Today marked the first day of NASCAR Busch Series testing at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for next month's Orbitz 300 season-opener. Stephen Leicht, driver of the No. 90 Ford Fusion for Robert Yates Racing, is set compete in the...
Today marked the first day of NASCAR Busch Series testing at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for next month's Orbitz 300 season-opener. Stephen Leicht, driver of the No. 90 Ford Fusion for Robert Yates Racing, is set compete in the series full-time in 2007 after a 20-race schedule last year. Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 59 Ford Fusion for Wood Brothers/JTG Racing, is slated to make his Busch Series debut at Daytona in February and vie rookie-of-the-year honors after completing one season of competition in the truck series. Leicht and Ambrose took part in an afternoon press conference discussing the upcoming season.
STEPHEN LEICHT-90-CitiFinancial Ford Fusion
YOU WERE ABLE TO POST THE FOURTH QUICKEST TIME IN THE MORNING SESSION. IS THAT A SIGN OF GOOD THINGS TO COME? "Both of our cars are pretty good. Everybody usually has one car that's usually faster than the other one. Sure enough, our backup that seems to be a little slower handles a little bit better. I ran the July race here last year at night, and we were running very good in that race, and a little driver error got us caught up in a wreck. I like the track. It's pretty sunny for Florida right now. I figured it would be pretty cold outside, but it's pretty good weather. The cars are running good, and I'm just happy to be back on the race track. It's the first time that I've been on a big speedway in a while, so it feels good."
YOU ARE JUST 20 YEARS OLD, BUT YOU SEEM TO HOLD YOURSELF LIKE A VETERAN IN FRONT OF THE MEDIA. TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THAT? "I just turned 20 about a week and a half ago. Really, just being around it a lot from the time I was 12 or 13 when I started racing Late Models. I started racing go-karts when I was five, but when I started getting into the big cars, even when I was 12 and 13, I had a lot of newspaper interviews and local news camera crews coming to my house. I got to know them by name. They came every now and then, and I'd go to see them and hang out with them and have lunch. It's just practice being in front of the camera a lot. At first you're nervous, but then you realize you know what to say when asked questions and you're more comfortable in front of the camera. I think I've got to the point now where I can at least expect some of the unexpected. I'm sure I'll hear something that I'm not ready for here and there, but for the most part, it's just practice."
CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO A YOUNG PERSON WHAT THEY MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT DRIVING A THIS LEVEL? "It's just practice. These cars are just like any other race car, just different. Every time you move up in a class from a go-kart to a stock to a Modified, nothing about the race or the race car changes. Whether you're on Hoosier, Goodyear or radials, it doesn't matter, it's just another race car and a different race track. It's all about getting there and feeling it out and getting used to that different feel, and then figuring out what you like best about the car and how you drive."
DOES THE LEARNING CURVE GET STEEPER WHEN YOU GET TO THIS LEVEL? "By the time anyone gets to this level and you get a chance to drive one of these cars, you've probably been racing a long time. Some of these kids coming up now started when they were three and four years old. I started when I was five or six, and you're not new to racing or a race car, you're just new to this type of car and this big of a series. Yes, it is a lot tougher, but I think you've got enough experience under your belt that when you get to this point that you're at least prepared to go out and at least get used to the car and try to pick up that learning really quick."
IS YOUTH AN ADVANTAGE FROM A PHYSICAL STANDPOINT WHEN YOU'RE COMPETING AGAINST VETERANS? "Definitely. When you had all of those Cup drivers in the races last year, everybody complained about it, or at least most of the people did. Myself, I like the fact that they're in there. Yeah, it made the races tough to win and it made it tough to even finish in the top 10, but that's what was so exciting about it. We ran at Texas last year and we ran in top five, top 10 all day, but it you just looked at the Busch regulars, we'd probably have been leading the race if none of the Cup guys had been there. But, you want the best out there racing and those guys are the best. They get more practice than anybody. They get to go out in a Cup car before the Busch cars practice, and they get to get 50 to 60 laps more than we do before they even get in a Busch car. The Busch car, to me, I've run in a series before in Late Models where one car was faster than the other, and when you jump out of the faster car to get in the slower, like you do from a Cup car to a Busch car, it's just so much easier. That's what makes it so tough for us that are in the Busch cars every week that always feel a little bit fast."
WITH ALL OF THE CHANGES AT ROBERT YATES RACING LAST YEAR, HOW HAS THAT AFFECTED THE BUSCH OPERATION? "I think our Busch team right now is the strongest that it's been in a long time. We've got everybody in place. Our sponsors assured us at the end of last year that they were here for this year and they were going to support us the best that they could. We've got one of the best sponsors out there, CitiFinancial. Citi is the biggest bank in the world. Crew chief Cully Barraclough came to us at the end of the year last year, the last five or six races, and we ran better in those races than we had all year long. We had a couple of top 15s at the end of the year, we ran in the top five, top 10 in a couple of the races and just had some bad luck. We came here today with an open mind. The team knew what they had to do to the cars and we're taking it one step at a time, but I'm very excited about this year running full time. I think if we can get off to a good start, we'll really have a good shot. We might struggle here and there the first part of the year just learning each other, but I really do feel like we've got a very strong team."
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS THIS SEASON? "The beginning part of this year, we're definitely going to look at just consistency, finishing all of the races and running in the front. I do feel like we're capable of finishing in the top five, top 10 in the beginning of the year. Hopefully soon after that, maybe a couple of wins. You never know, anything can happen right away, but I do feel like we are capable of winning races, and if we can just get that consistency started early this year and get running well and learn each other very quick and get the chemistry working together, I think we can definitely be there at the end."
DO YOU HAVE ANY PLANS TO RUN ANY CUP RACES THIS YEAR? "We were talking about it back and forth. Either way it doesn't matter to me. A lot of people have asked me the question: 'Do you feel like you should have been in the Cup car this year?' Honestly, I am glad that I'm in a fulltime Busch ride with Robert Yates Racing. I would rather be totally prepared when I get into a Cup car rather than just half prepared. I would rather take my time getting there. I have plenty of time. Spend the whole year and go to all of the race tracks again just learning them even more and being just totally prepared when I finally do get that chance to drive a Cup car."
DO YOU THINK BUSCH REGULARS WILL BE MORE COMPETITIVE THIS YEAR? "Those guys are going to be tough, but I think you're going to see half of the Cup drivers that were in there last year not there. Obviously, I'd say you'd almost have to say that there will be a lot of Busch drivers up in the top 10 in points. The question is how many of us will be in the top two or three along with Clint Bowyer, Denny and all of those other guys? You know that they're going to be running fast. You know that they're going to be in the front, and hopefully we have a little bit of an advantage now only having two or three of those guys in there rather than 10. Personally, I don't think we're too worried about it. Obviously, we know that they're going to be tough. We come into here knowing that they're going to be tough. Everybody knows that they're going to be tough. We just need to work on our car and focus on our team and not worry so much about them."
AT WHAT POINT LAST YEAR DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU WERE NOT GOING TO MOVE UP TO CUP, AND HOW MUCH OF A PRESSURE RELIEF WAS THAT? "I would say probably at about the same time that they decided that I was going to run the rest of the year last year. It was probably 10 to 12 races to go in the Busch Series, and they decided that I was going to run the rest of the races. Earlier in the year, myself, Matt McCall and Elliott Sadler had been splitting the 90 car, and at about that point is when they finally said, 'OK, we're going to put you in here the rest of the year.' I kinda figured that was what was going to happen. We never really talked about it much, but I never expected a fulltime Cup ride, and honestly, I don't think I was ready for it. Obviously, if Robert was to come to me and say that I was ready for it, I have the trust in him that he knows what he's talking about. Pressure relief? Maybe a little because now I can focus just on a Busch car and the Busch team and work together and make our team very strong for this year and not have to worry about the Cup guys just yet. It was tough just going to Pocono last year and running that race, and going to Indy and trying to make the Brickyard 400. We went to the Brickyard not fully prepared as we could have been. Yes, it was a very big disappointment to everyone when didn't make that race, but we had a lot of pressure on ourselves. I think we were more relieved after it was over than we would have been if we made the race. Just being fully prepared is what this program and what NASCAR is all about. You just have to come ready, and we're definitely going to do more of that this year. We're definitely going to be ready when we go to the track."
MARCOS AMBROSE-59-Kingsford/Bush's Baked Beans Ford Fusion
HOW WERE YOUR FIRST LAPS IN A BUSCH CAR AROUND DAYTONA? "This is my first experience of Daytona. I was here as a spectator last year watching the 20 truck being raced by Jon Wood. So, the first few laps out there, I knew I had to go on the high line there to simulate the qualifying run that we're going to do. I gave myself a good couple of car-widths gap just in case. I wanted to feel the car out and the track out. It's a lot bumpier than I thought, a lot narrower than I thought, but it's just a thrill to be here. It feels today that I've actually made it to NASCAR. I've got a great team in Wood Brothers and a great American sponsor in Kingsford. We're here at Daytona and running in a Busch car. It's just a dream come true."
DID YOU FOLLOW NASCAR BACK IN AUSTRALIA? "I had my radar on NASCAR from the late 90s. I was in Europe racing single-seaters. I was actually a couple of years behind Juan. He was off and away, and I was struggling in the junior ranks there trying to make ends meet and trying to see where I could get in motorsport. I realized that Formula One wasn't for me and I wasn't going to get there by talent or by chance, so I was looking for other things, and I knew NASCAR and I studied it a lot and watched the races. But, I didn't have any opportunities at all. I had to go to Australia and really regroup my career. Once I thought I could handle the big, heavy Australian V8 Supercars, I thought, 'These things aren't dissimilar to NASCAR.' They're 3200 pounds, they have plenty of horsepower and not enough grip, so I thought I'd come over and have a look and see what's around. I was a Ford driver in Australia, so I basically came over to Bristol in 2003 with a friend of mine. We rented a motorcoach, and off we went up to Bristol and camped out there in the outfield with all of the fans, and we got a real experience there, and I was hooked on NASCAR from that day on. I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to make a career out of racing, I at least want to have a go over here and see if I can make something work.' From mid-2003 onwards, I really focused on Australian racing to try to make the most of what I was doing there to try to get some credentials behind me before I started making some phone calls. I leveraged Ford Australia pretty hard to give me them chance to come over here, and got in contact with Dan Davis from Ford Racing, and it was through their association that I met Tad Geschickter in mid-2005. I already made the decision and the announcement that I was going to leave Australian racing, which down there was relatively big news in our local race scene that I was going to come across to America with no ride in the foreseeable future and see if I could make something happen in NASCAR. I met Tad Geschickter in the Ford suite at IRP in 2005. I came back shortly after and drove one of his cars for a day or two and we signed up a deal over the phone. It was pretty special, I think, that Tad had that much confidence to do that for me, and by hook or by crook, he made it work for us in the truck series with a limited budget, and with the help of Team Australia we did reasonable last year. I don't think I did as well as I could have, but they put their faith in me with Kingsford Charcoal to give me the chance over here in the Busch Series, and I've only got one chance at this. I'm 30 now, and I've got a great team behind me and there's no better way to get it done than the opportunity that I've got."
WHAT SACRIFICES HAVE YOU MADE TO GET TO THIS POINT IN YOUR CAREER, AND WHAT GIVES YOU THE CONFIDENCE THAT YOU WILL SUCCEED IN NASCAR? "Well, you've got to believe in yourself. I believe that I'm going to do the very best that I can, and for every ounce of ability that I've got, I'm going to try to make the most of it. Whether it's good enough to make it here in NASCAR, I don't know. It's not a question that I can answer today. Am I going to be good enough? I don't know. My learning curve is still going and I'm still learning every week, so there will come a time when the performance will dictate how my learning's gone, and there will be an acid test, I'm sure, somewhere down the track. But, yeah, I've sacrificed a lot, like any racing driver. I've come from halfway around the world. I've come from a little island underneath Australia called Tasmania, and there is no racing there and my whole life has been revolved around racing. I left home at 18 and we struggled there for a little while, and I dragged my wife all around the world and we finally got ourselves in position in Australia where we earning some money and I could have bought a boat, but I gave all that up to come over here to America and spend another little pool of money. I guess a lot of people looked at me strangely in Australia. We reached the pinnacle in Australian motorsport, in V8 Supercar. It's a very successful series and it's one of the top four sports in Australia, and we were king of the kids down there for a little while, and right at the prime I said, 'I'm going to bail out of this, boys, and I'm going to go over to America and start all over again.' I guess I believe in myself, and the decision for me was never a risk, it was just a life experience, but a lot of people, I guess, on the other side of the fence thought I was a little nuts. Here we are today and I wouldn't take back anything, even if it doesn't go as well as we all hope, I don't regret one decision that I've made. By coming over here, I just think it's a dream come true. Very few guys can say that they lived their dream. When I was a child, I dreamed of racing cars and racing the biggest and best, and NASCAR is clearly that. It's the biggest and best motorsport in the world."
DO YOU THINK THAT YOU AND JUAN PABLO WILL BE THE LITMUS TEST FOR INTERNATIONAL DRIVERS IN NASCAR? "Well, here's my take on it. I think that the timing now to come into the sport is perfect for an international driver. If we don't do well - and I'm not Juan, so I can't answer for him - and I haven't come in with his credentials either, so we're on slightly different angles. But, if it doesn't work out for both of us, or either of us, then it's going to stop, I guess, a lot of guys thinking about coming over. If it does very well then it's going to open the door for more. How many more do the fans want and NASCAR wants is a good question. I think the timing right now is great for us. I've been given every opportunity to do well. I'm with a great team, I'm with a great sponsor and they've given me plenty of experience, so there's no reason why I can't do well if I'm good enough. I think people are watching. I know the Australian race drivers that I raced against and guys I raced against in Europe are probably keeping and eye out for us. It's one of the few motorsports right now that's booming. As a professional driver, you want to go where the action is, and NASCAR is where all the action is right now."
DO YOU EXPECT THE AUSTRALIAN FANS TO FOLLOW THE BUSCH SERIES? "Well, I hope so. We're meant to be on TV down there this year. The truck series wasn't televised, so I think that's going to make a big difference for us even though it is on at 3:30 on a Sunday morning. You have to be pretty keen to get up and watch it at that time. I guess that the exposure there will help us a lot. There is clearly a lot of interest. My web site runs about 70-30 - 70 percent Australian and 30 percent American - and I think we will continue to grow the American audience if we start doing OK on the race track and we start getting TV time down there. There is a healthy respect for NASCAR and American sport. We get the NFL down there, we get the NBA down there and we get NASCAR as well. We're almost another state of America when it comes to TV and sport. We've got all of your bad TV shows, too, all of your bad sitcoms (laughing). I come over to America and turn the channels and they still have the same stuff on TV, with the exception of Speed Channel, of course."
YOU ARE MUCH MORE OF A CELEBRITY IN YOUR HOME COUNTRY THAN HERE IN AMERICA, BUT ARE YOU STARTING TO BECOME RECOGNIZED IN THE STATES? "It's pretty good that I can go to that NASCAR SpeedPark at Charlotte and race with 10 cars with no one knowing who I am. So, yeah, I'm pretty much invisible here right now, but we're hoping to change that because if you want to make a career as an adult you have to be out there in public and be approachable, so I guess that will come in time. In Australia, I went home for Christmas for five weeks, and it was great that a lot of people in the street knew what I was up to and knew about America and NASCAR and the results. I was pleasantly surprised about how many people actually had a keen interest in what we were doing. But, here in the U.S., I'm still a little invisible. I got a few claps coming off of the stage there last year in the truck series. I think the bucket hat had more to do with it than me, but I'll take it."
WHY THE MOVE TO THE BUSCH SERIES AFTER JUST ONE SEASON IN THE TRUCKS? "Well, you'll have to ask the team that. The team decided to lift me up into the Busch Series, so they must see something there. We understand - I do, and the team does and the sponsor does, too - that we're rookies out there and we're on learning curve and that 2007 is a year of change again for me. I'm not going to say no to a Busch ride, am I? Flip a coin and what are going to choose, 35 races or 25? I'm just rapt for their belief in me, and the opportunity that they've given me, and I just hope that I can repay them."
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND EXPECTATIONS FOR THIS SEASON? "Well, it depends on what all those Cup guys do. If they come in 20 deep like they did last year, then getting a top-20 is going to be a tough task. We just want to start the year with a solid base and that means finishing races. It means getting the laps in during the races and building a platform from there. You can't perform unless you finish, and we just want to build a base for ourselves first. The first five races are all about making sure you stay in the top 35 in points, and if we do that then we can start looking for performance after that."
WHAT PART OF YOUR EXPERIENCE DO YOU BELIEVE YOU CAN BRING TO YOUR TEAM TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS? "Well, I guess I've got it done in other forms of racing. I've been in a championship battle. I was European Formula Ford champion in 1999, and the 2003 and 2004 champion in V8 Supercar. I guess under the pump I don't falter too badly, although some claim I did in 2005 (joking). I've got world experience. I've raced a lot of cars in a lot of different places and I hope I can be a fresh angle for them. I'd like to think that I'm a smarter racer than a talented racer. I think about setups and how we can improve our car and our team, and if I can help them on that and lift the team forward then I feel like I've done my part. Whether I'm good enough to win a Busch championship or a Cup championship, I guess time will tell. Right now, the only angle that I can come from is my world experience. I've come from a different form of racing, and sometimes a fresh angle is a good one."
DO YOU THINK YOUR AUSTRALIAN ACCENT HAS ATTRACTED FANS? "Well, I can have the best accent in the world, but if I can't string two words together, what hope do I have? Australians, we're well regarded here in America. I've been pleasantly surprised about the welcome response that I've had from people on the street and people here in the NASCAR racing community, and just the guys at the gym. They love Australians. I guess it must have been Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin and those guys doing us a favor. I see a snake and I run at about 500 kpm trying to get away from the thing. We're not all as tough as Steve Irwin and Paul Hogan."
HOW MUCH TIME HAVE YOU SPENT WITH YOUR NEW CREW CHIEF, AND ARE YOU GETTING ANY ASSISTANCE FROM OTHER DRIVERS TO HELP WITH YOUR LEARNING CURVE? "I hadn't met Greg Connor, our new crew chief, until I came back from Australia on January 3, so that's a work in progress. He needs to see me drive before I can have belief in what I'm all about in my angle, and I need to see him work at the race track, too. I think he has a lot of great assets and he seems like a really great guy, and he seems to have his head screwed on and he thinks similar to the way I approach my racing, so we've got great potential right now. We've got to make sure we harness that and make the most of that. My own experiences, I had Robert Pressley last year give me a lot of help from race to race, especially early on. But, there came a time where no matter what people were telling me, I had to experience firsthand. I look back at the season, and the stuff that Robert was telling me, and even Kenny Schrader and those guys, I didn't get it until I actually experienced it firsthand. It took a few rear clips and a bit of beating and banging late at night to fix my mistakes. But, I guess you have to learn your mistakes and learn from your mistakes, and no matter what they're telling me, I really have to experience a lot of it firsthand. For the second half of the year it was all about getting out there and getting a feel for it. 'Let's wind it back a little bit.' We did after I crashed a couple of times early on there. We decided to start at the back for a couple of weeks and really feel out those bigger speedways. I think that really paid off, and I'm looking forward to going to the next level now. Now I feel like I'm just starting to get comfortable behind the wheel where I can at least start to try stuff out there on the race track. Rather than hang on, I'm feeling a little more confident to push it."
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT FOR A DRIVER WITH A ROAD-RACING BACKGROUND TO ADAPT TO OVAL-TRACK RACING? "It's been incredibly hard, and I always knew it was going to be. I thought I had a different angle coming in from V8 Supercar because the cars are over-powered, too heavy and under-tired, so the body roll and the movement, I thought, would be similar to NASCAR. I think that is true to a certain extent, but just to run left so fast and so often, it took a long time to feel comfortable on it. Yeah, you can do laps on your own, and I did some testing with Tad when I got the ride and thought, 'Yeah, I think I can do all right on this,' but in race conditions when everyone is around you, you really have to learn the aerodynamic package that you have and learn to race people. The hardest part is to not just do a fast lap, but to actually race in the pack and to move forward and not backward when you get in a gaggle."
IS IT FRUSTRATING NOT TO BE USING YOUR ROAD-RACING SKILLS AT A TRACK LIKE DAYTONA WHERE YOU JUST RUN FLAT OUT? "Well, you say that you're running flat out, but you've got your eyes wide open too because you're running pretty quick up against the fence, so it's a fresh set of challenges. I feel that I've been road racing all of my life, and I love the change; I love doing something different. So, do I regret not braking? No, I thought braking sucked most of the time because you're trying to slow it down. You race cars to go fast, so I found road racing in the end a little frustrating because you compromise and you set up the whole time. You have to compromise power down for braking performance, and you get it set up for a high-speed sweeper and then you have a hairpin the next corner that you have to set up for, too. I got to a point in Supercar where the rules were so close that the car was never right and it was frustrating. Here on the ovals, it's very pure. It's a pure form of racing. When the car is dialed in, it's a special feeling."
-credit: ford racing