Down Under Wonder
When Marcos Ambrose started his rookie season last year in NASCAR’s Busch Series ” now the Nationwide Series ” I was paying close attention. He’s the first NASCAR driver I was aware of that came from my husband’s neck of the woods (New Zealand) and I was pleased to see Ambrose making an attempt to enter my favorite sport.
Since his debut in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2006, Ambrose has become a favorite, both with drivers and with fans. He is quick to tell a joke (especially Kiwi-bashing jokes), smiles all the time and has earned a reputation amongst his peers as one of the nicest guys in the garage. So, when I got the opportunity to interview Ambrose one-on-one, I jumped at the chance, hoping to find out for myself if he was as cuddly as a Koala bear or a Tasmanian devil in sheep’s clothing.
The 32-year old Ambrose, born in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, began racing karts at an early age before moving to open-wheeled race cars in 1996. After two years of competition in the Australian Formula Ford Championship, Ambrose left his country to race Formula 1 (F1) cars in England. Though successful in F1 (he won the 1999 European Formula Ford Championship and placed third in the British Formula Ford Championship), finances forced Ambrose to return to Australia, where he signed with Stone Brothers Racing and Ford in 2001 to compete in the V8 Supercar Series. By the end of the 2005 racing season, Ambrose had won two championships (2003, 2004) and nearly won two more (third in 2002, second in 2005).
But distant shores and a different style of racing caught Ambrose’s attention as NASCAR began to grow in popularity in other countries, including Australia. Ambrose signed with Wood Brothers/JTG Racing for the 2006 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and moved his family to Kannapolis, North Carolina, the heart of NASCAR racing. He started 2007 in a stock car, becoming the only non-North American driver to finish in the top ten of a major NASCAR series; he was eighth in the Busch/Nationwide Series driver points standing and second in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings.
This year, in addition to his full-time Nationwide Series duties, Ambrose is scheduled to race in a limited number of NASCAR Sprint Cup races, including the road course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma on June 22nd. That’s where I caught up with the “Wonder From Down Under”, hours before he qualified in the seventh position for that Sunday’s big race.
“I felt like I’d achieved everything that I could have wanted to in Australian racing,” said Ambrose of his decision to move to America. “I knew how big NASCAR was, I aspired to get here, I just didn’t know how it was going to happen. Things just fell into place and I committed to it, I came across and here I am.”
NASCAR racing proved to be a challenge for Ambrose, much different from anything he had done in Australia. “It’s totally foreign to me, dominated by oval racing. I’ve never raced on ovals before,” he said. “The cars are bigger, heavier, faster, the tracks are more knarly really, they’re pretty wicked racetracks.” Add ‘fierce’ competition, lots of money, corporate America and a huge fan base, “everything Australian racing was, times it by ten and you get something close,” Ambrose said of NASCAR racing.
Because he now lives in the U.S., Ambrose doesn’t have much contact with his Australian fans, who don’t understand why he made a career move to NASCAR until they come to America and see the size and scale of the sport. “When the Australian fans understand my reasons for it and they come across and see it firsthand, I guess they appreciate it for what it is,” Ambrose said.
Meanwhile, his American fan base is growing. “It’s been better than I could ever have hoped for,” he said. “I really feel like I’m accepted in the sport from inside the garage and also in the grandstands. The American fans are so passionate about their sport and it’s just been a great experience.”
Right now Ambrose is working on gaining experience Ð seat time Ð and trying to build his race team into a force to be reckoned with each week. That’s a real challenge when a team isn’t owned by someone named Hendrick or Roush or Gibbs. “I’ve got to grow with these teams,” Ambrose said, “and hopefully I’ll either develop the guys I’m driving with into a winning combination or I’ll get my chance down the road to get in a package that will win races.”
Racing in the Cup series full time is Ambrose’s ultimate goal and he is scheduled to race in 12 Sprint Cup races this year as part of that plan. But a whole lot of factors have to fall into place before that can happen, including sponsors, finances and proving he’s up to the task. “There’s no guarantees in life, especially in NASCAR,” Ambrose said. “I’d like to think we’re headed towards getting Cup starts and getting some experience and hopefully one day being there full time.”
Post interview: The Sonoma road course wasn’t very kind to Ambrose. He ran as high as second to race winner Kyle Busch late in Sunday’s race until a racing incident and a broken gearbox ended his first Cup start. But it was a good first effort for this growing team and Ambrose proved he could ‘run with the big dogs’. He also raced in the Nationwide Series on Saturday in Milwaukee that same weekend, placing 16th. Last weekend Ambrose attempted to qualify for the Cup event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway but missed the show. He placed 14th in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at the same track.
Congrats to Kurt Busch, winner of Sunday’s Sprint Cup race in New Hampshire. Strategic pit calls put Busch at the front of the pack and rain ended the race 16 laps early, giving Busch his first win this season. Next stop is night racing at Daytona for the Nationwide and Cup teams, on Friday and Saturday night, respectively.
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