Derbyshire racing driver Martin Plowman - returning home after a stint in the USA
PUBLISHED: 09:53 06 September 2017
As racing driver Martin Plowman returns to home soil after his stint in the USA, Nigel Powlson pays him a visit
BEING a racing driver isn’t quite as glamorous as it might appear from the outside. Instead it takes dedication, hard work and the courage to face the dangers of driving at terrifying speeds and making split second decisions.
Martin Plowman has all those qualities in abundance and at 29 has already carved out a racing career that includes IndyCar and Le Mans success. He’s not finished with his track ambitions but he’s also thinking about his long- term future as he moves into his 30s and, like a pro footballer taking his coaching badges, plans to pass on his knowledge to others.
Martin, who was born in Burton and raised in Tamworth, has returned to the area with his American wife Nicole and has set up home in South Derbyshire not far from his parents, Anita and Mark, who have supported his ambitions since he first began racing in karting as an eight year old.
Martin says: ‘It all started when I was three and my parents got me this kart and that’s all I wanted to do from that moment on.’
While watching Formula 1 on TV he told his parents he wanted to be a racing driver and was totally focussed on that to the exclusion of all other potential career options.
He admits: ‘There’s a fine line between what I am doing now and working at McDonald’s because I had no back-up plan.
‘Growing up I had to miss out on other things and my parents had to make a lot of sacrifices, putting their house on the line in the early years. They worked seven days a week to raise the money to get me out on the track.
‘I alienated myself from friends at school as they would go off to be teenagers while I would be racing. I even had a special agreement with school that I could have Thursdays and Fridays off when there was a big race – but it meant catching up with my course work as well.
‘From the age of eight racing is all I have been focussed on. But even now when I get in a car I never feel that I’m necessarily good enough. Every time I get behind the wheel I feel I have to prove something and even though I have been blessed to be in some of the biggest races in the world I still have pre-race nerves and want to prove myself all over again. I’m nearly 30 now and there is a new generation of young drivers wanting to take my job.’
Martin’s career has included competing in the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hour Race and American IndyCar series. He won the LMP2 class at Le Mans and the trophy sits proudly in the living room of his new home.
He says: ‘Growing up, Formula 1 was the dream. When I left karting I was on a scholarship with Toyota that took kids through to Formula 1. I still remember the day that I got a fax through with a contract offer with the Toyota Formula 1 team – a 10-year deal as an 18-year-old. It was like winning the lottery. In karting I was being sponsored but the budget needed was £40,000 a year. To go into Formula Renault, which was the first rung on the ladder, the budget needed to race was £250,000 a year and that was money we didn’t have. So to get that contract meant my career was set.
‘Unfortunately, two years down the line Toyota decided to pull out of Formula 1 and stop their motorsport programme. I got the phone call right at the end of the off-season when everyone was already signed up and starting testing. At 19 I felt my career was over.’
Instead it just meant a change of direction.
‘A friend of my dad was the godfather of Dan Wheldon, who was British but a huge deal in America, and he put me in touch. Dan told me to stop wasting my time in Europe, to get on a plane to America and he would sort me out. He was about to move to the Panther Racing Team and they were launching a feeder Indy Lights team. I went out there, did a test and I think I hit it out of the park. They offered me a contract to race in Indy Lights the following year. I left with one suitcase but that was it for eight years and IndyCar became the goal.
‘It’s very competitive over there. You have a lot of drivers at the top of their game competing in similar machinery. In IndyCar you have 28 drivers, with 14 arguably Formula 1 spec drivers but in equal cars. The distance between them is tiny.’
Despite making it in IndyCar Martin says winning his class at Le Mans is the biggest achievement of his career.
‘To get to that point a lot of things had to go my way and I had to nail a lot of qualifying times or races to get there. Some drivers seem to have it on a plate because whatever happens they can always get the funding, whereas my parents had to make all these sacrifices and I had to go out there and do it whenever I got the chance. I couldn’t afford to fail.
‘Le Mans is one of the blue riband events alongside the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix but until I had raced there I had never been. It’s an incredible spectacle – possibly the greatest sporting event in a single day in the world. There are 400,000 people there and it blew me away. People travel from all over the globe to be there.
‘On the race morning you hear the helicopters flying above and there’s a real buzz and energy. It’s not like any other race. I just felt it was special.’
Martin’s been successful in a sport that, for all the modern advances in technology and improvements in safety, still carries ever-present dangers to life and limb. His childhood hero and inspiration, Ayrton Senna, died on the track.
He says: ‘It’s a very dangerous job. It’s not the case anymore, like it was, that dozens of drivers are killed every year but I have lost three friends in the last five years including Dan Wheldon (the 2005 IndyCar champion). But if you ever get in a car worrying about hurting yourself then I don’t think you should put your helmet on. When you are out there you don’t think about the consequences, you just do things instinctively.’
Nicole has accepted that side of Martin’s life but admits that it’s not easy.
‘Now, it’s better but the first few races were not easy. We have rituals that give us comfort. Every time he gets in the car he will give me a hug and say “I love you” and for a while Martin didn’t understand why I was insistent on that, but then we went to Las Vegas where Dan Wheldon was killed and that brought it closer to home. I said to him “it’s important to me that the last thing I say before you get in a car is that I love you” and that ritual helps us get through the danger and the risk. I also trust him because I know he’s very good.’
Nicole hasn’t grown up with racing but first came to the sport at the Indy 500 in 2009. Martin says it’s the equivalent of your first football match being the Champions League final.
Nicole says: ‘I told my friend it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I had lived an hour from the track all my life but had never been to it.
‘Up until the point I met Martin that was the only race I had been to. So there was a spark of interest and a desire to learn more but only when I met Martin did I start to understand all the complexities.’
Martin also admits that racing isn’t as glamorous as it appears from the outset.
‘Don’t judge racing by what you see on Instagram,’ he laughs. ‘It’s not private jets but more Ryanair. For every glamorous moment there are thousands more where you are on computers emailing or trying to get sponsors, or letting people know you are available. I get a lot of help from my manager Ben Snowdon but you still have to put yourself out there because if you don’t you are forgotten in a heartbeat.
‘What I have learnt the most is that business savviness is something else that sets you apart. Even if you have talent you can’t sit at home waiting for things to happen. You have to work three times as hard off the track as on it just to keep your career going.’
Martin’s now also getting satisfaction from bringing on other drivers.
‘I’m still in the prime of my career but also thinking long term. Hopefully, I have at least five years of driving in me at the top level but I need to think about making a living beyond that. I guess in football terms it’s like becoming a player manager.
‘I get a lot of satisfaction in passing on my experience and knowledge. As a racing driver your job is from March to October and after that you are unemployed again. Now I have a longer term plan in front of me.’
Martin and Nicole have also found an unspoilt bit of countryside where they are busy renovating their new home.
Nicole says: ‘America is beautiful but there is something about the English countryside that is just stunning and every day we have been here I have looked out of the window and thought “this is so gorgeous.