DJR Team Penske’s new three-time Australian Supercars champion is readying himself for the country’s great race, the Bathurst 1000, which takes place this weekend. And once Scott McLaughlin is finished defending his 2019 win on Mount Panorama, he’ll embark on a new journey — minus the DJR part — to become Team Penske’s newest NTT IndyCar Series driver days later in Florida at the season finale on the streets of St. Petersburg.
After the 22-hour flight is completed, the 27-year-old New Zealander will attempt to knock off eight months of open-wheel rust and show more of the impresssive pace he demonstrated during IndyCar’s Spring Training test in February at Circuit of The Americas.
Spanning the biggest race of the year in Australia and all the intense physical and mental rigors the Bathurst 1000 presents, to an IndyCar debut that could shape his future, McLaughlin knows the next week and a half carry immense significance.
“I have a huge amount of respect for everyone in the NTT IndyCar Series and what they do, and how close the racing is,” he told RACER. “I’m going in, fully expecting that it’s probably going to be the toughest challenge of my career. I think you take whatever opportunity you can get, and obviously with COVID changing so many things on my schedule, I never actually thought I’d get a chance to race in IndyCar this year; but I loved my tests at the start of the year and I was so excited for what was going to be my race debut in May.
“But, first, I’ve got one of the best races in the world this weekend in Bathurst, and then it’s crossing all kinds of time zones for my IndyCar debut and it’s going to be hard. My body is going to be pretty torched after 1000 K’s at Bathurst. It’s a pretty mentally draining week. On top of that, jumping straight onto a plane, flying to the U.S. and jet lag, then I jump in the simulator for a couple days, then go live at St. Pete. I think it’s a hell of an opportunity.”
Although he’s driving for the defending IndyCar champions, and the team is in the thick of the title showdown at St. Pete, McLaughlin has set his expectations for his pace and position on the starting grid in a realistic place.
“I get to jump in the car for the first time at a race event and qualify on (Firestone) red tires all that sort of jazz, which will be new; I’ve never even seen the track before,” he said. “So I’m careful about getting too adventurous with my expectations because I haven’t driven the car since the beginning of the year.
“A lot’s changed in regards to what’s going on inside the car technically, and then everyone that I tested against at COTA, they’ve had a year to get on with the car, the aeroscreen, all that sort of stuff where they’re coming in up to speed. All year, I’ve been watching every qualifying, every race, to stay up on things. It’s killed my body clock, but I enjoyed it! So, for me, it’s an opportunity to steer the car out on the street track and see what goes on, and understand the qualifying sessions and learn. It’s hard to place anything more on expectations beforehand at this point.”
Had McLaughlin made his first IndyCar start as planned in May on the IMS road course, his American competition debut would have come with far less stress. In trading the wide-open expanses on the IMS infield for narrow, cement-lined walls on city streets, and dropping in while Penske teammate Josef Newgarden is doing his best to overtake fellow Kiwi Scott Dixon to claim the IndyCar championship, McLaughlin has plenty to process over the October 23-25 Firestone Grand Prix event.
“It’s probably one of the most competitive open-wheel series in the world, so there’s that, and my first debut was going to be on a road course with heaps and heaps of runoff,” he said with a laugh. “And now I’m going to head to a tight street course — a bit of a bullring-type thing — which will keep my attention.
“But I’m also heading in with the best team and I’ve got hell of good teammates, all Indy 500 winners or champions, so I’ll do as I did at COTA — just look at their data and go, ‘Well, he’s braking here, there’s no reason I can’t…’ So it was one of those things where I’m so lucky and grateful to have that opportunity with that great team and great support from a teammate that allow me to learn a lot quicker. That’s certainly going to help me on the weekend.
“In regards to the championship, I’ve got to be fast enough to catch them first! But I’ll do my best, and I’ll do what I need to do in regards to not being in the way. I’ve really enjoyed the battle between Josef and Scott. And obviously Josef coming back in the last few races, it’s been impressive and many stories throughout the year, and after it all, you’re going to come down to two great drivers and two great teams settling it at St. Pete. I don’t think IndyCar could ask for more.”