Ulysse Delsaux climbed onto the roof of his car, clapped his hands together seven times and raised his arms in triumph. When he hopped down, the hugs and handshakes came from everywhere — fellow drivers, spotters and NASCAR officials.
All first wins are special, and the one Ulysse had just earned in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series was even more so. Everybody wanted to congratulate Ulysse, and his dad, Emmanuel, after Ulysse’s groundbreaking win in April at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain.
Emmanuel tried unsuccessfully not to cry. Wearing a light blue dress shirt with the cuffs rolled up and his phone in his left hand, Emmanuel wrapped his arms around his sweaty, McDonald’s-firesuit-wearing son. He whispered congratulations into his ear, patted him on the back then faced him, placing his own forehead gently against his son’s, with his right hand still draped over Ulysse’s shoulder.
Two months later, Emmanuel still gets choked up describing the scene. To see his son, who had struggled so much growing up in France after being diagnosed with autism when he was a young boy, standing in a NASCAR Victory Lane felt like a win for the whole Delsaux (del-so) family and a validation of the unusual steps he took to try to give his son a better life.
“We win first, the race. But we win, really, in our life,” Emmanuel says in rapid-fire English that might lack in precision but compensates in passion. “Because every day, it’s very difficult, from the beginning. What we see is the final work when he drives. But the work, every day, is very hard to explain, to understand, to help him. It’s like an iceberg. The work, the life, is underneath.”
Ulysse was no longer a driver with potential who was waiting for his big chance. In winning that race he had seized opportunity and the result was a checkered flag, a trophy and a tear-soaked Victory Lane.
That’s an outcome nobody could have predicted the first time Ulysse sat in a go-kart.
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Ulysse (yoo-liss) has High-Functioning Autism. He didn’t talk until he was 5. He struggled in school, and visits to multiple doctors didn’t seem to help. He had a hard time communicating, and day-to-day life weighed on Ulysse, his parents and his older sister. Looking for ways to give his son a more comfortable life, Emmanuel introduced him to go-kart racing when he was 7. The whole point, at the time, was just to have fun. There was no intention of racing in formal events. Emmanuel had no idea that it would end up helping his son.
“It was an experiment,” Emmanuel says. “But with the heart, you can do many things.”
The father and son trips to the go-kart track slowly morphed from a hobby to a competitive endeavor, the same way playing catch turns into Little League. Emmanuel bought Ulysse his own kart, and he started to enter events. He won a regional championship in 2011 and entered international competitions in Europe.
After a scary crash, Ulysse switched to stock cars for safety reasons. He joined the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series Development program in 2013.
Now 19, this is his fourth season racing in the NASAR Whelen Euro Series, which comprises two levels, Elite 1 and Elite 2. That is similar to NASCAR’s Monster Energy and XFINITY Series, but with key differences. For one, the competition level is not comparable. The Elite 1 and Elite 2 series always race at the same place on the same weekends, and teammates drive literally the same car. If Ulysse wrecks his car in the Elite 2 series, his Elite 1 teammate won’t have anything to drive.
Ulysse finished 9th in points in Elite 2 in 2014 and 7th the year after that. He raced at the Elite 1 level last year and finished 9th in points. This year, four races into the Elite 2 season, he is second in points, with one win, three top fives and four top 10s.
The focus and concentration required and the repetitive nature of turning laps has helped Ulysse blossom. He has grown from an isolated boy who didn’t speak, to a young man who talks racing with his team and movies with friends (he loves Japanese anime) and gives TV interviews.
“I see on his face the sunrise,” Emmanuel says.
Ulysse still has monthly visits with a doctor in Paris, a nearly two-hour drive from their home in Troyes.
“He was very impressed about the work we do,” his dad says. “He tell me, ‘Hey, Emmanuel, what you do is fantastic. We couldn’t do more than you do.’ I answer him, ‘I have no experience, I only do this with my heart.’ ”
And now the two facets of Ulysse’s life — in the car and out of it — seem to be mirroring each other. Being good in the car gives him more confidence out of the car which gives him more confidence in the car.
“Racing has changed me,” Ulysse said in an interview with NASCAR Home Tracks. “NASCAR has changed me.”
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RELATED: Full coverage of Whelen Euro Series
Joe Balash is NASCAR’s international competition liaison. He works with the NASCAR Pinty’s Series in Canada, the NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series and the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, all of which license the NASCAR name. He first met Ulysse four years ago and says the changes in his personality since then are striking. At their initial meeting at a dinner with several other drivers, they spoke only to say hello, and Ulysse barely made eye contact.
“It was hard to get a handshake out of him,” Balash says. “After the win, he’s giving you big hugs.”
Balash often tells young drivers to study and respect the history of racing so they know how the sport got to where it is. He never had to have that conversation with Ulysse because Ulysse was already a student of the history of the sport, if not obsessed with it.
He brought a leather helmet and goggles to one race, an old school “safety” shoutout to Juan Fangio, the legendary five-time F1 champion and one of his racing heroes.
After Ulysse’s first podium finish, there was chuckling in Victory Lane because he and the other two drivers were so young none of them knew how to open the champagne bottle. But once it was opened, Ulysse knew exactly what to do with it—he poured some into his shoe, an old F1 tradition.
“It’s probably the worst drink you could ever have,” Balash says. “But it was a fun moment on the podium.”
Ulysse is a fan of the modern sport, too. Jeff Gordon is his favorite NASCAR driver, and he brings a Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 3 XFINITY Series Superman diecast car to every race. He received it as a gift from a fan. The fan told him he hoped the car — with the No. 3 on it, just like Ulysse’s car — would bring him good luck. On race weekends, the miniature No. 3 sits on Ulysse’s life-sized No. 3 when it’s not on the track.
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Based on where they finish in the points race, NASCAR Whelen Euro drivers are awarded money for trips to the United States to race. During Ulysse’s two trips here, he forged an unlikely friendship with veteran driver-turned-coach Mike Skinner. They are a helluva pair: Ulysse, an introverted kid from France, and Skinner, who is as old-school as racers get. Skinner’s first race was in 1975 — 22 years before Ulysse was born
Skinner doesn’t speak French and Ulysse’s English is passable but not great … and on top of that, NASCAR English is a language unto itself, as impenetrable as a concrete retaining wall. Yet there they were in August of 2015 and again in February of 2016, Ulysse in the car and Skinner kneeling next to it at New Smyrna Speedway, not far from Daytona International Speedway. They discussed, as best they could, the fastest way to get around the track.
Skinner used his hands and pointed out landmarks to try to show Ulysse when to brake and when to get back on the throttle. He told him to feel with his body what the car was doing. Whatever gaps there were in language, somehow they understood each other.
“He was like a sponge,” Skinner says. “He would look at me, and sometimes not even say anything, and go back out and execute what I was telling him to do.”
More than most drivers, Ulysse listened and applied what Skinner taught him.
“I liked his willingness,” Skinner says. “Whatever I told him to do, he followed it to a T.”
The race that weekend got rained out and Ulysse had to return home to France, so he didn’t get to compete in one of Skinner’s cars. But he returned for more testing in February of 2016 and showed great improvement. Driving a lesser car (according to Skinner), he beat the times of another development driver who was in better equipment. Of the handful of European drivers who have worked with Skinner, Ulysse has been the fastest.
Skinner laments that Ulysse never drove one of his cars in a race. He thinks with four or five races in one of his late model cars, Ulysse could visit Victory Lane. Skinner says for Ulysse to succeed in the United States, he’d have to improve his English and find a sponsor to fund his efforts.
On the same trip during which he tested with Skinner, Ulysse entered a K&N race last February at New Smyrna in a car owned by Nexteer Automotive, a development team that often fields cars for NASCAR Whelen Euro drivers. He finished 28th.
“You throw him into a typical race with United States drivers who have a lot of experience, it’s certainly a tall order,” team owner Richard Gdovic says. “But he held his own and did a good job. He probably hadn’t been on a circle track 10 times in his life.”
Most of the tracks in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series are road courses. Some of his supporters believe because he seems to thrive at tasks that demand consistency.
Skinner tried to teach Ulysse more than just how to turn quick laps. He tried to teach him how to race like an American. In 2013, Ulysse raced Stadium Stocks and Street Stocks at Bowman Gray Stadium in North Carolina, a hair-raising quarter-mile short track that has hosted some of the most famous NASCAR drivers in history. Drivers beat and bang and fight for position from the first lap to the last, and Ulysse described racing there as “madness.”
He made it sound like a compliment.
“Over there, it’s more a gentleman’s sport. They give and take better,” Skinner says. “When you get over here, Americans will wreck their mother to win a race. They don’t care, they just want to get to the front.”
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Ulysse didn’t wreck anybody to get that first win in April, but he used a more aggressive style and attitude — one he had never shown before. He applied what Skinner taught him and displayed confidence nobody who knows him had seen before.
He says he had spent hours practicing in the simulator for the track, and he knew exactly how he wanted to navigate the course. Before the race, Ulysse spoke with the wife of one of his teammates.
“I could be second,” he told her. “But I don’t want to be second anymore. Now is the time to win.”
And then he drove like he meant that.
While he was running in third on the third of 16 laps, the second-place driver slid off the track and into gravel. That gave Ulysse position going into the next turn. When the other driver tried to get back in line ahead of Ulysse, their cars banged into each other. The other driver spun out. It was a clean move — Ulysse locked up his brakes in an apparent attempt to avoid contact. He made a pass for the lead by outbraking the leader at the end of a straightaway shortly thereafter and drove off to win by more than 3.5 seconds.
Then came the celebration on the roof, the hug with his dad (and Balash and everybody else) and a post-race interview in which, in classic NASCAR fashion, he thanked his sponsors and the fans and apologized to the driver he had knocked out of the way.
To the driver, his family and his crew, it felt like more than a win. It felt like an arrival.
“I had the feeling I joined the circle of good drivers,” Ulysse says.