THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION

From rags to riches and back to rags. We ride the Marcos Ambrose rollercoaster all the way to the cusp of a Bathurst fairytale ending

WORDS ALEX INWOOD

The pitiful Albert Park results were so difficult for Ambrose to swallow that he turned off his phone and left the track without a word

COTT Pye is in the wall! He’s hard into the wall at the top of The Mountain! Pieces of DJR Team Penske’s green and black #17 Falcon shatter into the air before the wreckage of torn and steaming metal grinds to a jerky halt in the middle of the track.

Pye’s face, though, isn’t the mask of pain and torment that you’d expect. In fact, the 25-year-old Queenslander is laughing.

I’m sitting alongside Pye inside his personal motorhome in pit lane and we’re playing Xbox. The game is set to Mount Panorama and Pye’s digital V8 Supercar replicates his real racer, which is parked in his pit box 50 metres away.

Outside, rain is hammering on the Winnebago’s roof, while distant claps of thunder bounce off the face of the most iconic mountain in Aussie racing.

Then the door opens and two-time V8 champ Marcos Ambrose bursts in, his exposed dome shining with water. “You’re going to have a wet to drying track at best mate,” he yells from the doorway. A harder surge of rain suggests it’ll be the former.

It’s Saturday afternoon at this year’s Bathurst 1000 and Pye and Ambrose are preparing for the famous Top 10 Shootout qualifying session. It’s an important moment, not just to lock in a grid slot for tomorrow’s 1000km race, but because this is DJR Team Penske’s best shot at a race win in years.

To say the past half a decade has been tumultuous for Dick Johnson Racing is a monumental understatement. After the highs of winning the championship in 2010, DJR has faced financial ruin, been forced to cull Dick’s son Steve from the driving roster, and stared long and hard down the barrel of closure.

“It was bad,” says Dick softly, perched in the corner of his pristine pit garage, which is speckled with the shadows of fans crowding outside. “But at the end of the day we’re fighters and we’ve always been that way. And now we’ve got the incentive to bring the team back to what it was, which is a number one team.”

That incentive arrived in the form of American businessman and motor racing juggernaut Roger Penske, who bought 51 percent of DJR at the end of 2014 as part of a plan to promote his investments in Australian business.

It was a decision that transformed the iconic team. Suddenly DJR went from a squad being run on a worn-out credit card to one backed by a billionaire, as Penske invested millions to get car number 17 back at the front. As Pye puts it: “Last year we couldn’t replace $20 radio fittings because we just couldn’t afford it. Now we have the resources and morale to make the car quick.”

Ambrose was key to the Penske deal and it was trumpeted that, after almost a decade of slogging it out in America’s NASCAR championship, the hardy Tassie

Roger that

A SELF-MADE billionaire and former successful driver, Roger Penske – known simply as The Captain – casts a long shadow over American and international racing.

Penske’s teams have competed successfully in IndyCar, NASCAR, CART, sports cars and even Formula One.

Now 78, Penske still famously takes a hands-on approach to managing his race teams and has long used motorsport as a primary sponsorship tool for his many businesses, which include truck leasing and transport logistics companies. He also owns the Penske Automotive Group, one of America’s largest car dealership groups. Forbes estimates Penske’s worth at $US1.87 billion ($A2.58b).

Sheer hard work and inspired set-up changes have turned a slow car into a fast one

racer would spearhead a single-car campaign in 2015.

Signing Ambrose was huge, not just for DJR Team Penske but for Aussie racing.

His return had a sense of the prodigal son about it; a two-time champion returning to the sport that in 2003-04 he had dominated.

Add in the pressure that Penske money brings, and that Penske himself is a man accustomed to winning, and there was massive expectation for success.

But in typical Dick Johnson fashion, the Penske/Ambrose/DJR tie-up has been anything but smooth sailing. It’s been a tumultuous rollercoaster with an everchanging track.

The first whiff of trouble came at Albert Park in March, where Ambrose suffered a tortuous weekend bashing panels at the rear of the field, at times seconds off the pace of drivers that a decade ago he had beaten. The horror weekend ended in a huge pile-up at the start of the final race, where Ambrose destroyed the front of his Ford Falcon.

Under the glare of such a high-profile event, the pitiful results were so difficult for Ambrose to swallow that he turned off his phone and left the track without a word. “He just took off,” says Jill Johnson, Dick’s wife. “We thought he might have gone out to Alice Springs, but apparently he went back to Tasmania. We didn’t know what was in the guy’s mind. In all our years, we’ve never had a driver do that.”

Three days later, Ambrose quit. The news sent shockwaves through Australian racing, but the man it hurt most was Dick.

“It came as a bit of shock to everyone, to be honest,” he says gravely. Jill admits it wounded Dick more than he lets on.

For many, Ambrose’s decision was incomprehensible. As a man who had forged a reputation as a hardened, ballsout racer with an unbending will to win, it was unfathomable that he’d walk away just weeks into his highly publicised comeback.

The official line was Marcos needed more time to understand the car and that he felt the team’s reserve driver, Scott Pye, could better provide the feedback the team needed to race at the front.

But many, even inside the team, were convinced there was a deeper, darker reason behind Marcos’s decision.

“Everyone thinks there was more to Marcos quitting, and we questioned if there was more to it ourselves, but there wasn’t,” says Tim Cindric, the tall, handson president of Penske Racing who helped Aussie Will Power win last year’s IndyCar championship and flies out from America for select V8 races.

Ambrose, lounged on a soft beige cushion in the motorhome, explains: “I jumped out of the seat because we needed to be working on the team; we didn’t need to be working on me. It was a terrible decision to make, an awful decision. And I felt I was letting a lot of people down, but it was the right decision both for me personally and to move this team forward.

I know it was the right call. I don’t regret it at all.”

Time healed the raw wound of Ambrose’s departure and everyone in the Bathurst garage agrees that now – a full seven months later – the team is starting to reap the benefits of his tough call. Through sheer hard work and some inspired changes to the Falcon’s set-up under Pye’s direction, DJR Team Penske has turned a slow car into a fast one.

For his part, Ambrose is the definition of relaxed at Bathurst. He jokes with Pye and the crew, and when he’s not in the garage he spends most of his time in the dark motorhome, trying to beat Pye’s time on the Xbox. Ambrose is so infatuated with the game he leaves the pit garage halfway through qualifying to try and set a faster lap.

Renovation rescue

WITH billions in the bank and a burning desire to win, why did Roger Penske choose DJR, then a struggling backmarker, to partner his V8 Supercar campaign? Penske spoke to several teams, most seriously with Ford Performance Racing.

Team Penske president Tim Cindric (above) says the attraction of DJR was manifold: “Dick and the team seemed to have a central core that had struggled for a while to succeed so we felt we could maybe contribute a bit more to that.

But honestly it was a simpler situation than what it would have been with many other teams.

We wanted to build a group, not from the ground up, but close, and create something that we wanted, and wouldn’t have a lot of drama from half a world a way. We wanted to simplify.

Immediate success wasn’t important. We could have bought a successful team and put our name on it, but that’s not who Penske is. We want to help build the house, we don’t want to just buy a nice one and move into it.”

Cindric said DJR’s Brisbane location was also attractive, given it’s the central location for Penske’s Australian businesses.

And finally: “The buy-in point was obviously a lot less than a bigger, more successful team with a lot of assets.”

“I know [deciding to quit] was the right call. I don’t regret it at all” – Marcos Ambrose

He’s also disarmingly honest and admits the pressure and weight of expectation surrounding his V8 return got to him.

“Mate, I was struggling,” he says.

“Everyone wanted me to do well and there was a lot of expectation and goodwill there, and there’s no doubt that’s an element of it all. But I underestimated the difficulty of getting back in. The cars have moved on since I was here and there’s zero testing, so I couldn’t see a way out for the team without losing a year. I wasn’t comfortable in the car and couldn’t give the right feedback because I just didn’t know. How do you tell people something you don’t know?”

Ambrose likens the challenge of swapping from NASCAR to V8s to switching football codes; like asking a rugby player to suddenly play AFL. “It’s still a ball on a football field, but it’s totally different. The nuances are different.

Racing isn’t about having quick reflexes and reacting, it’s about predicting what the car’s going to do before it happens.

It’s about knowing how the car feels and what it needs at different times, and that’s a learned skill. And all those things were gone from my mind.”

Being so brutally honest about his ability can’t be easy for a driver so used to succeeding, but something has shifted in Ambrose. If you believe the pitlane gossips, and Dick Johnson, how Ambrose performs this weekend will decide his racing future, with many convinced the Tasmanian won’t return to full-time driving.

Ambrose himself admits his motivation to race at the top level is waning. Mentally, he’s checked out.

“I’m coming to the end of my career, so having to relearn something all over again has certainly been something I’ve thought about,” he says. “I’m not questioning my ability but questioning, you know, at 39 do I need to be doing all this again? Do I need to be going through all the trials and tribulations again?”

Asked point blank if he has the will to continue, Ambrose is characteristically forthright. “Look, I’m 39, I’ve got a young family and I’ve been racing for a very long time, so I’m going to be looking at all these factors.”

Marcos isn’t the only driver with a future on the line in Bathurst. Pye’s contract with the squad is up, and DJR Team Penske’s return to form means other, more experienced V8 drivers are talking with the team’s bosses. The team is also debating whether to expand to two cars in 2016, and has plenty of options.

Pye admits he’s driving for his life.

Happily, he’s been fast all weekend. After a slow start in first practice, Pye’s been near the top of the timesheets in every session and a white-knuckle lap in the wet Top 10 Shootout parks the #17 Falcon seventh on the grid.

The race starts just as strongly and by half distance, as the sky opens and turns the track into a treacherous slip ’n slide, Pye and Ambrose are running fourth.

Inside the garage, the mood changes.

People are starting to believe. Mechanics

Lowndes aces it

IT LACKED the electric, nail-biting finish of previous years, but outside the tumultuous DJR pit garage, a race was run and won.

Crowd favourite Craig Lowndes and co-driver Steven Richards took the flag, the win taking Lowndes’ personal Bathurst tally to six wins – three behind his mentor Peter Brock. It also marked Richards’ second win in three years at The Mountain.

Championship favourite Mark Winterbottom snared second place after a scrappy weekend, while his FPR teammate Chaz Mostert, who rewrote the record books last year with a historic last-to-first victory, crashed out heavily during practice in a nasty shunt that broke his femur and wrist.

talk nervously and fidget with their hands, but the real story is in their eyes. There’s a sense of hope, a nervous excitement that a strong result is within their grasp.

Sadly it’s a fragile balloon of confidence that pops sharply with 24 laps to go.

Pushing hard to climb back into the top 10 after a late pit stop, Pye runs wide at the top of The Mountain and slams into the concrete wall.

The crash is a carbon copy of the one Pye suffered on his Xbox 24 hours earlier, only this time there are no smiles and certainly no laughter. Scott is seriously hurt. He doesn’t reply to the team’s increasingly frantic queries on the radio, because he can’t.

The crash is so ferocious it knocks Pye unconscious from the point of impact until the medicos scramble to pull him from the wreck, and he’s flown to hospital with suspected broken ribs and a possible punctured lung. I imagine his mental pain is even worse, with the crash placing his driving future in even greater jeopardy.

Just minutes after the shunt, Ambrose and team boss Cindric leave the garage and begin to talk in earnest, serious whispers next to the team truck. People’s futures are being decided. I blow past them, trailing in the wake of Pye’s engineer, who is desperate to inspect the wreckage of what minutes earlier had been a shiny and straight V8 Supercar.

The crushed Falcon sits forlornly in the corner of a vast, chain-fenced enclosure, just metres away from another wrecked Falcon. It’s a sad place, a cemetery of torn metal, broken plastic and shattered dreams. Rubbing salt into the wound is the thunderclap of V8 engines that continue to scream past, a train of drivers still dicing for that elusive victory as the remaining laps dwindle away.

After 10 minutes beneath the car, Pye’s engineer reveals the cause of the accident.

The power steering pump had failed under load at 200km/h and pitched the car offline. Pye was a helpless passenger.

Somehow, returning to the pit garage is even sadder. There, Dick and Jill stand alone, their heads bowed, their backs hunched. It’s a moment too private to interrupt, but Dick catches my eye and slowly shakes his head. His eyes are hooded, devoid of the hope that just six hours earlier had shone through watery, world-weary pupils. I quiz how they’re holding up. “It’s okay, mate,” he says. “I’ve felt this before.”

It’s a comment laced with the cruelty of racing at Mount Panorama, and one that conjures images of Dick’s infamous accident in 1980, when a rock and another tangle of smashed glass and bent green metal had crushed his dreams of a maiden Bathurst win.

Right now it hardly matters that DJR was rescued from the brink of disaster, that Penske’s investment transformed it into a squad fighting at the pointy end again. The promise of future success is little consolation for a team that feels robbed of a strong Bathurst result.

Mechanics leave the garage sporadically, their disappointment cloaked with tight smiles, until only Dick remains. A solitary figure staring at a TV, left to wonder what might have been. Again.

POSTSCRIPT: Scott Pye escaped his shunt with a cracked rib, but his lungs intact.

Even better news was the announcement a week later that he’d continue to race for DJR Team Penske in 2016. The team will expand to two cars, with Kiwi ace Fabian Coulthard joining the line-up.

As his Bathurst demeanour suggested, Ambrose declined the opportunity to continue his full-time racing career, but at the time of writing was considering an offer from the team to be a co-driver in next year’s endurance races.

The crushed Falcon sits forlornly in a cemetery of torn metal and shattered dreams