This weekend, Martin Plowman makes his IZOD IndyCar Series race debut at Mid-Ohio. The 23-year-old who finished third in last year's Firestone Indy Lights championship for AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport, will reunite with Gary Peterson of AFS for three races as Peterson joins forces with Sam Schmidt Motorsports for six of the seven remaining rounds on the IndyCar calendar. The three events assigned to Plowman, aside from Mid-Ohio, are Infineon Raceway at Sonoma and the brand-new track on the streets of Baltimore. RACER editor David Malsher spoke to him on the eve of the biggest weekend of his career.
R: First of all, what is the Snowball Express and how did you get involved?
MP: It's a charity to help children of all the fallen military since 9/11. Snowball Express provides these kids with special trips to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area each holiday season. It's a really cool idea. Joe Petersen is someone I met while racing for Panther in Indy Lights in 2009 and he was one of the guys who was fundamental in organizing that Indy 500 Centennial tour overseas last winter through a company called Morale Entertainment. I was on that trip which was an amazing experience in itself, and later on, Joe spoke to the Snowball Express board members about getting involved with the IndyCar Series and myself. The members unanimously agreed that would be a great way to raise the profile of their charity.
R: The connection with AFS is obvious but you were also in talks with Sam Schmidt Motorsports over the winter, and I think Rob Edwards and Alex Tagliani were pretty interested, weren't they?
MP: We were in talks but they were only at the preliminary stage, and unfortunately the budget wasn't there – on either side – to get me in the car full time. Trust me, we spent a lot of time chasing up avenues but all of them were dead-ends. So we spent this year working hard, building relationships, chasing potential alternatives but we always kept in contact with Sam. Then we sat down in May to see where we were, and agreed to keep the door open.
R: When this opportunity with Gary and Sam arose, what was the reasoning behind the three circuits chosen for you?
MP: Well, Mid-Ohio was obvious because of how well we've gone there in Lights (RIGHT) for the past two years. We opted for American races because that way Snowball Express can get more American families to these events. We're planning to bring between eight and 15 families to these events, depending on the region. Sonoma is another favorite of mine. And then Baltimore is new for everybody, so that helps a rookie, and then two of the companies who we'd like to get on board for next year are based out of there, so it made perfect sense from that perspective, too.
R: During the long period out of the cockpit, how tempted were you to do what others have done and fill in the time perhaps in ALMS or Grand-Am?
MP: If you'd have asked me that in January, I'd have said “No,” but the longer you stay out of the cockpit…. Well, by the time we got to May, I'd have been tempted to drive a full season in karts! Luckily things came together the way they did, because I know I would never have been truly happy if I didn't at least get the opportunity to do some IndyCar races.
R: In the offseason, you tested with Dale Coyne Racing. Did you feel you'd left them with a good impression of what you could do?
MP: I think so, yeah. The test itself went extremely well and we were consistently quicker than Sebastien Bourdais and [2010 Firestone Indy Lights champion] JK Vernay, but unfortunately a decision was made to go with someone with a lot more experience than myself. Looking back on that, of course it was a blow because I'd had high hopes, but from a team owner's perspective, it was a decision that I totally understand – and I'd have done the same in Dale's position!
R: If nothing else, though, that test must have helped your self-belief and proven to yourself you could handle the big cars, right?
MP: Oh yeah. Until you actually drive the car, you never know for sure if it suits you or not. But after 10 laps of Sebring, it was pretty clear that there wasn't a huge jump from Indy Lights to IndyCar. You've got a lot more power and a lot more grip, but the power-to-weight ratio and the dynamics are pretty similar. I was quite surprised by how similar the cars handled.
R: Lapping Mid-Ohio after a long time out of the cockpit is a very different prospect than Sebring, especially physically. How hard had it been to stay dedicated to your fitness regime when there was nothing concrete on the horizon, and was Mid-Ohio tough for you?
MP: Well as things started to look promising for this deal, it was easier to give it my all but, if I'm perfectly honest, it wasn't that difficult to stay motivated before that, either. I guess it was the fear of regret: I didn't want to get an opportunity and not be ready. At the Mid-Ohio test I did about 80 laps, but the test ended 30 minutes early because someone went off. That was a pity, because it was just as we were all set to go with our final set of new tires to do a money lap.
Physically, yeah it was a bit tough, even though I've been training as hard as I can all year, and I have no regrets about how much time I've spent in the gym at St. Vincent's in Indy. But anyone will tell you there's no better training than being in the car, so once you can feel where it's sore, you know what still needs to be worked on. So now I'm even more ready.
R: In those 80 laps, did you find the same relationship between Lights and IndyCar as you'd felt at Sebring?
MP: Yeah, but what was more noticeable at Mid-Ohio was that the steering effort was greater and, being heavier, an IndyCar is less forgiving. In Indy Lights around there, you could get the car sliding and hold it, but with IndyCar, it's easier to make mistakes and they will be punished. Keeping it neat and tidy is the fastest way and the best way to keep someone behind you, because it's hard to pass there. We saw that in the Lights race last year: I got pole, but went for a very low-downforce setup, whereas James Hinchcliffe went for high downforce and although he was all over me in the twisty infield section, coming off Turn 1 and Turn 2, even in my slipstream he couldn't pass me. So nailing a good qualifying lap is going to be crucial to the outcome of the race.
R: Obviously, caution flags can turn strategies and races upside down, so let's hear what your target is for qualifying.
MP: We've set ourselves the goal of getting into the second round of qualifying, the top 12. Based on the unofficial lap times and how much we think we can improve the car, that's certainly in our firing range. But as everyone involved in IndyCar knows, if you get the money lap in a right-on-the-money car, you could be sixth on the grid or if you're off just a little, you could be 17th!
R: How will it work between AFS/Schmidt and Sam Schmidt Motorsports? Will you and Tag be operating as teammates?
MP: Yeah. It's AFS equipment with some AFS crew but effectively run as a second Sam Schmidt car. Both engineers will be in the same truck, and Alex and I will do the debriefs together.
R: About the longer-term future: Bearing in mind how radically different the cars are going to be in 2012, is that something that will help a rookie, because everyone's starting from base camp in terms of equipment? Or will it favor experience?
MP: Hmmm…well, of course I have a lot to learn. Even this year, I'm going to find myself racing Dario Franchitti, who's been here since the days when I was a kid humming around in 60cc karts! So he's been through a lot of rules changes, especially from CART Champ Car to IndyCar. Experience is very important. But I think the crucial thing is which team you're with. Next year, the teams with the most money will be the ones who do the most research and development and are therefore the ones who are still going to shine through. Ganassi and Penske will be on the shaker rig from now until kingdom come, so they will come to the top eventually. But I think a midfield team that has a couple of talented guys with a lot of intuition and who find a good setup from the get-go will still be able to get some surprise results.
R: OK, back to this weekend – are you excited or level-headed?
MP: I'm trying to be level-headed. You're always going to get pre-race nerves, whether it's your first race or your last; that's adrenaline, and that's normal. I'm calm now, but maybe you should ask me again on Saturday night….
• Click here to open the free Mid-Ohio@50 digital special! RACER's digital mini-magazine commemorates50 years of racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.