In Part 1 of the Diary of a NASCAR Fan, we looked at the build up to an epic weekend trackside, and in Part 2, we kick a pole sitter out of his pick up truck…
WORDS & IMAGES: Mark Walker
Saturday, the day I (literally) chewed the fat with The King.
Different to Supercars, where meals are served in large marquees, NASCAR catering is a more casual affair, with BBQs at the back of the transporters cooking throughout the day, with a constant stream of food laid out on the benches inside the trailer.
Typically, the BBQ chief duties are taken care of by a truck driver, or one of the team’s motor home drivers.
With the team’s bacon sponsorship coming to the fore, Saturday’s menu featured bacon for breakfast, and bacon wrapped sausages for lunch.
So, here I am casually grazing on bacon with Ambrose’s team owner Richard Petty. That moment alone has made me a fan of bacon for life. And The King too, he’s pretty awesome.
While just about all drivers have their own motor home for the sake of convenience, this stand-alone event in California sees many of them take in the relative hindrance of a nearby winery-based hotel for the weekend.
At times when Marcos needed a lie down, he could be found in the sleeper bunk of the team’s truck.
Stories surface throughout the event of King Richard’s somewhat unconventional sleeping habits in his motor home, which make you love the man even more…
Saturday’s on-track action could best be described as a complete and utter WOFTAM; much effort, everyone is in attendance, yet the cars only do a single lap of qualifying, and are subsequently parked for the day. Goodnight.
I took in the qualifying session from the pit wall while pushing the race car up the lane, a cool, yet massively deafening experience.
What would have been just a wee bit better is the result; Ambrose missed the pole position by only 0.049sec, which he would have achieved if not for an engine glitch coming to the green flag on his hot lap.
Sitting in on the team’s debriefs throughout the event was fascinating, as the lack of computer data logging put an emphasis on Marcos’s feedback.
An interesting resource the team did lean on was a photographer, who shot long strings of pics of the cars as the passed over a ripple strip on the far side of the track, with the team able to extrapolate the visuals into an insight of how the opposition cars were setup.
I watched the first 15 laps of the K&N Pro Series West race from the opening sequence of turns, but with those laps containing four cautions, I toured off to Napa in search of wine.
My pre-race sleep didn’t quite go to plan, with the NASCAR family rising, shining and departing the hotel by 5am.
After arriving at the track at 6:30am, I quickly discovered that Mustangs do not make comfortable day beds.
First up on the day’s agenda proper was the “tweetup”, where I got to meet NASCAR beat journalists Jeff Gluck and Dustin Long, as well as radio host Woody Cain.
Good chat, and better yet, I won a #48 hat from the tweetup guest of honour, old five time’s spotter Earl Barban. Jimmie Johnson and Earl now have seven championships to their credit…
Car nine’s entourage for the day also featured a couple of Marcos’s friends from Tasmania, with our chaperone being his spotter Tim Fedewa, a race winner himself in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
An aside, subsequent to his tenure with Ambrose, Fedewa has gone on to claim the NASCAR Cup title himself spotting for Kevin Harvick.
The first stop of the day was the driver’s briefing, which frankly was the most entertaining circus I have ever attended.
Held in an actual circus tent filled with drivers, spotters, crew chiefs, celebrities, journalists, sponsors and others, the event started with a five minute long introduction of the various dignitaries in attendance (each receiving a hearty round of applause), followed by a five minute long custom animation of the pertinent points around the track, a quick mention of the restart zones, two dumb questions from Jeff Gordon, and a prayer.
Upon exiting, there was a police/security guard of honour to allow the attendees past the mass of punters back into the hot pits.
Sandwiched between Marcos and Juan Montoya, I waved back at some perplexed faces. That was mint.
On the subject of the pits, generally speaking the garage area is off limits to mere general punters. That said, the concession midway was impressive, with all manner activities and side shows for the fans.
We cruised around until the driver introductions meeting some interesting folk in the paddock, before Marcos said he would get us on the back of his pickup truck for the driver’s parade lap.
The standard deal is that each truck had an auction winner- the lady to go with Marcos and pole sitter Jamie McMurray paid $1,000.
When we arrived at the pickup, between Marcos, the lady, and the three of us hangers on, there was precious little room for pole sitter Jamie, who was abruptly told to make his own arrangements.
Fortunately for him, there was a spare Toyota Tundra on standby for this sort of occurrence.
Clearly a unique thing to take in, Sonoma is an awesome layout, there was a huge crowd, and it was great fun to Oi Oi Oi the Aussie Aussie Aussies chanted in our direction.
After we took in the pre-race festivities from on the grid, we collected our scanners (the must have NASCAR accessory) before drizzle delayed the start.
A sign of how unusual this was, the drizzle was record rainfall for the area in June.
The slow start to proceedings allowed us to scale the mountainside to the very top, and take in the opening stanza of the race from the lookout where Tim and the rest of the main spotters were stationed.
Following years of listening to the spotters on the scanner via nascar.com, you get a feeling for what goes on, but seeing what they are exactly looking at matched to their voice in real time gives you an entirely new appreciation for how good these guys are.
Knowing that a car has made a clean overtake by millimetres from several kilometres away is frankly very impressive.
For Sonoma, another spotter, RPM’s competition director Sammy Johns, was positioned on top of the drag racing tower opposite the pits, filling in the blank spots that couldn’t be seen from the main spotters stand.
For the second half of the race, we headed back to watch the race unfold from the top of the pit wagon.
Observing the engineers from close quarters was impressive, and despite the lack of data from the car (everything, including readings from the dash come via the driver on the radio), there was no lack of information for them to disseminate.
Between the Ford teams, there was a live update of what the other cars were doing with strategy and setup, meanwhile Ford had seemingly employed a team of people away from the track to follow the scanners online of all of the other leading drivers from the other manufactures, with a constant stream of information beamed trackside. Industrial espionage is free and open to use.
The engineers also have pre-written tabs that are handed to the TV and radio pit reporters on patrol regarding any changes to be made at upcoming stops, making them sound more up to speed than they probably are.
At the chequered flag it was Martin Truex Jr with the win, with Marcos back in seventh place after leading 18 laps – the car was tyre hungry throughout in the cool conditions – if it were hot, then everyone would have been faced with the same situation.
Having heard horror stories of epic commutes back to San Francisco post-race, I elected to book accommodation to the north of the track… but since the track seemingly blocked off all exits bar those to the premium paddock, I managed to alight from the venue in record pace in a convoy of race drivers.
Cheers to Marcos for an epic weekend, one I will never forget.