It was the year of the underdog for professional racing driver Martin Plowman. He joined the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron for the first time after two successful years in the Indy Lights Series and a truncated season in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Alongside him was the ALMS rookie team Conquest Endurance and ALMS amateur driver David Heinemeier-Hansson. Needless to say, they were all fairly new at this.
But to their advantage was their combined racing experience. Conquest Endurance has a strong history in INDYCAR, Champ Car, and Indy Lights. David Heinemeier-Hansson, though an amateur by class, is anything but. He has extensive experience in a variety of different series and raced in the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans. Plowman had charged his way through the European open-wheel scene and made his way to America, forging a successful career in the American open-wheel championships.
Their underdog status was earned by competing against a dominating and established team, Level 5 Racing. In the pits, the two teams were foils of one another. Conquest’s small one-tent pit set up was hardly a threat to the sprawling gigantic carbon-fiber city of Level 5. Conquest’s one-car new team seemed to cower under the history and power of Level 5’s multi-car team. But cower they did not.
To the surprise of fans and teams alike, Plowman and Conquest had an encouraging season debut at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Their speed was their strong point, but the results did not reflect this as they struggled with transmission issues and loss of power near the race’s midpoint. In Long Beach, the team once again showed that they were ones to look out for. Plowman dominated the rainy practice sessions and was eager to show that speed in the race. It was a faulty speed limiter that crushed those dreams. Two pit lane speed violations forced the team to settle for second place.
The team finished on the podium once again at Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca. A broken suspension forced the team to not qualify and therefore start from the back of the grid. But only 42 minutes in, Heinemeier-Hansson had charged the car to the front of the P2 class. Bad luck struck again; during the final stint, the gear box broke, and the team felt victory slip from their hands. Lime Rock Park provided its own challenges, as the team found themselves two laps down upon handing the car to Plowman. He was able to show his experience and technical ability as he fought his way to the lead lap and was breathing down the neck of the first-place Level 5 car when a late-race caution caused the race to end under yellow.
Victory finally came at the Grand Prix of Mosport. It was a hard-earned victory that the team had been searching for all season. Plowman dominated all weekend, setting the pace in two practices, earning pole position, and finally taking the checkered flag. Slowly but surely, the team was earning the points needed to overtake the championship from Level 5.
It was another fight to the finish between Conquest and Level 5 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Plowman’s familiarity with this course was an aid to the team, as he had previously won the 2010 Indy Lights race held there. Plowman took the wheel in second-place, charged to the front, and once again found himself battling with Level 5’s Christoph Bouchut. Back in second, he set impressive lap times – the fastest of the race – but ran out of time to complete the chase.
Road America marked the second victory in three races for the Heinemeier-Hansson/Plowman duo. It was Plowman’s first trip to the famed road course, and he once again showed his skill and speed. He placed the car on pole and took the checkered flag a full two laps in front of Level 5’s second-place car. This put Plowman and the team only five points back from the championship lead.
Baltimore brought its own set of challenges to Conquest Endurance. Heinemeier-Hansson brought his lead to 50-seconds ahead of second-place Level 5 racing when he was hit with a controversial sixty-second penalty after minor contact with another competitor. Plowman was able to make up a majority of the lost time, but a suspension failure all but ended their hopes for a race win and the possibility of winning the championship. The title protagonists battled once more at Virginia International Raceway, where the lead changed several times due to a catalogue of mishaps for both teams. In third place and 60-seconds behind the lead, Plowman put in a blazing last stint to reduce the deficit to just twenty-four seconds and passed Luis Diaz for second place with just two laps left in the race. This charge kept alive a slim chance to win the championship.
Petit Le Mans was the final race of the season and with a host of the best drivers and teams from Europe in attendance for the final race of the season, Plowman and his team put on a show for the season finale. Plowman qualified the car and missed out on pole position by a mere 0.002 seconds, second only to his OAK teammates. Conquest Endurance dominated 9 hours of the 1000-mile race, and with less than thirty minutes left in the race, Plowman was nursing a one-lap race lead before the left rear tire exploded. After losing the lead, Plowman drove a blistering final ten laps, clawing back from a 25-second deficit and reducing the gap to just 8-seconds in one of the most exciting and heartbreaking finishes of the season.
After putting on a fight the entire season, this “little team who could” not only earned second place in the championship, but also an invitation to compete in the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans. The underdogs rounded out their ten-race season with two wins, three poles, and nine podium finishes.