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Interview
IndyCar Indianapolis 500

Marcus Armstrong on his Indy 500 prep and extreme planking workout

Ahead of his Indy 500 debut, the Kiwi driver chats about his four-hour workouts and the "mind game" of oval racing.

Marcus Armstrong, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Marcus Armstrong is about to get thrown into the deep end. The 23-year-old New Zealand driver has never raced an oval before, but he’ll be tackling the most legendary oval this weekend as he makes his Indianapolis 500 debut.

“You’re right—this is a big one,” says Armstrong while taking a break from practice earlier this week. If the pressure of the moment is weighing on him, he doesn’t show it: Armstrong is cool and calm as he reflects on the many times he’s watched "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” from afar, often in Monaco.

“I remember one year, me and one of my mates who raced F2 ended up just going to a hotel as the F1 race was finishing, and we watched the 500,” he says, cracking a smile as he thinks back. “It’s pretty nuts just watching it on TV—it’s like watching the best Netflix show you could possibly find.”

Armstrong will part of the show this Sunday, lining up 16th after putting together an impressive qualifying run. As part of his preparation for this season, he’s been living in Indianapolis. ("Myself and a couple of drivers go to NBA games, sit in the front row. We’ve living the proper American lifestyle. I even went to the Super Bowl earlier in the year.") And to get his body up to speed, Armstrong has also ramped up his fitness, bringing on Angela Cullen—trainer to Lewis Hamilton for seven years, up until last year—to his team.

“She’s now living with me in Indianapolis,” Armstrong says. “She’s very positive, even if I have a bad day. We call her the CEO of positivity and enthusiasm.”

Ahead of this weekend’s big race, Motorsport chatted with Armstrong about getting used to driving an oval, the exercise world-record he wants to break, and the biggest lesson he's learned working with Cullen.

Welcome to your first Indy 500. What are some of the most pronounced adjustments you’ve had to make to this style of racing?

It’s certainly a different philosophy of racing from what I grew up with and what I’m used to. There’s sort of an adjustment period of how best to maximize the car underneath you on such a different thing.

It’s also basic stuff: The car is very asymmetric. The way it moves is very different just due to the fact that the camber is different, spring split is quite different—not to mention we literally have negative wing angle on the car, so it’s upforce instead of downforce. There is an adjustment period, but so far I think we’ve done a reasonable job of it, and we’re improving every single day as a team.

Marcus Armstrong during practice for the Indy 500

Marcus Armstrong during practice for the Indy 500

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

What’s surprised you the most so far about oval racing?

Driving in traffic is quite different to how I imagined. Obviously, I hadn’t experienced it before, so how to best maximize your current turbulence and trying to knock down the very fine details of your car. It’s four corners, ultimately, but a very technical four corners when you get down to it. The level of detail you can apply to these four corners is a lot more than you could apply at the 22 corners of Spa, for example.

There’s also probably an intellectual part of oval racing that I only now respect, just due to the fact that, really… it’s a mind game, more or less. It’s not as if I wasn’t expecting that, but it’s just something that’s coming at me for the first time.

What are your earliest memories of the 500?

I always watched it, and I vaguely remember Scott’s win when I was quite young. At the time, it was like… Scott Dixon, this mythical creature who just won the Indy 500 and is from New Zealand! And since I’ve started practicing and doing laps and all that, my respect for all the past winners has shot up, because you can’t win this race without a serious amount of discipline and talent. It’s a crazy race that I don’t even think you can understand properly until you’ve raced it yourself, so I’m joining an exclusive group.

Speaking of Scott, you’re obviously teammates with him now at Chip Ganassi Racing. That must be something of a pinch-me moment to be learning from a Kiwi legend.

Last year I was on the other side of the engineering table to him, so we sort of bounced ideas off each other a lot more. There’s obviously a lot of people in the team now, with five cars. Our engineering room looks like mission control at NASA! He’s on a different side of the room to me this month, so I haven’t spoken to him as much as I would like, but it’s great to be able to study his data and videos as well. He’s obviously very experienced around here, and I’m quite sure he’s forgotten more things about this race than I know.

Marcus Armstrong during practice at Indy

Marcus Armstrong during practice at Indy

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Fitness has been a big priority for you this offseason, as we’ve seen on your Instagram.

I’m passionate about fitness and health. Probably a lot more than I should be, really. Every single day I probably spend—with yoga, gym, and cardio—four to five hours training.

And you’re now working with Angela Cullen. How did that come about?

We were casually introduced by a mutual friend who also was a Kiwi, so all three of us are Kiwis. I was in New Zealand over the offseason. She reached out and we got along really well.

Angela is a great source of inspiration, honestly. Like, she’s always got the answer to pretty much every question. We got along well from our first couple of meetings, and then quite quickly we sort of decided that we would work together full time.

What is a workout usually like for you?

If it was up to me, I’d only ever do cardio, but, sadly, we need to leave some energy in reserve for the gym. So we’ll do a slow-moving, high-weight gym session. I’m quite into planking. One of our goals is to break the world record for planking. At the moment we’re at 90 minutes, and we have to get up to eight hours or something… which is doable, honestly! It’s just… do you really want to be in a planking position for eight hours?

It’s an intense workout program but, luckily, I’m sort of a bit of a psycho and I enjoy it. As Calum Illot calls it, I’m kind of crazy when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s not as if I don’t want to do it. It’s all part of the fun, really, of being a racing driver.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from Angela?

A lot of the things we do is eliminate distraction. In this world of motorsport, there’s a lot of that, whether you like it or not. The thing we’ve landed on is: Does it give you performance on track? If yes, then we’ll do it. If not, then we aren’t going to do it. In many ways, you could call us boring, but I prefer to call us disciplined.

And she and I are similar in many ways—we’re Kiwis, we both are primarily vegetarian, and we have very similar living habits, if that makes sense. Her living with me in the States made sense, and so far, so good. It’s the beginning of a journey.

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