AUSTIN, Texas — An unfamiliar sound roared around the paddock at the Circuit of the Americas on Saturday morning. It was a raw, more visceral and throatier sound than the V6 engines of the Formula One cars set to contest this weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix.
It was being fired up by Daniel Ricciardo, at the wheel of his boyhood hero Dale Earnhardt’s 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR — a garish blue and yellow stock car painted in the colours of Wrangler. As part of his 20-minute show run, he drove a handful of laps and treated some of the early arrivals to COTA’s grandstands to some burnouts.
Wearing an open-visor helmet, his ear-to-ear grin was visible through the windscreen as he drove around the circuit.
Before getting into the car he had the energy of a kid locked in a candy store on Christmas day. He was still smiling when he climbed out of the car 20 minutes later.
“I’m out of breath,” Ricciardo told the TV cameras once the run finished. “I was really working hard on that wheel.
“It was cool. Just to hear it, and just to change gears, you just felt like you’re really on top of it.
“You have to wrestle it. But saying that, it handled a lot better than I thought. It was really cool. Felt like I was able to get into it. I wasn’t comfortable catching the oversteers, you have to catch the wheel and I’m not really used to that. It got out of me a little bit.”
Ricciardo was stood next to the car’s owner, his boss, McLaren CEO Zak Brown, as he gave the TV interviews. Brown is the man who made it happen. At the start of the year Brown had promised his new recruit a run in the car when he scored his first podium for the team.
Ricciardo went one better than just a podium finish, winning last month’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza, McLaren’s first victory since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, and Brown duly delivered on his promise.
“We said podium, we didn’t actually say win, so I’m still expecting something else for the win,” Ricciardo said jokingly.
Brown laughed and replied: “He’s trying to keep the car now!”
The story of how it came to be Brown’s is interesting in itself. Long before he became CEO of one of F1’s most famous teams, Brown attended the 1983 Budweiser 400 at the Riverside International Raceway in California. The race was won by Ricky Rudd for Richard Childress Racing. The following year, Rudd’s car was converted to Earnhardt’s when he replaced Rudd at the team, with a fresh lick of paint when Wrangler became Earnhardt’s sponsor.
Three years ago, Brown, an avid race car collector, finally got the chance to purchase the Chevrolet himself and he couldn’t turn it down.
“That’s a special car,” Brown said in a press conference on Friday.
Ricciardo, who first saw the car Thursday, agreed, marvelling at how striking the blue and yellow car looked in person and how basic the car design was — a far cry from the remarkably technical F1 cars Ricciardo has been racing since his debut in 2011.
“It’s kind of like art. It always looks better in the flesh,” Ricciardo told ESPN on Friday, the evening before the show run. “It really is. Historic race cars are now art.
“The condition it was in is really cool. The paint scheme all of it, it pops so well. It’s super like… rectangular. There’s not much aerodynamics! It’s very square.
“If you picture how a 10-year-old would draw a car – that’s what they’d draw, rectangle, square, whatever. That’s what it looks like, but it’s really cool.”
F1 drivers are used to a tight fit in the cockpit, but Ricciardo admitted he was surprised at how close he was to the steering wheel.
“It’s snug. The distance from body to wheel is really tight. That’s tighter than in F1, it’s really close so you feel a bit restricted here with your shoulders. But obviously the footwell and the rest is more open. The seat is relatively snug but other than the wheel being really close you’ve got a bit more space.”
Demonstrating how he would drive it, Ricciardo tucked out his elbows so they were up level with his chin and moved them around as if driving a car. “It’s kind of like that!”
Even before getting into the car, he was relishing the prospect of tackling the the Monte Carlo’s manual gearbox — even seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has said that would be a feature of his dream Formula One car.
“Four-speed stick,” Ricciardo said. “Can’t wait to do that. That’s the good stuff.”
For Ricciardo, the exhibition run really was a dream come true. The Earnhardt stuff isn’t just for show; Ricciardo’s affection for the seven-time champion NASCAR driver goes back a long way. Most F1 drivers will point to another F1 driver as their boyhood hero — Lewis Hamilton’s is Ayrton Senna, Sebastian Vettel’s is Michael Schumacher — but for Ricciardo, his racing idols growing up were his father, Joe, who raced competitively in Europe and Australia, and Earnhardt.
As a budding karting driver in Perth, Ricciardo collected diecast models of Earnhardt’s cars, and a few of Dale Earnhardt Junior’s, who Ricciardo met at a NASCAR race in 2018.
Funnily enough, the Wrangler car was actually one of the few Earnhardt models he never owned.
Ricciardo can remember exactly where he was when he found Earnhardt had been killed at the 2001 Daytona 500, with a vivid image in his head of sitting under the desk in the office of his family home, crying his eyes out.
“I have a very photographic memory,” he told ESPN when asked about that day. “I literally, when you said it, I had the image. We had on the TV the teleinfo, teletext, whatever you call it. I went to the sports tab because it was an overnight for us.
“I used to record the races and the recording screwed up, so I got halfway through the race. I was furious. So I went on the teletext thing, I went sport, then NASCAR, and it was ‘Legend Earnhardt killed’. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand how.
“I remember then seeing the crash and it didn’t look that big. [Tony] Stewart had a pretty big crash earlier in the same race, so I was like, how? I have that image.
“I remember walking down the corridor crying and I picked up the phone and called my friend who got me into Earnhardt and we cried on the phone together. I walked into the office, sat under the desk, called him. We were just crying. I have all these memories.”
Earnhardt had first caught Ricciardo’s attention as he had already chosen the number three to race with in go-karts in the late 1990s as it was the number of the Ricciardo family’s house in Perth.
In 2014, Ricciardo picked the number three as his Formula One career number as a nod to Earnhardt, meaning he will race with it until the day he decides to retire (unless he wins a championship, when he would have the choice of switching to number one).
The influence of Earnhardt on Ricciardo has been clear to see. Ricciardo has cemented a reputation as F1’s best overtaker — after winning the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix, a victory built on a series of brilliant passes, he famously said he had decided to “lick the stamp and send it”.
At the start of this season, Ricciardo said he wanted to be F1’s version of The Intimidator, the nickname Earnhardt got for the take-no-prisoners approach to racing and the fear he instilled in his rivals. His take on that is The Honey Badger, an animal renowned for its aggression and toughness.
Earnhardt became most associated with The Intimiadtor nickname from 1987 onwards, when the Wrangler colours were replaced by the stealth black of GM Goodwrench. The black car with the giant number three is perhaps Earnhardt’s most iconic look.
Ahead of this weekend’s race, Ricciardo unveiled a tribute helmet to Earnhardt in the GM Goodwrench colours, with ‘Goodwrench Service Plus’ changed to ‘McLaren Service Plus’, and helmet designer ‘Simpson’ replaced with ‘Daniel’. He will wear the helmet whenever he is in his Formula One car this weekend.
Asked about how important it is to have a reputation like Earnhardt in the eyes of your rivals, Ricciardo said: “It’s real, for sure. It can play a part.
“What I Iove about sport, whether it’s racing or other sport, is the sport psychology. The mental aspect of it. If you can get into someone’s head it’s the most powerful thing. I dunno, we’re all trying to be the best and you do want to find every way possible to have one over.
“If you can put fear into someone, that’s a pretty powerful feeling. It might seem quite savage but that’s the nature of sport and that’s what you try and do. That’s why I try and live up to the Honey Badger.”