This coming weekend at Watkins Glen, Anthony Martin will have an opportunity to become the first driver since Matthew Brabham in 2012 and 2013 to clinch the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in successive years.
When Australian Anthony Martin crossed the finish line in the 2016 season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, it represented another huge step on his journey up the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. Martin had achieved his goal of winning the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda for the Cape Motorsports team but took little time to celebrate. Instead he immediately began working to set the wheels in motion for the next chapter in his career.
With the title came a Mazda Scholarship to aid his progression into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and with all the teams in the MRLS paddock, Martin took the opportunity to talk to as many as possible. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take him long to make the decision to remain with Cape Motorsports, which had just clinched its sixth straight USF2000 title. As far as Martin was concerned, it wasn’t just Nicholas and Dominic Cape’s expertise with the USF2000 car that had made him a winner – it was Martin’s relationship with the team and their foundation credo that nothing but the championship would do.
“One of the most important aspects of racing is the relationships,” says 22-year-old Martin. “I had a good relationship with the Cape brothers, Don Conner, my engineer, and my mechanic Jeremy Brawner. As a team, we clicked really well. You don’t always have that in racing so when you have that, you don’t want to lose it. It was one of the reasons I felt very comfortable staying. If you go with a new team, you start from scratch – it takes time to get to know a driver and what he wants in a car. People have questioned how we could be so fast right out of the gate, but it’s all down to the fact that we know each other so well and work so well together. We didn’t skip a beat from the USF2000 season and just came out firing.”
With the move up to Pro Mazda came a change in chassis (the last time a driver will need to make such an adaptation as the Tatuus USF-17 and the new PM-18 – which will come online next season – both share the same basic chassis). Martin found that an adjustment in driving style was in order as he began testing. He made that adjustment quickly, leading the final session at the series’ official test at Homestead just a week before the season began. But even Martin was surprised to sweep that opening weekend at St. Petersburg, Fla.
“The car is much livelier on track than the old USF2000 car, so it dances around more. You have to fine-tune your driving style, be on top of the setup and you have to take care of the Cooper tires. It’s one of the harder cars to drive and that can be difficult at certain tracks but once you work it out, it’s fine. I knew we would be competitive right away. The Homestead test had given us the first indication of where we would be in the series so we were confident. We knew we’d be up there but you have to be mistake-free on a street course. It was a little bit of a surprise to sweep but that gave us more confidence going forward.”
Added incentives – including an Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires test for the top three in the championship and a new Mazda street car to the Rookie of the Year – made the Pro Mazda series especially attractive in 2017. The championship appeared to be wide open – until Martin and Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni established a stranglehold on the top spot. Martin swept St. Pete, Franzoni swept Indy, and the two split Road America. The young Aussie was not surprised to find that his main competition was a single driver.
“It seems to always end up that way, with two guys going for the title. It’s a little bit harder because instead of focusing on yourself, you catch yourself thinking about beating them. It makes you push harder and gives you that determination to really go for it. Victor would probably say the same thing, that he’s pushing as hard as he can and wants to beat me more than anything. We’ve had some good battles this year so kudos to him. Everyone thought that Pro Mazda might be boring this year with this being the last year of the old car, but I think we’ve put on a good show. Every race has been crazy and it’s been a lot of fun.”
The two championship contenders were split by a mere seven points as the teams headed to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last month. To say that Cape Motorsports has been successful at Mid-Ohio is an understatement, with sweeps of USF2000 in each of the past two years and Pro Mazda last year. Martin took two out of three wins and came away with a four-point lead with three races remaining. With teammate Oliver Askew leading the USF2000 title chase, Martin appreciates that the Capes know what it takes to help him win.
“There’s something about that track that really clicks with the Cape guys. They know how to push their drivers to the limit to get the most out of the car. They have a great car in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda but it’s a combination of everything. I’ve had a great car every weekend, and they know me so well that they know how to really help me get the most out of myself. If it means pushing the drivers to the limit, that’s what they’ll do. As the championship comes down to the wire, that’s when the Cape guys are in their element. There’s a lot of tension in the tent, with two championships on the line, but I thrive on it and perform better under pressure. It pushes everyone – the engineers, the mechanics and the drivers – to the limit. That’s how you win.”
Winning is also at the forefront of the Mazda approach. Mazda puts a great deal of effort into educating the drivers as they progress up the ladder, including the provision of seminars on sponsorship, marketing and media training. For Martin (as well as the two other Mazda Scholarship drivers, Askew and Aaron Telitz) it’s much more than just the drivers’ suit and the Soul Red livery. Martin has really seen how much Mazda puts into the eponymous ladder system – for all the drivers, not just the scholarship winners.
“It’s meant everything this season, to have all the help from Mazda. Honestly, I don’t think I took their involvement that seriously before I won the championship, but this season has really opened my eyes. The Mazda guys are there to help all the drivers, to give them the opportunity to get to IndyCar. They do everything they can to help – helping with marketing, media training and, really, everyday life. Some people think the scholarship drivers get special treatment but really we get the scholarship money and the race suits and we wear the Soul Red livery, but that’s all that separates us from the other drivers.
“They are there for all the drivers and all it takes is to ask a question. That might be the biggest thing I’ve learned this year is not to be afraid to ask questions. They’re all there to answer questions and to help you with anything you need and that’s something no other series in the world has. Everyone here is in it together to help the drivers succeed, and that’s pretty cool.”
As the championship reaches the finale, Martin can’t help but look forward at the possibility of winning the championship and his second Mazda Scholarship, which would propel him to the top of the ladder, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. To reach a position just one step below the Verizon IndyCar Series is almost more than Martin can fathom.
“It would mean everything. Honestly, it would be difficult for me to run an Indy Lights program without the scholarship, so I have to win. It’s a bit mind-blowing, that Indy Lights is only one step away from the Verizon IndyCar Series. There’s even the chance of getting a test drive in an Indy car and that’s just crazy for me to think about. I never thought that would be something I could do. It’s unbelievable.”