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Podcast: Interviewing Road to Indy star Mac Clark

by Ida Wood

Photos: Gavin Baker Photography

On this week’s podcast, Road to Indy star Mac Clark talks about his career so far and what’s lined up next

A protege of former IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe, Mac Clark is a rising talent on the IndyCar support bill but is well aware that is gets harder, rather than easier, to add to his successes as he goes up the single-seater ladder. Following a 2023 USF2000 campaign that did not quite go to plan, Clark is in good spirits about 2024 as he plans to race in USF Pro 2000.

He has already starred in the series, taking pole and two podiums in a cameo appearance, but will that make it any easier to find a full-time seat for next year and once in the series to achieve such results again?

Clark joined the Formula Scout Podcast to talk about the high points of his career so far, the challenges he has overcome, the challenges he is still to face and why he loves oval racing. You can listen to it on Google Podcasts, CastBox, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, and can read the interview below.

Mac Clark, you’ve been busy in recent seasons. This year I’d say there was a lot of expectation coming into due to previous years, but it didn’t quite go to plan. Would you agree with that assessment?
I would. And I appreciate the way you hyped me up a bit there. This year, the goal was to really go in and be successful right away. And for us that didn’t happen. We had a really rough start to the season in USF2000, and then we kind of found our footing in the middle part, but at the end of the day we didn’t come home with what we wanted. That being the championship.

How much of that was down to circuit familiarity. And that first weekend was so bad compared to what the rest of the season would be. Did that kind of throw you off what you’re expecting going forward thereon?
I think so, yeah. We had a lot of mechanical issues early in the season. We had an engine let go, we had some electronics issues, so I think that definitely didn’t set the stage nice for the whole season, for the remainder of it. And definitely put us on our back foot in terms of championship points as well. I mean in a series that’s so competitive, if you have one or two bad weekends it can really affect how the whole calendar yet shapes up.

Does that change your approach in weekends, if you’re already know you’re in the chasing position?
In my opinion it does. I’d never really been in a situation where I was chasing so much, until this year. And I do feel like it affected me, definitely, in the racing a little bit. As you get to the third and fourth weekend of the year where you know you’re behind, you really have to put your foot to the metal and make up some points. I wouldn’t say it was a positive or a negative impact on myself as a driver, but I definitely felt it. I don’t know if there was a little bit more pressure, or what it was, but it was sitting in the back of my mind for sure.

Would you say it’s useful to have that kind of season now in your career rather than later on at a higher level, where everything else is hyping up the pressure as well?
I would have to agree with that, 100%. I think this was a great learning year for me. Didn’t go the way we wanted, but I’d rather have it now at like a USF2000 kind of level versus maybe next year, the year after when I’m starting to get closer to IndyCar, when it really matters. Not that this year didn’t matter, it was definitely important for my development.

But when the eyes of the world are on you and you’re looking to make that transition into professional racing, I think it’s even more important to have a good year. Whereas this one we can kind of chock up to ‘okay, this went wrong, this went wrong, let’s fix it for next year, let’s go win another title’.

Have you already gone through that review stage of what did and didn’t go well this season, and I presume the relationship with the team you’ve been racing with, are you maybe staying with them next year as well?
Nothing is confirmed yet. I should have an answer for you guys in the next coming weeks. The goal for next year is USFP2000. I got a really cool opportunity to move up actually, for one of the last races at Circuit of the Americas, the Formula 1 circuit. And it went really well. We had a pole position, two podiums. So that kind of set us up for 2024. But I’m definitely into like the full off-season swing where I’m looking back at last year, reviewing it mentally, working on things that I need to work on as a driver to make 2024 even better.

Mentioned how that first weekend went so well. That’s like a trend in every series and car you’ve raced in. You start off on it straight away, win pole, podium. But it’s not always easiest to continue that. Why do you adapt so quickly to new cars?
Honestly, I’m not too sure. I think it honestly stems back all the way from the karting days. My father was a racer before me, and growing up he was always my mechanic. Like I never had a mechanic, it was always like the dad/mechanic-type programme. And he was not hard on me, but he would purposefully put me in any car at any track that he could, any configuration, to try to get me to adapt quickly. And I think that’s kind of a skill that I’ve honed in on.

Not saying there isn’t room for improvement. But I think any great race car driver, if you look at anyone driving at a professional level, one of like the sure tells is that they’re very, very quick to adapt. So that’s a skill that I try to pride myself in, something that I want to use going forward to impress people.

How many days did you get to do in the USFP2000 car before race debut?

I did one test day down at MSR Houston, where the team is based, and then basically COTA was my second day in the car. So it was a pretty quick turnaround, there wasn’t much testing involved, just because it was such a like heat of the moment opportunity. We really didn’t know whether or not it was going to happen. So very grateful for DEForce Racing for that one. So it was one day of testing, and we got to COTA and I really didn’t know what to expect. But I mean it went well.

What do you make of the COTA track? It was built for European-style cars. But now one of America’s biggest tracks and lots of undulation. Do you find it very similar to the other Road to Indy tracks you more regularly race on?
I’d say it’s an outlier. It’s a weird circuit, because the first sector-and-a-half is so flowing, high-speed, like very European. You can see that F1 is meant to race there. And then you look at the back sector and it’s super tight and twisty, and a lot different. So it’s kind of a weird circuit in where it doesn’t flow.

I like it personally, it’s one of my favourite tracks on the calendar. And now that I’m starting to move up the ladder and getting into faster and faster cars, I feel like that just kinds of elevates the hype around COTA.

It is definitely a track suited to higher levels of downforce. Any other standout moments from 2023, good in the moment or on reflection felt more rewarding?
I think the Freedom 75, the oval win, was just kind of ‘I’ve arrived’, or a breakthrough moment. We really struggled up until the fourth or fifth round of the championship, when we got to the oval. And I mean we unloaded the [inaudible] car. DEForce Racing did an amazing job. But me getting comfortable on the oval, and Lucas Oil Raceway is not really a normal place. You’ve got to run the high line, it’s progressive banking, it’s really strange as a guy who comes from a road racing background.

And to get the job done at the Carb Night Classic, on the Friday night of the Indy 500, everybody’s in town, everybody’s watching, it was a really special moment for me and I feel like that’s still one of my favourite wins in terms of everything that I’ve done in my career.

Transition to oval racing, how did you find that? And like the prospect of more of them at the higher levels?
I really do enjoy the oval racing, and I think accepting the challenge of it was almost what made me so excited. The first day I did on the oval, I claim is like the hardest day that I’ve ever done in a race car mentally. It is so different to what you’re used to as a road racer in so many more ways, and I feel like people often don’t give oval racing the credit it deserves for how difficult it is. It’s extremely technical, just in a different way to road racing. So I am really looking forward to it. I know usually you have two ovals on the calendar for USFP2000. Not sure if that’s going to be happening for 2024. And then obviously moving up towards Indy Nxt and IndyCar, I mean you get to IndyCar and it’s half the schedule, right?

The kind of problem with IndyCar’s increasing popularity, they’re looking at a race in Argentina and other places, which inevitably will be road or street circuits, not ovals. And tracks that are likely to be dropped are ovals. Even Texas. You mentioned difference between road racing and oval racing, and you’ve done slicks-and-wings, but also grooved tyres in wingless cars as that’s where you first gained international attention with your results in FF1600
It was a strange transition. I would say the transition that was bigger was karting to cars. That was bigger. But definitely going from low downforce, a treaded radial tyre to proper wings and slicks is kind of strange as a driver, because you look at it and everyone tells you that in a downforce car you have to go faster to have more grip or to be more comfortable. And to break that mental barrier I think is challenging. It definitely took me a few days in a downforce car to really figure it out. So that was the main challenge. It definitely wasn’t a seamless transition. There was a bit of a mental block there, things that you have to learn, things that are different.

At the very start of your car racing career was IndyCar the aim, or were you looking at maybe F1 as well?
I always say that I started too late and on the wrong side of the pond for F1. I mean F1 is a dream, as it is for every young driver. It would be an absolute privilege to drive an F1 car, but it’s never really been my focus. And when I initially started car racing, open-wheel IndyCar wasn’t even the focus at all. Even though I was doing F1600, which is an open-wheel category, it was really the first step in Canada that led to sportscar racing. So you kind of prove yourself in F1600, maybe get a championship under your belt, and then we were actually looking at IMSA and transitioning into sportscars.

Because having a sustainable career in sportscar racing I feel like is more realistic than maybe the open-wheel ladder kind of route. And as I got more and more into it, I won more races, I got some opportunities. The Richard Mille Young Talent Academy, through Birel, the kart manufacturer that I raced with, that was kind of the eye-opener for me. And that really kind of changed the whole geography of my career path. And that was ‘oh my goodness, maybe we should try open-wheel racing and have a crack at it’. It just took off from there.

Looking forward to next year, we kind of do have a calendar and you now know the car as well. What are your expectations? Are you going into next season with as much expectation as going into this year’s USF2000 campaign, or are you going to kind of take things down a notch and go ‘not going to set my expectations too high, I’m going to see what’s going to happen, and then set my expectations one or two rounds in’?
Definitely the first one. Coming off of COTA, and what we did there was special, it’s the same attitude as last year. I don’t think that you can let your guard down. I believe in myself and I think that if I take care of what I need to, I can be the best driver on the grid no matter where I am. So I want to come into the season swinging, I want to get an early points gap like we did in the USF Juniors season, and I want to make it happen. I don’t want to have another bad start to the year like USF2000, and I’m determined to not let that happen.

How important is the scholarship system for you going up the ladder? From USF Juniors you had that prize package to then come up to USF2000. Have you had to find more budget to then make it to the next step, or are you feeling pretty confident budget-wise for the next year and even the year after
It definitely is a challenge. And as we all know motorsport is very expensive. As of right now, I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to do the full season in USFP2000. Like it’s a very kind of week-by-week, month-by-month programme without the scholarship. Even last year, I mean the USF Pro championships and Andersen Promotions do such an amazing job giving championships the ability to level up. With the scholarship system, even this past year we didn’t know if we were going to finish the season. So it’s a constant struggle. We’re always out looking for new, long-term partners to come on board with us all the way to IndyCar. So moving forward, it’s always about keeping your foot in the door, shaking new hands, making new directions, and we’ll try to do that for next year and make the full season happen.

Aside from speed difference, what makes the USFP2000 car more enjoyable than the USF2000 on road courses and ovals?
It just has more of everything. More horsepower, the rear tyres are bigger, the set-up’s actually a lot more open. So you can play with the rear geometry. There’s a lot more stuff that goes on in the technical side, so that you can improve the car that way. More wing. And I feel like it just suited my driving style. I’ve always been a driver that’s aggressive on the entry and a little bit late to power. Not that’s necessarily good or bad, sometimes it works for you, sometimes it doesn’t. But I feel like in the USFP2000 car that kind of suited me and what I was about, and that’s what gave me success early on. So I really enjoy the car, I think the platform’s great and I’m looking forward to driving it this coming year.

When you were in karting, who were the drivers you were looking up to? And are there any pro drivers now, people who have been watching your career, that you’re in contact with, that you look to for advice?
Absolutely. James Hinchcliffe, a childhood hero of mine, has now become a very close friend. So he’s a part of my management team, and I work closely with him away from the race track, and at it as well. He travels with the IndyCar circuit because he’s with the NBC team doing the broadcasting. But having someone like that, a mentor who has done what you’ve done, especially for me coming from the same country and a similar background, it helps a lot. Not only from a driving perspective, you know him giving me tips on what I should be doing at different tracks in different cars, but also just having that reassurance. So he’s definitely one of my secret weapons, as I like to call him, and I’m always looking for more of those.