It seems he has the support an entire country’s race fans – something no other driver can claim.
Ambrose is a native of Tasmania and he’s got all of Australia behind him. The Aussie racing fans follow and cheer his every move. They see him as one of their own who is holding his ground against the Yanks in the top echelon of stock car racing in the United States. It’s something new for them.
And it’s new for Ambrose.
“Me, I’m here to experience racing as big as it can get,” Ambrose said. “And it doesn’t get any bigger than NASCAR.”
And, seemingly, Ambrose can’t get any bigger in Australia.
Understand, the 34-year-old driver, who will compete for Richard Petty Motor sports in 2011, was already hugely popular in his home country before he came to the United States. He won consecutive championships in the V8 Super car series – the highest form of stock car racing in Australia – in 2003 and 2004. He won 27 races on the tour.
But, as he said, he wanted to take on bigger challenges and that meant coming to NASCAR. He raced trucks in 2006 and then followed two years on the Nationwide Series, where he earned his first win at Watkins Glen in 2008.
He raced in 11 Cup events that year before he completed his first full season on the circuit in 2009 with four finishes among the top five and seven among the top-10.
By this time Australian fans were hooked. It’s not the first time one of their own has competed in NASCAR. But Ambrose has two distinct advantages: His engaging personality and the existence of speedy – and highly beneficial – mass communication unavailable years ago.
“I have been able to make it to NASCAR and stick to some degree,” Ambrose said. “At the same time network and cable television back home have picked up NASCAR to a huge degree.
“We have live broadcasts of practice and qualifying. We have every Cup and truck race broadcast on network or cable television. I’ve been lucky to have enough clout to get guys like Robin Pemberton, Richard Petty and others come on TV so the fans at home can see the characters of NASCAR.
“We’ve been able to grow NASCAR in Australia and now it’s massive and getting larger every week. I’m excited and I hope to get NASCAR down there.”
Ambrose also said that the power of the Internet has been substantial. Fans and families, including his, regularly visit many sites for information or to follow live race feeds.
“They get to hear me scream at my crew chief,” he said. “And the races are on TV, which makes it all better. It’s even better if they buy my T-shirt or hat.”
Ambrose has become a media darling because of his personality. He’s candid, honest and blessed with a sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor. A press conference with him is almost certain to elicit laughs from reporters.
Tripp Wheeler, who works with his father Humpy at The Wheeler Co., has a vested interest in Ambrose. He’s trying to market his name and image in the United States and hopefully make him as popular as he is in Australia.
“He’s the real deal,” Wheeler said. “He doesn’t act like a nice guy, he is a nice guy. All I have to do is get people to talk to him. If we could get millions of fans to know him he could be the No. 1 guy in NASCAR.”
“Tripp has to say that because I write him a check every month,” Ambrose said.
Wheeler made a visit to Australia in November of 2009 for a V8 Supercar race and, obviously, to help promote Ambrose. While there he found out just how popular the driver was.
“We had just come from a meeting with a shoe manufacturer when we decided to go to a bar for a beer,” Wheeler said. “We’re in the middle of Tasmania. We go into the bar and guys start looking at us. The music stops. The pool playing stops. The bartender stops making drinks. I tell Marcos, ‘Tell my mother I love her because I’m not so sure we are going to make it out of here.’
“All of a sudden somebody from the other side of the bar yells, ‘That’s Marcos (bleep) Ambrose!’ The next thing you know it was a three-hour love fest. Marcos was signing car hoods, helmets and people’s bodies. It was amazing.”
“Normally you walk into a bar, stagger out and don’t remember anything that was said,” Ambrose quipped.
Wheeler noted, again, that his task is to figure out a way to transfer all of Ambrose’s popularity in Australia to the United States. However, it’s likely going to require more than the driver’s personality alone.
He and Ambrose both know high-quality performance on the tracks will help. Successful drivers tend to draw attention.
But for Ambrose it hasn’t happened yet. For example, in 2010, he had only two top-five finishes and five among the top 10 with JTG Daugherty Racing, the team he left for RPM. He wound up 26th in points.
Yet, he’s completed only his second full season on NASCAR’s top series. He considers himself lucky to be there.
He’s got all of Australia pulling for him.
“It’s just great,” he said. “Whether I go into McDonald’s to get a quick bite to eat or I’m strolling down the street in my hometown or I’m in the airport, people recognize me and appreciate my commitment to what I’m trying to do.
“I’m just lucky to be able to follow it.”