Q&A with Marcos Ambrose ahead of Sonoma
QUESTION: What are the similarities and differences between a V8 Supercar and a NASCAR on the racetrack?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Sure, both are basically push-rod V8 engines. We use a cast lock on the car I used to drive. It was based off a Windsor block from the Ford side. They run fuel injection, 7,500 RPM, 7,500 RPM rev limit. They run a slightly detuned Cup size motor, and we really are all about, you know, a lot of torque from those motors.
Six-speed gearbox really helps them get off the corner. Road racing you’ve got to balance the car out from the bottom-end as well as the top-end speed that you need on the high side.
It’s a really great series comparing the car. But I came to America to basically up spec. It’s a bigger crowd, bigger events, bigger prize money, bigger responsibilities, too, and so the style of racing is very different between the two.
In NASCAR you’re racing every week. You’re racing on ovals predominantly. When you do get a NASCAR on the road course, they’re really hard to get a handle because they have different style suspension with the truck arm rear ends and the bump rubber in the front. They’re very heavy cars. Where the road car is a little lighter, less power, but they handle better.
Q. While we’re talking about differences between Australia and here, I wanted to find out since you’ve been racing in NASCAR for a while and you’ve got your share of ovals under your belt as well, do you feel maybe more comfortable on the ovals now than you do the road courses?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Well, definitely when a NASCAR Sprint Cup car is handling well on ovals, it feels easy. When they’re having a bad day on ovals, it’s a lot of hard work. Whereas, in road racing, it’s always a compromise. You never have the perfect power down. You never have the perfect brakes. You never have the perfect handling full stop. So I’m used to that compromise.
So when I have a bad handling race car on a road course in NASCAR, I deal with it better than what I have been able to high speed ovals. That being said, I think a lot of guys when the car’s off on high-speed ovals, they have issues just making it into the lap let alone finishing the race.
But I came to NASCAR to race on the ovals. I enjoy the ovals. It’s really why I’m in North America to compete. It’s because of the oval racing that NASCAR provides. It’s nice to have a couple of road course races mixed in just to let everybody know that I can still get around a road course. But predominantly I’m here for the ovals and really enjoy that aspect.
Q. Could you talk about after such an up and coming on the rise type season as you had last year to encounter the difficulties, could you talk about the difficulties and how tough it’s been for you mentally and emotionally to deal with what obviously has to be some is what disappointing after a star after last season? And also, going into road courses, to Sonoma and then soon to Watkins Glen, especially to Sonoma, do you look at this as a place, okay, now I can just enjoy and do my thing, or do you feel you’re putting a certain amount of pressure on yourself to use the places you do best to sort of break out of the doldrums you’ve been in this year?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Well, it’s been a really tough season, no doubt about it. We’ve had a couple of non-finishes finishes with mechanical problems. We’ve had a points penalty, 150-odd points there a few races back which hurt us in the points title. We’ve had a lot of non-finishes for crashes, some my fault, some not. So we’ve got a lot of things going on.
Sure my confidence has been hit, our team confidence has been hit. We had a breakout season last year. We always were trying to keep in check the expectation because we knew that 2010 was going to be a challenge just knowing our position for a single-car team, getting constant support from Michael Waltrip Racing. So we feel independent that we have troubles of every independent team that’s trying to run out there on the racetrack against super teams.
So we’ve wanted to keep everything in check. But that being said, we definitely haven’t performed to our own expectations. And last week was good. We finished 16th after some early problems, and that hopefully will leap frog us into a good weekend at Sonoma, and if we can finally get back up into the front, it might start us on a roll and get the confidence back we need as a team.
Q. Do you feel any extra pressure to do well at Sonoma or are you just going to enjoy road racing as you know it?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Well, there’s pressure every week. So whenever you’re running badly, you’ve probably got more pressure than when you’re running well. So expect to run well at Sonoma. We should be somewhere in the Top 10 in practice, in qualifying trim, which sets us up well for the race.
That race is what it is. If you get caught up in someone else’s problems, so be it. You just put your best foot forward and try to apply yourself. So I think a race like Sonoma this weekend, I’ll be breathing a little easier knowing that it’s my forte. It’s what I’ve grown up doing. I should have as good a chance of any of running at the front.
Any time I’ve been there I’ve run at the front both years I’ve attempted the race. We’ve done a lot of practice, lot of research on the car, we’ve done a lot of development. Fingers crossed, it’s going to work out.
Q. I was just talking to Brad Daugherty on the phone a while ago. And he is very concerned that you guys are down on horsepower to the Gibbs Toyotas and the other makes. Do you think restarts might be especially tough for you? Is that a concern for you because of being down a little bit on horsepower and the restarts on the road course?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Firstly, I can’t complain about my package. I’ve got a dream job. I’ve got awesome equipment from MWR. They supply fantastic equipment and personnel and services. KID trying their hardest on the engines. We’ve had some issues, we’re working through them. We’re a good group. I have no complaints about the effort that’s going into our package and what I’ve got.
We’ve got enough stuff to run around the front every single weekend. So there are no complaints there from me. But even if we did have issues like you’re talking about with engines, Sonoma is always using top gear. So it’s all about forward drive, good car handling. Even the straightaways on the restart has a bend in it. So horsepower’s really not going to play any factor.
The majority of the team when’s they come to the race at Sonoma, they start to detune that engine to help forward drive, so I don’t expect any issues at all with the power plant.
Q. What were your goals at the beginning of the season and how have they changed after just one Top 10 and sitting 30th in points?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Sure, we wanted to contend for the Chase and win a race. That was our motto for the start of the season. Obviously our points have definitely not gone the way we wanted to. We’ve had five cars, we haven’t been consistent enough to run for the Top 10 on a regular basis which is where you need to be to start thinking about winning a race.
So we’ve got some work to do, no doubt. From this point on all we’re trying to do is get our feet in and going. Get our confidence back. We’ve been hit pretty hard with confidence. You know, it’s a tough battle. Racing is a very aggressive, tough business.
You know, when you have a bad period like we’ve been through, you know, you’ve got to get out of that hole before you can breathe. So our goal now is to start gaining momentum, start getting consistency, start stringing up those Top 10s, and hopefully then we can get back on track.
We’ve lost time. We’ve lost a month here, a lot of races in the doldrums. Hopefully we can pull ourselves out and finish the second half of the season strong.
Q. When your confidence is low, do you ever fear for your job?
MARCOS AMBROSE: I fear for my job every Sunday. You’re only as good as your last race, and racing is a tough business. You get in a slump and people start looking at you, you start looking at yourself. As a race driver, as a person, as a dad, you’ve got to look at the commitment you’re making to racing and then when it starts to go pear shaped like it has for us this year, you start reflecting on what am I doing wrong? Have I lost my touch? Have I lost focus? All of those things come into play.
But like any sportsman, I’m pretty stubborn, and I feel I’m applying myself the best I can. We’ve just had a rotten time of it, and we’ll bounce back from it. So I guess I worry for my teammates and my team personnel more than I do about my own confidence.
Q. You were talking earlier about the differences in the cars between what you were driving in Australia and what you were driving now. How about the racing strategy when it comes to road racing? Are there things because of your extensive experience on road courses that maybe you got one up on some of the other guys? Or are there things that maybe you learned from them that you wouldn’t have known otherwise?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Yeah, I’m fortunate that I really know what I need on a road course. I know where I need to affect performance, and where I need to worry about so much, and what areas of the race car I really need to focus on.
From the first lap of practice I’m ready for that and I really know what I need. I don’t need to warm up to a road course. I don’t need to dial myself into the track. I don’t need to work on my brake markers. All of that is pretty much engrained in my brain.
So we can get straight to work on practice day and work on getting the cars better, and work on getting our sequencing for the race better. And that is a huge factor in road racing. You’ve got to really get in front of the car in the race weekend so you can make good adjustments for the race start.
It’s a long race Sonoma. You wear your brakes out. The car wears out, tire wear is crucial. So there are a lot of things we’re working on, and I feel like I have a competitive advantage against many drivers in the field, not all of them.
I think the hardest road race I’ve ever come across has been in NASCAR. I mean Tony Stewart did not miss a beat in Watkins Glen last year. I tried to chase him down with 15 laps to go, he never made a mistake. Kasey Kahne was the fastest car, no doubt, at Infineon last year. And these guys are as good as they get. They’re very talented drivers, they’re great teams and hard to beat.
Q. Typically the strategy at Infineon has been basically you back up your pit stops to the end of the race. We see a lot of cars coming in earlier in the race when you think they wouldn’t need to pit, but that’s planning for the end of the race. Now that we have three chances at a green/white checker finish and fuel mileage can really come into play, have you and Frank talked about what your strategy is going to be on Sunday?
MARCOS AMBROSE: No, we haven’t really talked about it. We’ve just got to try to run at the front all day and pit when we need to for our fuel mileage. Each team has different fuel mileage numbers that they get, depending on who is driving the car or what kind of carburetor configuration they’ve got and what kind of RPM they’ll be using on the racetrack.
So we’ll go through our fuel mileage numbers during practice and qualifying practices to get ourselves as familiar with our engine and that track as we can. And then it’s going to come down to trying to stay on strategy.
The last couple of road races we’ve had to be off strategy during practice or fuel mileage problems that we had during the race. So we’ve got to really make sure that we try to just stay on strategy with the majority of the field so we don’t have to pass them twice, and if we can do that, we should be somewhere in the front.
Q. I was just curious if you could recap last year at Sonoma for us? You were quickest in practice and then got in a late accident at the end of practice and had to drive your way up through the field. Take us through what that was like and what you remember about that whole thing.
MARCOS AMBROSE: Yeah, it was a real cluster on the Saturday practice. We lost an engine in the first practice. Had a rapid switch out, had the motor replaced, and got out the last ten minutes in the second practice and ran into Jimmie Johnson at the hairpin and tore the front of the car up.
So we had a difficult weekend. Harder than what it needed to be. Then we had to start off in the back of the field for the race. Had to pass the entire field on probably the tightest road course in the world. So we had a lot of work to do.
We kept the car straight. We got off sequence with our strategy to try to pass in the middle part of the field. We had to do it on the racetrack and try to do it through strategy, which helped somewhat. Then we got on the end of the race, and we were off sequence with our tires. And I was on older tires than the other drivers around me and battled to bring it home in third place.
But you can’t expect to win races at this level. You’ve just got to put yourself in contention, and so I think we’re looking for a lot smoother practice Friday and Saturday getting ourselves ready for the race.
Q. I understand you swapped cars with Jeff Gordon a few weeks ago at Watkins Glen during a tire test. I was just curious what was it like to drive the 24 car?
MARCOS AMBROSE: First thing I’d like to say is it is really tight seats. A lot tighter than what this Australian is used to. Once I got shoe horned in the car, I wasn’t getting out. I just told them put the steering wheel on and let me at it.
It was a real privilege to be asked to drive his car. I couldn’t say no once we got the clearance from the powers that be on both ends to make it all work out.
We’re doing a Goodyear test trying to make a tire that’s better for Watkins Glen. So Goodyear were happy to let the drivers sample each other’s car and get a feel for what each other are doing, and get a feel for the tires, too.
So I was really pleased to be asked and felt privileged to be part of it. I only did a few laps because I didn’t want to bend it on him, because that would be the worst thing you can ever do is crash Jeff Gordon’s car. I was very cautious, knowing that I wasn’t fitting in the seat very well and knowing it wasn’t my car to crash.
That being said, I was interested to note how similar the cars were in their characteristics. Clearly what Jeff is looking for to get around Watkins Glen is very similar to what I’m looking for, and we’re both fighting the same problems. Brakes are always going to fade, the gear box is always going to be a little crunchy, and gear selection is an issue. The way the car sits up on the bump rubbers and so forth is a challenge.
Both cars were surprisingly similar in their characteristics and feel. There are obviously a lot of differences in motors and tires and brake configurations and so forth, but generally I was surprised how close both Jeff and myself are trying to set our cars up.
Q. I know JTG Daugherty is not fielding a Nationwide car this year. But are there any plans to try to run the Nationwide Race at Watkins Glen in August considering you’re the defending champion there from last season?
MARCOS AMBROSE: We intend to run both Montreal and Watkins Glen in the Nationwide Series. We have a car there that’s ready to go. We haven’t got a crew yet. We might get some Cup guys to help us run that for us.
But we want to defend our title at Watkins Glen, and giving away the last three Montreals just by bad luck or timing or mistakes. So I’m looking to make amends up there as well and trying to get a win up in Montreal.
Q. I was wondering, Owen Kelly said that you helped him get a late-model ride with Robert Pressley, and he’s making his NASCAR debut at Road America. Just your thoughts on the challenge that he has ahead of him?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Sure, Owen’s a good friend of mine. We grew up together in Tasmania. We actually raced against each other in go-karts at 12 or 13 years of age. So I’ve know Owen in the very beginning of my racing days. I wish him the best of luck.
He’s going to have a big challenge ahead of him for sure. But he’s used to big, heavy stock cars on road courses. He’s growing up doing that in Australia. He was right on the edge of becoming a full-time driver in Australia. So he knows his stuff. He knows what he needs to do.
Spoke to him already this week on the phone. He’s came forward and asked for a few tips and pointers on the way. But he’s a big guy, big man, and he’s going to take it by the throat, I think, and really get it done. I’m looking forward to seeing him have a go.
Q. All your years racing road courses over your lifetime, what are some of the crazier things or some of the wildest things that have ever happened to you on a road course?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Oh, there’s plenty. I’ve raced in the snow. I’ve spun it on oil. I’ve competed against the world’s best all over the world. You never know what you’re going to get on a road course.
You think that oval racing is a challenge. But you start doing these longer distance road course races where the tires are wearing out and the brakes are completely gone and you’re just trying to make it home, that is a real challenge.
One memory that does strike me was Tampa in 2001. My wheel actually fell off. And I was pulled over to the side of the road watching this tire roll down for half a mile or so, just watch it roll down the front stretch and then actually bounce and flip itself on to a stack of tires that were sitting in the middle of the track making a chicane.
It actually made YouTube’s all time greatest hits. I guess goes down in the history books as something I’m not too proud of that I’m one of the all time hit videos on YouTube.
Q. I’ve seen it. Is that the funniest thing, you think?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Well, it wasn’t funny at the time, but I look back at it and it’s pretty funny.
Q. I was just wondering with the way the season has gone and the Chase now out of reach, how much more emphasis you guys have put on Sonoma and Watkins Glen? I know you’ve talked about how you’ve done additional research and development. How much more are you guys focusing on that as a way you can establish a season with a win? And how much additional pressure are you putting on yourself for those two races knowing how much they can mean to your race team?
MARCOS AMBROSE: We feel we can win any week, so we’re not putting any extra pressure on ourselves at Infineon. We believe any week we can break out and have a standout day and get our first win. It’s definitely on my shoulders, the pressure of having to win a race at the Cup level.
I managed to do it in Nationwide, but haven’t managed to get our first win in the Sprint Cup Series. So I’d like to get the first one out of the way. I’d like it to be this week. There’s no guarantee. There is no extra pressure for my team. It’s hard enough to deal with the pressure on a week-to-week basis let alone the expectation of trying to go out there and win your first race.
So we’re down playing our chances. We’re just trying to stay cool and calm. But we have our primary sponsors Clarke and Kingsford that are based in California, so we have 130-odd guests coming out for the race, so that has its pressures too.
So you have to do your best and go out there and try as hard as it can, and it is what it is. Hopefully my first win is not too far away. It could be this weekend, it could be in three or four, who knows.
Q. What is the approach by NASCAR meant to you, and how does that approach compare to the rules that you’ve raced and the other sanctions that you’ve raced all around the world?
MARCOS AMBROSE: I’ve raced in a lot around the world. And most of them have drama in the steward’s room or in the truck at the end of the race. The fans don’t get to see it. The audience is confused. You go through two or three weeks for a judicial process to find out who the actual winner of the race is. That’s just a real mess. It’s a cluster.
I think what NASCAR does really, really well is they let the racers have it out on the track. They let the emotions come to the surface so the fans can see it and the drivers can work it out between themselves. We don’t have to duke it out in a stewards hearing or officials hearing on a Tuesday down in Daytona Beach. Nobody wants to see that. That’s just a mess.
You’ve got to watch it, obviously, that you don’t let it go too far out of hand. But I think as a racing series, we take it very seriously. All the drivers race for their pride. They race for their families, their teams, their sponsors. And don’t forget the prize money. It’s substantial prize money we race for each week.
So that emotion is there and it really makes the driver who he is. And you see tempers flair, and you see guys lose their cool and at least you can see it on the racetrack. The fans engage to it. The fans want to get out and hear it. And the way it is right now, I think it’s a great mix.
Q. Could you explain to a fan, you obviously know a lot about road courts, the biggest difference between racing an oval with the sensations that you feel and racing a road course?
MARCOS AMBROSE: The biggest thing for me, if you can get around a road course, you can probably get around an oval pretty good within half a second. But half a second is first or last in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. So you’ve got to start setting your own vehicle to suit your own style and characteristics.
And I have to learn to feel each tire individually when I’m on an oval. The left front tire is giving me trouble. The right rim of the tire. So you’ve got to pick individual tires. Whereas on a road course, you’re really only worried about left and right. You’re not so much worried about, you know, working in twos.
When you’re on the brakes you’re looking for balance between front and rear. When you turn through a corner, you’re really just worried about the outside tire because you know that there’s a switch back coming down the strait, and you have to get the outside of the car tire ready for that.
So I feel like setting up a car on a road course is a lot easier for me because it’s simpler. Whereas on an oval it becomes much more complex because each wheel is independent from each other.