s Ambrose’s former draft buddy, David Ragan, who finds himself coming out of the final caution period – with just three laps to run – at the front of the pack. If Ambrose hadn’t wiped out in the crash – or if he hadn’t got blocked in his pit and pushed to the back – that could so easily have been him.

Not that Ragan manages to win it. He’s adjudged to have jumped the restart, changing his line before crossing the start line, and he’s disqualified with a black flag. After another crash, and a final caution – making 16 in all – it’s 20-year-old rookie Trevor Bayne – starting his second-ever Sprint Cup race and driving for a part-time team – who makes this his fairytale by holding off the assembled might of NASCAR’s aristocracy to become the youngest-ever Daytona 500 winner. Fairytale ending delivered: and he couldn’t have looked more surprised in Victory Lane.

The only real problem occurs to me later, on the way back to the airport. If I ever go to another NASCAR meeting it’s going to be a real anticlimax.

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