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Q&A with Aussie Marcos Ambrose

Marcos Ambrose
QUESTION: It must have been a bit of a whirlwind over the past three years, but it’s obviously nice to spend some time at home here in Tasmania?

Thanks for having me. It’s been a whirlwind this year. I feel like I’m always fighting time and sleep. It’s nice to get away from the NASCAR circuit for a while, come home and spend time with my family and friends. It’s going to be great and I’m really going to use this time to reinvent myself.

I feel like I had my butt handed to me this year in the US, I finally got in some competitive equipment, got into that Cup racing game and realized that if I’m going to contend, I’ve really got to go to another level.

So I’m looking forward to this time off to really refocus my body and my mind for the 2009 season. It’s really going to be my make or break year, 2009, to make it stick. I’ve got in some quality gear for the first time over there. I’ve paid my dues and I have enough experience. I’ve had over 100 starts now so there are no excuses left really, I’ve got to get it done.

I’m looking forward to that challenge. Everything is poised to be something special. All I’ve asked of myself and the people that have worked with me over there is to give me the opportunity to prove or disprove whether I’ve got it and whether I can do it.

The 11 races I’ve done at the Cup level have been an eye opener for me. I’ve realized that to last five hours out there is not an easy thing. The races are long, they’re aggressive. The drivers are as good and competitive as I’ve seen anywhere and the depth of talent is amazing. There are 43 (drivers) that start every week and there are about 42 and a half of them that are really, really good. Sometimes I feel like I’m the point five (0.5) that’s missing (laughs).

So, that’s really where I’m at and I’m looking forward to the break. Looking forward to being home in Tasmania for a while and looking forward even more to getting back and really getting into it.

Q: You only finished the season last week. You must feel like you need a break, but does the racer inside you really want to get back out there?

Yeah, I really need a break now, you know, it’s been a long year. Someone said to me earlier that I’ve basically done three seasons of V8 Supercars in 10 months. And that’s really what it feels like. I feel tired, I feel worn out, I feel like I’ve had enough for a while. The double race formats have been difficult for me, the travel between the tracks, because I’m racing against guys … I call it the two-tenths rule. I’m two tenths of a second a lap away from flying my own jet and unfortunately I’m flying around commercial doing it the hard way.

So it’s a fine line between doing it right and not doing it right and wasting money and time, so I’m really keen on doing it the way it needs to be done and competing at the very top level with those guys and hopefully this break can give me the chance to really refocus and have a good think about what I need to do to be successful and be better.

Q: In terms of next season you will be doing the full Sprint Cup program. Is it just the Cup for you or will there be some other racing?

MA: That’s a good point. Right now we’ve got the full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series locked away. The only drawback is the owner’s points situation. For those that don’t understand the rules, the top 35 teams are guaranteed a start each week, the teams below that have to qualify into the race on speed. Quite often you have 50 – 52 cars all trying to get a spot, but you’re all trying for the spots from 36th through to 50th, or however many cars are there. So it’s not uncommon to qualify around 25th, but go home because you are not in the front of that group, so it’s really a burden on everybody.

We don’t want to be in that position if we can avoid it. The team that I jumped in with for the last four races was 36th in owners points. We got them back into the top 35 then fell out in the last race to be back out of points. With the restructuring of some race teams and the economic crisis over there it looks like there are some guys in front of us that are going to drop back, so we should be locked in for the entire series.

If not, we have to qualify in on our speed for the first five races, including the Daytona 500, which is not easy. So we’re going to do the whole series next year, to answer your question. We are doing the whole Sprint Cup series, we’ll be doing every race but there may be some races where we could potentially miss out if we don’t qualify in on speed.

In the Nationwide Series, I’m going to do the road course races for sure. There’s plenty of demand for me out there to do those. And we’ll probably fill in 15 to 20 races on the Nationwide side for the sponsors to make it work.

My team is trying to bring through the next generation of driver. They brought me through on a three-year plan, they’re bringing the next young guy through and to make the sponsorship work I’m going to do some races for them. I wouldn’t want to do more than 15 to 20, and that’s probably what the number will be.

Q: It’s still a huge commitment, whichever way you look at it.

MA: It’s not as much as doing the full schedule, because you don’t have the fly-in races. Quite often you will run both cars in different states, so between practice sessions you will be flying in on helicopter and flying from airport to airport to make it all work. And that’s no good on the sponsors, on the drivers or anybody.

So we’re not going to do that. We’re going to focus on the Cup series but the Nationwide Series racing is fun if you do it the right way and it can help your Cup program too.

The number one focus for us is the Cup Series. That’s where the money is, that’s where the sponsors are and that’s where the crowd is, so that’s the number one goal.

Q: You raced in a lot of big races this year, including the Brickyard 400. That was quite a difficult race for everybody with the tire situation. There was also the win and the third at Watkins Glen and the debut at Sonoma. You’ve also raced at Daytona, but to actually get the chance to race in the Daytona 500, one of the most famous races anywhere in the world, the opening race of 2009, which must be huge.

MA: Yeah, that Indianapolis track is pretty intimidating. I don’t think I’ve been to many places where I felt very anxious to get going. Unfortunately in practice we blew a motor on the second lap, so I had two laps of practice before qualifying and I was very under-prepared for the start of that race.

Huge crowd, huge prize money, huge responsibility and a very, very daunting track. The speeds are high in NASCAR every week, but when you tip off into Turn One there at Indianapolis it really feels fast.

It was an exciting weekend for me and it was a weekend where I really feel I broke out of the mould and felt like I had the goods to do it at the Cup level, because we qualified in on our speed and had a good day. So, there are fond memories of that place, but every race track is big and fast.

Every race is big, with big prize money, so there’s not one week that really stands out to me that’s say, any more special than the others or any more demanding. It’s really just a constant grind of performance requirements. I mean, you need to deliver every single weekend.

Q: Next year, to go to Daytona for the big one on the Sunday. What’s that going to be like?

MA: I’m already pretty nervous about Daytona. You know, it’s a really tough race track. They run a restrictor plate there, so the cars are always really close. You’ve got to run those cars really loose, where the rear end moves around a lot. NASCAR’s inherently handle badly. They don’t turn well and they don’t handle the speeds well, so you’ve got to set them up so they’re always sliding so you don’t overload the tires. Daytona is probably the meanest and ‘baddest’ of all the race tracks as far as having to run the car loose with guys all around you in the pack.

I’m anxious about it. I’m really keen to be locked into that race, if the stars align and luck’s on our side I won’t have to qualify in on speed. Because we have to race our way in on that race track. They have what they call the Gatorade Duels where you have to race your way in through a heat race, the week before the big one, to get in. And I’m not looking forward to doing that.

But it’s what I do. I’ve got to handle the pressure of racing over there. It is difficult to keep calm under that much pressure but it’s what I do. So I’m looking forward to every race, but I’m a little anxious about the first one.

Q: Can you describe the team situation for next year, with JTG Daugherty Racing taking on a different form?

Yeah, I’ve driven for four teams all up this year, across the two series. So I’ve got a lot of seats out there and a lot of steering wheels that I’ve been driving and using. And that’s been difficult to adapt.

The team that has driven everything has been JTG Daugherty Racing. They have a marketing company that draws in the money to make it work and they on-sell that to race teams with a driver attached, which is me, by twisting their arm enough to make me the driver.

It all revolves around that one group and it’s a family called Tad and Jodi Geschickter, a husband and wife team, and their marketing crew that are really the brainchilds of all of that.

Originally they merged with Wood Brothers, then they separated, it didn’t work out, and they had a sponsorship that crossed over with Wood Brothers so I drove the #21 a few times this year and then they (JTG) had the money together to go Cup racing. It’s a lot of money to run a Cup program. It costs about $15 to $20 million to run a car – and that’s US dollars.

With the exchange rate now, it’s good for me when I come home, but not good for you guys coming over to the States to see a NASCAR race.

Basically, we didn’t have the money to ‘gear up’ to run a Cup program. We had the money to run but we didn’t really have the money to put everything together, to buy cars, transporters, people, infrastructure, testing time and all of that. So the smartest thing to do was to package that up and then try and deliver that to another team that was already running and that’s how the Michael Waltrip Racing link worked for us.

It’s a great fit. They are a team that is really on the up. They’ve got a fleet of Toyotas and they are spending good money and they have done already. They’ve got over 30 full-time engineers on an engineering program that is first class. They’ve got good facilities and basically we are going to plug ourselves in there with myself and the sponsorship and a few key guys and hopefully make it work.

I feel like that’s what I needed to do to put myself in quality machinery, to give myself a chance and for the team to give themselves a chance to really deliver on what they have promised their sponsors. I think it’s going to work out well, but time will tell how well it does work. I might be home next year driving with you guys again or I could be there for another 10 years. It just depends what happens (laughs).

Q: NASCAR has announced that they are cutting right back on testing for next season. How does that effect your situation heading into your first full year in Cup?

MA: I’m fortunate enough that I’ve done enough races that I know what I really need to do and should do to make it work. It’s not guaranteed and testing would be nice for everybody, but I think it’s a smart thing for the series to do.

It’s smart for the series. It’s not hard to spend millions of dollars to go testing. I mean, the manufacturers were renting race tracks … Ford, for instance, rented Kentucky Speedway every Tuesday of every week of the year for the last five years. You just turned up and it might be 15 grand a day to rent that track for the Ford teams. It’s a crazy expense.

So I think NASCAR really want to stamp down on the testing and try and keep the teams viable to run quality races, because at the end of the day NASCAR just wants a good race. They want to put on a good show and they want teams to have enough money to do that. I think it’s smart for them.

As a rookie coming into the sport on the Cup side, it would be nice to be at the top of the pile and have a lot of testing, but unfortunately I missed it by a year. But that’s the way it goes.

Q: It’s been a while since you saw a V8 Supercar round in person. It must be nice to come back because you still have a lot of friends in this series?

MA: There are a lot of friends here and I felt like I left on fairly good terms when I did go. So I’ll walk around here and see some cars and drivers and watch a bit of the action. It’s nice to see the sport still flourishing. It’s a great series for our population and the money that’s available to put on good racing. I think the series does a nice job and I think it’s healthy, like it was when I left.

When I left in 2005 the sport was in good shape and it still looks like it’s in good shape and they’ve got vision to go forward and make it even better. So it’s great to be here and I’m going to enjoy it. I don’t get to see much racing apart from NASCAR these days. I’m either watching old races to get ready for what is coming up for me or I’m watching my own races to see what I did wrong.

But I’ll check out the action and hopefully (Mark) Winterbottom and (Jamie) Whincup [leading Ford drivers] can get it done. It’s really a tough series right now and I think Jamie Whincup in particular has done a really good job over the last couple of years.

Q: Can you explain how you ended up racing a Camry?

MA: Well, it’s a good point and it’s probably something we need to address. It’s been a privilege to drive with Ford all these years, pretty much my entire career, or my professional career at least, I’ve been driving in Fords.

Unfortunately, Ford just didn’t have the opportunity for me to get to the Cup level like we needed to do. It wasn’t any goal to drive a Toyota but it was the best opportunity I had over there and I feel like it’s a progression. I feel like you need to keep moving forward in life and it’s clear that Toyota are winning in the showroom and on the race track and in NASCAR they had the most success and they’ve got a lot of progression.

So I looked at the opportunities and my hands were tied to a certain extent. You’ve got the sponsors and the team and myself and we’re all making this decision together. It was the best opportunity on the table at the time to do what I needed to do to get the job done over there in America.

I hope to drive Fords again. It’s not like I’ve turned my back on the Ford family. It’s just that unfortunately there wasn’t an opportunity for me at the Cup level of the same magnitude as the deal I have in place right now.

At the same time I’m looking forward to the future. I’m going to the second stage of my career here and it’s great to have the opportunity to go wherever I need to go, to do whatever I need to do to be the best driver and get in the best equipment that I can.

Q: Can this car get you into the top 20 in Cup?

MA: No doubt. I believe I can, if I’m good enough and it’s going to be proved here in the next 12 months whether I can be a contender every week.

Q: When you were 18 years old you were racing around Symmons Plains here in your father Ross’ Nissan …

MA: I remember that – it was with the Jim Richards Racing School by the way.

Q: ... did you ever think back then that you would be where you are today? Is it surprising to you or are you on target for what you set out for?

MA: Look, I had no idea that this was going to happen. There was no master plan, there was no innate understanding that I was going to get to this point. I’ve just really fallen into it. Just with passion and commitment and enthusiasm, you know.

I don’t believe – and I still to this day don’t believe – that I’ve got any more talent than anyone else out there. It’s just that I love the sport, I love racing cars and I love the challenge of it and I commit myself to it and take every day as day-by-day and minute-by-minute.

I just really try to do the best I can and I pinch myself everyday that I’ve gotten this far. I feel like I’ve really achieved something, really by just surviving over there in the US and making it to the Cup level. It’s something that not everybody gets to do and gets to achieve in their lives so I feel like I’m really proud of what I’ve done and I had no idea that I was ever going to get this far. There was no vision of it. I just took it day by day.

Q: How long are you home for?

MA: Good question. Until they call me and they want me back.

At this stage I plan to be back in mid-January. If I’m away too long I might get forgotten about. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, that’s what my Dad always says. So I’ve got to be back across there sooner rather than later but I do need to spend some time with my family.

My Granddad’s not that well, my Dad’s not that well, I’ve had my family over there in the US away from their parents and grandparents for too long so I’m excited to be home so I’m trying to make the most of it and it will be great.

Q: So Christmas, and a few rounds of golf?

Maybe, probably not though. You know, I had to give up golf. I’ve got a three-year-old and a one-year-old, so golf’s really gone by the wayside. I really want to get myself back in shape mentally and physically so I’ll use that time to hopefully get refreshed.

Q: Marcos, congratulations on getting to the elite level. That’s a great achievement. For somebody that hadn’t turned left before going over there people don’t realize just how tough has it been.

MA: Me included. If I knew it was going to be that tough, I probably wouldn’t have gone over.

Q: You’re acceptance over there has just been incredible. When you won at Watkins Glen it was great and even the next day coming third it was huge, because there are just so many more people exposed to Cup level.

MA: Yeah, the Cup thing has really got me out there. Little Debbie, which is a snack food company – they sell over $1 billion of snack cakes a year, which is unbelievable – they did a really big marketing campaign this year around me and my … I call it my ‘Australiana’.

We did a national TV ad campaign with a koala on my shoulder, either sitting in the car with me talking smack about how bad I was driving, or sitting on my shoulder and chatting up some women walking down the supermarket aisle. So there’s been some really good stuff and we’ve used my point of difference, which is my Australian background and my accent, even though you guys will claim that I’ve got some US tweaks getting in.

I really am proud of who I am and what I am all about over there. I feel like I got a little tainted over here, where I’d won and maybe said the wrong thing a time or two and got painted with the wrong brush. So I had a chance to really restart and reload over there and do it the right way and I think just my approach to life and to NASCAR and the fans, they’ve enjoyed that, so I’ve got a lot of mileage out of that and it’s been really good.

The biggest concern I had when I went over there was ‘how was I going to be accepted?’ and I’m fortunate to say that it’s been the least of my problems. Success has been the biggest problem for me on the race track. Just actually getting it done.

You look at the guys that have come in that haven’t been oval racing all their lives – there’s something like 40 or 50 NASCAR series running around the country at any one time and when you first get there you don’t realize how many guys are competing on a weekly basis on short tracks, big tracks, all around the country.

So to get in there and mix it with guys from Formula 1 and IndyCar and all these other categories and make it stick compared to most of them – most of them have gone now. Dario Franchitti’s gone, AJ Allmendinger is out of a ride, Jacques Villeneuve lasted five minutes. These are pedigree drivers that didn’t last very long, so I feel proud of what I’ve done and the big part of that has been the leveraging of my Australian accent and being able to feel privileged to be there and I think that rubs off on how I look over there and how I’m accepted.

Q: Thinking back to your days in V8 Supercars, how well did that set you up to cope with the pressure, to drive a big, heavy car and to go into NASCAR?

MA: Really good. I mean, the level here is high. You don’t win a championship here unless you are really good at what you do with good people around you. It taught me a great lesson; that you are only as good as the (crew) guys around you and the equipment you get in.

So I was able to really adapt to driving on ovals pretty quick. The hard part has been getting that group, the team around you that I was able to build back here in Australia. So definitely, I learned a lot here and it set me up.

You know, without winning Supercar championships down here I wouldn’t have been able to go over there anyway and even when I got there I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes unless I knew what I was doing. There’s no doubt that what I learned here put me in good stead.

Q: What is the media situation like over in the US? The massive media attention on NASCAR must be a big deal?

MA: It’s just like it is here today. I mean, it’s no more formal and there’s no fanfare about it. A classic example is just a couple of months ago I went on a radio show and before we went on air I asked what radio show it was for, so that when they ring in you can do the best you can.

They said it was for a station in Florida, but we’re syndicated to 180 different stations and we have a reach of 84 million listeners. So all of a sudden a radio show that’s getting to over three times the population of Australia in one hit, makes it really hit home as to what it’s all about. It’s just a big country and there are just a lot of people there – a lot of people to buy Little Debbie snacks.

Q: You talked about how NASCAR wasn’t on the radar. When did NASCAR come onto your radar?

MA: I take that back, what I said a few years back, when I said that NASCAR wasn’t really on my radar until I went over there to see it.

I’m a big fan of racing and I’m a bit of a historian. I love the old stuff and it always intrigued me when I looked back. I used to read all the old Autosport magazines from the 1970s that my Dad used to keep in boxes at our house.

I’d look through these magazines and see the stories on Richard Petty winning and see the grandstands and there was hundreds of thousands of people watching and you see the numbers and they’re winning hundreds of thousands of dollars way back in the 1970s. As I grew older I thought ‘what is this sport?’ It was just massive, bigger than Formula 1 ever was and it’s just a localized series.

It just intrigued me, so I’ve always had an interest in it, didn’t really understand it and then as my career blossomed and grew I really looked at it as a place to go. And that’s why I went.

Is it really because of the money or the competitive deal? Yeah, it is, but what really got me going was that I remember that I was intrigued by it from a very early age, not really understanding what the sport was all about.
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