Martin Plowman is undoubtedly one of the most exciting talents in auto racing today. His story began as it does with many open wheel drivers – with karting. Despite his young age, Plowman displayed such skill that he was signed by Martin Hines to the Ford Racing Young Guns Team. Throughout the early 2000’s Plowman continued to collect first-place trophies in karting before making a move to formula racing in 2006. It was this European success that led him to the Indy Lights series in 2009 with Panther Racing. Soon the kid from Staffordshire, England was driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports (now Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) at Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore. In 2012 he gained a seat in the Conquest Racing LMP2 car to race in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Along with co-driver David Heinemeier Hansson, they blazed a trail to numerous victories and were very real contenders for the overall championship.
In 2013 Plowman joined elite OAK Racing’s LMP2 team taking the FIA World Endurance Driver’s Championship, including a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After years of hard work, patience and persistence, he will be coming back to the Verizon INDYCAR series. He will drive the A.J. Foyt Racing No. 41 Al-Fe Heat Treating Honda in May for the Indy Double: the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 10th and the Indianapolis 500 on May 25th. Chris Nazarenus (My Life at Speed co-founder and our resident IndyCar-lover) and I (self-professed sports car racing addict) got a chance to chat with this gifted young man about his career and how he’s paying it forward as a Snowball Express Ambassador.
MLAS (MH): You’ve had an impressive youth career but how did you start racing in the first place?
MP: My dad had a friend who raced Spec Renault 5’s and he took me to watch a few of his races. Something clicked at an early age and I would be glued to the TV watching Senna and Mansell battle it out for the F1 World Championship.
My parents bought me a 1HP all-terrain go-kart when I was 3 years old. It only went about 15-20mph, but I was soon tearing around in the field behind our house, doing donuts and making up tracks with cones.
It wasn’t until I was 7, when my parents bought me my first second-hand racing kart, that I started to race on a real track. My Nan passed away shortly after I started racing in 1996. She didn’t have much money, but she left some money in her will to buy a good engine for my kart, as she told my mom that she didn’t like me racing, but if I was going to race, I had to have a good engine so that I would stay out of trouble in the race. My parents took me to practice at our local track “Birmingham Wheels” twice a month until I turned 8 and could apply for my novice licence. I won five out of six of my novice races and became hooked!
MLAS (MH): You seemed destined for IndyCar but put your name in the history books with endurance racing, and are now heading back to IndyCar. Was it hard making that initial switch to an LMP2 car?
MP: You hear of racing driver’s sob-stories all of the time, about deals falling through at the last minute, but I can’t tell you how close we were to a full season, fully-funded IndyCar ride in 2011. I got the bad news while driving on my way to Sebring to the first test of the year! After that I was just on the outside looking in, with no hope or prospects.
It took a chance call from my friend and factory Porsche driver, Patrick Long who called me about an opportunity to run in sports cars in an LMP2 car with a gentleman driver he was helping to manage. The team was a former IndyCar team, which turned out to be Conquest Racing. The deal came together super late with Conquest and David Heinemeier Hansson. Only two and a half weeks before the start of the season at Sebring!
Even though my hand was being forced, I was still nervous about if I was making the right decision. I had my heart set on racing in the Indy 500 for so long, so I was worried that taking this new opportunity would mean I would close the door on that dream.
What really persuaded me to move forward with confidence was a call I made to Bryan Herta. Bryan is someone who I really respect in the paddock and is always open to giving me advice that I can trust. Bryan had done a bunch of racing in LMP2 back in his heyday while he was in IndyCar with Andretti Green Racing. He told me that driving an LMP2 was a lot of fun and that it would in no way close any doors in the future to race open-wheel cars, and the seat time and experience that I would gain would really pay off in the future.
MLAS (MH): Although they’re both open wheel, what are some of the different things you have to consider when racing an LMP2 car vs and IndyCar?
MP: One of the most noticeable differences from the get-go is the power difference. The LMP2 is about 150hp shy of an IndyCar and also runs on much softer tyres for shorter stints, so has more mechanical grip than a LMP2 car.
Physically the IndyCar is extremely demanding, so there is an adjustment in how you train for sheer upper body strength, as opposed to heavy cardio, for sustained endurance in the LMP2.
MLAS (MH): You have an ‘Athlete’ section on your website devoted to fitness. What kind of physical preparation is involved with open-wheel racing and how important is it?
MP: Fitness is a massive part of endurance racing, but especially IndyCar racing. IndyCars don’t have power steering, so the steering effort is extremely high. Under load in a 3-4g corner, the steering wheel is like lifting a 50lbs dumbbell. Imagine lifting that weight right out in front of you like a steering wheel, make a circular motion as if turning the wheel, now repeat that 10 times per lap for 60 laps of a race, all while sitting in a cockpit with up to 80-90’f temperatures for 3 hours! I laugh at people who say that racing drivers are not athletes, as they have no clue just how hard it is and how hard you have to train for it.
MLAS (CNaz): A.J. Foyt has won the Indy 500, LeMans, Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Daytona and many other races. What does it feel like to be driving for a genuine racing legend?
MP: It truly is an honor to be representing AJ at Indy. If there is one driver I wish to emulate it would be AJ. I’m not just saying that because he’s my new boss! But just looking at what he achieved in so many different cars and different kinds of races, he is a true racer. I’m proud to have achieved one of my racing goals, but I have a VERY long way to achieving even half of what he did.
MLAS (CNaz): You’ll also be Takuma Sato’s team mate. Have you guys ever crossed paths before?
MP: I hadn’t crossed paths with Taku until he came to IndyCar, although I followed his career from F3 to F1. He is one of the best drivers to come out of Japan and is a genuinely good guy, too.
MLAS (CNaz): Who has inspired you along your way?
MP: Alex Zanardi was a big inspiration to me when I raced in karts. I was his first official driver in his factory karting team. Dan Wheldon was a friend of the family and was another big inspiration for the way he acted both off and on the track. They are both the reason why I moved to America. I guess I had two big hitters convince me it was the right thing to do!
MLAS (CNaz): Name one driver that you have always wanted to meet and why.
MP: A driver who I wish I could have met, would have to be Ayrton Senna. He was my idol growing up. He seemed to possess other-worldly qualities when he was on the track and off-track he seemed like just a normal, nice guy.
MLAS (CNaz): What’s your favorite Indy 500 moment?
MP: My favorite Indy 500 moment was watching Dan grab a victory in 2011. It was such a surreal moment. It makes you wonder why it happened the way it did. Sometimes I like to believe that we control our own fate, but that race really made me question how much our fate is already written for us.
MLAS (MH): Did you ever have a backup plan or were you all in to be a race car driver from the get-go?
MP: No. I never once thought about a plan B. Even today, not knowing when my last day in a car may be, I don’t have a plan B. Some may call it poor planning, but I never saw an alternative. I was going to race no matter what it took.
MLAS (MH): I saw a quote from you, “There is a very thin line between racing at Le Mans and working at McDonald’s.” Could you elaborate on that statement, especially for young drivers reading this?
MP: I never know when my last race will be and simply put I never created a back-up plan. So if racing were to suddenly turn south, then my best bet for employment would be at Mcdonald’s! I’ve started to think about getting a degree as I get older and have to start seriously thinking about life after racing, but that’s still in the very back of my mind right now.
I would never encourage young drivers to miss out on furthering their education to focus purely on racing. My advice would be to do as I say and not as I did. I was very fortunate that at 18 years old, I had a scholarship with Toyota Racing who paid for my racing for a full two years, it was an opportunity that allowed me to focus on racing. My parents told me, you have 3 years to make a career and that’s it, if it doesn’t work out than you need to go back to school. Luckily, I haven’t had to make that decision yet.
MLAS (MH): I’ve been following your career since your days at Conquest Racing and was so happy for your class win with OAK Racing at Le Mans last year. Has that victory sunk in by now?
MP: I think it has started to sink in by now, but every now and then I will have flashbacks to that moment and can’t believe that it actually happened. I experienced so many emotions that weekend; it’s something that no one can take away from me. Hopefully, I will get a chance to relive that experience again.
MLAS (MH): Speaking of the 24 Hours of Le Mans where do you keep your trophy?
MP: I don’t really have a special place that I keep my trophies right now, as we live in a small town-home. They’re currently on top of our large TV cabinet in the living room, with the Le Mans trophy front and center. Nicole insisted on displaying them in the house, but honestly, I’m not very attached to things like trophies. It’s been a very fruitful two years for me, and I’m hoping I will need to clear some space to make room for some more this year!
MLAS (MH): Besides the win what did you take away the most from your Le Mans experience?
MP: I definitely underestimated just how hard Le Mans would be. Not so much physically, but mentally, it was extremely tough. I learned more about my own mental endurance that race than ever before. You had to be “on” for the whole 24 hours. Even when you weren’t in the car, it was impossible to ‘switch off’ no matter how hard you tried and you had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I was given the job of driving most of the night shift.
What I remember the most about the race was being dragged from my make-shift bedroom in a temporary cabin by the team’s physio at 2 a.m. I had 15 minutes before I was to jump in the car for a triple stint – about 3 hours’ worth of driving. I had the most painful, pounding headache, as I hadn’t slept since 6 a.m. the previous day and it was a cool 50 degrees outside. I was already shivering in my racing suit and I noticed that the sky was starting to drizzle. Pitch black, cold, in the middle of the night, rain and zero sleep, all of the ingredients for a fun night of work.
I don’t say all of those things to complain, only to make people aware of the realities of the situation. That is exactly why Le Mans is the premiere endurance race. There is nothing that can prepare you for a moment like that. It’s right there that you discover if you have what it takes to perform under pressure or not.
MLAS (MH): A.J. Foyt is the only driver to have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Indy 500 and Daytona 500. What the next championship you have your eye set on winning?
MP: The Indy 500 is without doubt the next big one that I have my eye set on. Some of the best drivers to have lived have never been to victory lane at Indy, so I can only give it my all and hope that it is written in the stars for me. Indy is a special place, just like Le Mans, that you have to have full respect for.
MLAS (MH): Can you tell us a bit about the Snowball Express?
MP: Snowball Express is a charity for children of fallen military heroes since 9/11. Their mission is to create hope and new memories for those who have lost a father or mother in the war against terrorism.
The kids that I get to meet and spend time with are my favorite part of the program. You may have heard about one of our Snowball kids in the news – Miles Eckert, the young boy who gave $20 to a soldier in uniform. These are the kinds of kids we get to hang out with. Nicole and I have such friendships with these families and love going to the annual Snowball Express event in Dallas every year to see them. Fortunately, racing often takes us to their hometowns and we get to host a few families at all of my American races!
One of the biggest misconceptions about my partnership with Snowball Express is that they’re a sponsor. That could not be further from the truth. SBE is a 501c3 non-profit and absolutely no money is transferred from their organization to fund my racing. I am involved solely to help expand the mission of SBE and to make a difference in the lives of these families.
MLAS (MH): How did you get involved with it and how can people help them out?
MP: After going overseas with INDYCAR to participate in the Indy 500 Centennial tour, where I visited military bases across the Middle-East, I knew that I wanted to find a way to give back to the men and women who sacrifice so much for us. A friend of mine came to me as I was getting ready to make my IndyCar debut in 2011 and told me about Snowball Express. Buck Kern, the chairman of Snowball was a good friend of his, so the three of us met in Indy. I fell in love with the cause from the get-go.
People can help out in multiple ways:
- By donating money to SnowballExpress.org
- By signing up to be a volunteer for their main event in the Dallas/Fort-Worth area every December
- By donating silent auction items for my Snowball Express fundraiser, to be scheduled in early May in Indianapolis, by contacting email@example.com
A Final Word
This past weekend Plowman raced in the Twelve Hours of Sebring for BAR1 Motorsports on Saturday, driving their #88 ORECA FLM09 – Chevrolet to a hard fought sixth place finish. Then on Sunday, he participated in the Kart4Kids Pro-Am Kart Race to benefit All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL, along with a number of celebrity drivers fresh off the Sebring race. Plowey’s a busy guy but always takes time to interact with fans on social media. You can connect with him on:
Official Website: http://www.martin-plowman.com/ or http://www.plowey.com/