INSIGHT: The reinvention of Scott McLaughlin

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INSIGHT: The reinvention of Scott McLaughlin

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: The reinvention of Scott McLaughlin

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IndyCar has welcomed a long line of unfamiliar drivers to its grid over the years, but it hasn’t received anyone quite like Scott McLaughlin. NASCAR’s finest began migrating their way over decades ago; Formula 1’s stars have long headed to America for career extensions, and some of sports car racing’s leading prototype racers have even made an impact in open-wheel racing. Missing from that list are touring car drivers like McLaughlin.

Until the three-time Australian Supercars champion decided to attempt skipping prototypes, bypassing Indy Pro 2000, and ignoring Indy Lights to dive headfirst into the NTT IndyCar Series, making such a leap without taking a few transitional steps was never considered. And if the act of trading a Ford Mustang Supercar for a Team Penske Dallara DW12-Chevy wasn’t enough of a shock to established norms, the New Zealander hasn’t stumbled throughout the acclimatization process.

The Kiwi’s prodigious talent is responsible for most of the impressive performances we’ve seen in testing, and again in flashes during his race debut at St. Petersburg last year. And in the background, the rest of McLaughlin’s intensive preparations for his rookie campaign have been developed by Penske’s managerial and engineering leadership.

It’s here where a plan was crafted to train a touring car driver to perform like an IndyCar veteran.

“It started with an idea: We’ve got this guy that’s racing in Australia who’s obviously talented and got a lot going on, and is looking for the next chapter in life, is it NASCAR? Is it IndyCar? Is it sports cars? What is it?” Team Penske managing director Ron Ruzewski tells RACER.

“First off, you’ve got to see what might fit, and what does he have an interest in? And both of those things aligned in that the IndyCar realm seemed like it was worth looking at. So we said, ‘Next time he’s over here, let’s pop him into a simulator and see what he thinks.’ And that was like giving a kid candy. He did a great job. He just naturally adapted right away, and obviously, it’s was done in a virtual world, but he got it. He got all the fundamentals.”

Following the simulator run, a test outing for McLaughlin at Sebring was put on the calendar for January 13, 2020, and based on his raw speed, he was invited back in February for IndyCar’s Spring Training event at Circuit of The Americas.

McLaughlin was quickly on the pace when he joined the rest of the IndyCar field for 2020’s pre-season Open Test at COTA. LePage/Motorsport Images

“After Sebring, the next part of it was figuring out how to go forward,” Ruzewski says. “So it was like, ‘Okay, get him to Spring Training and see where he really falls.’ And there were going to be two boxes to check to see, A, is he cut out for it? And B, how quickly can he adapt in the real world? And it was also a chance for him to understand if IndyCar was indeed where he wanted to be.”

Sharing the track for the first time with the full IndyCar field, McLaughlin posted the third-fastest lap on the opening day at COTA.

“We left there thinking this is the guy, so can we get him into another test, or maybe a race?” Ruzewski says. “He checked all the boxes, and there was a lot to learn at COTA. It seemed like something that was worth making the commitment to saying, ‘Maybe we should get him straight into a race, and are we willing to take a chance?’ So we had him lined up to do the Indy Grand Prix, and then COVID happened.”

With international travel restrictions in place and an adjusted Supercars calendar to navigate last year, Penske’s ambitions for McLaughlin to ease into IndyCar on a part-time schedule stalled. By chance, it also gave Ruzewski, Kyle Moyer, and the other team leaders an opportunity to step back and widen the curriculum for their new open-wheel pupil.

They didn’t know when McLaughlin would make his race debut in the No. 3 Chevy, but with time to fill, his teachers loaded up on homework and virtual classroom sessions to ensure the momentum built in testing wasn’t entirely lost.

“It was a lot of dialogue with video and pre-race reports and trying to almost reproduce driver coaching techniques,” Ruzewski says. “To just walk through some of these tracks that he may have an opportunity to go run, and go through IndyCar racing. So in a sense, it was more like Scott going to remote IndyCar school just because of the COVID situation.

“It turned into more of a university approach in studying things, talking about things, interviews with our other IndyCar drivers, and then whenever he had time, he worked on his virtual game through iRacing because that’s all he had to use in Australia.”

McLaughlin is heading into a rookie season where almost every track he visits will present the awkward feeling of being the new kid in town. He’ll be at a disadvantage at every venue where the No. 3 Chevy has yet to test, and with condensed two-day schedules at most rounds, Team Penske put the 27-year-old through a pre-season course designed to remove as much guesswork as possible from his 17-race tour.

McLaughlin dovetailed his final Supercars season with an intensive remote learning program aimed at getting him up to speed in a very different type of car. Klynsmith/Motorsport Images

Which curbs are friendly in Monterey, and which ones should be avoided? How hard should he charge up the hill towards pit lane at Road America before hitting the brakes and activating the speed limiter? Take these questions and a dozen more for each new circuit, and Penske has done its best to remove as many mysteries as possible for McLaughlin at each stop on the calendar.

“There’s two parts of it: There’s the prep we’ve already spent some time on to give him a broad overview of the season, track by track, what to expect, to explain trends and there’s similarities and how there’s differences where he’s going,” Ruzewski says. “But then you have to apply specifics to each event in a couple of ways. One example is by reviewing the history with him of how the track surface evolves over the weekend, whether it’s practice or qualifying or the race, and what the expectations are.

“And then we take some of that study and we spend time in a simulator with it and walk through those scenarios and just try to best prepare him on a track by track and not too far in advance, but practicing those situations in those scenarios. And we’ve cycled through a bunch of them already and we’ll cycle through them again as we get closer to each new track to re-emphasize those facts.”

A separate educational stream for McLaughlin has come with understanding the major technological differences between the touring cars he mastered and all the new suspension, drivetrain, and aerodynamic tuning devices at his disposal in IndyCar.

“I think back to when I first worked with Helio Castroneves, and a lot of drivers in that era didn’t necessarily know what setup changes to do to make the car go fast,” Ruzewski says. “They just knew what they wanted for them to go fast, and that’s the way we approached it with Scott, because there’s a lot we can play with here that he probably hasn’t worked with before. So, it’s been, ‘Tell us what the car is doing, tell us what you feel. And let’s see how that correlates against what everybody else is feeling and saying. Let’s understand your feedback, first.’”

As a driver accustomed to winning championships, McLaughlin’s expectations for himself are high. But the team is viewing him as a longer-term project. Owens/IndyCar

To the surprise of Ruzewski and the rest of Penske’s IndyCar team, McLaughlin aced his engineering tests and left his teachers with a few new kernels of wisdom.

“And it was apparent right away that his feedback was spot on and the same as the other guys,” Rusewski says. “And then we could start to make changes based on what our test plans were and what we knew, and through osmosis, teach him about the changes by telling him what we’re doing to fix his problems.

“It was just like, ‘Oh, you’re having that problem? OK, we’re going to change the diff settings and we’ll see what you feel about that.’ And then he’d come in and give us his feedback and then we would expand upon it with some other ideas on how to fix the problem. And in some ways, with Scott being new to IndyCar, he’s given us a different way of looking at some things because everything’s different to him. It’s been an interesting process that I think has helped him and the team at the same time.”

With countless hours invested into McLaughlin to fill in many the things he would have learned on the Road to Indy, the last significant area of preparation for the rookie sits waiting to be used when it’s needed.

Despite all the measures put in place to make a rookie perform like a young veteran, McLaughlin will underperform or make a mess of things on more than one occasion in 2021. That part’s inevitable, and Ruzewski is ready to help Penske’s No. 1 prospect when it happens.

“It’s probably going to be the toughest thing, because he’s very critical of himself,” he says. “You can tell when he’s bothered by not achieving his expected performance level. But he’s also a realist. And he’s got a positive group around him. When situations get tough, or don’t pan out the way he wanted, what we can do is surround him with a positive group of talented people. I have expectations and goals for him, as I’m sure he does as well, but ours aren’t the same as we have for Will Power or Josef Newgarden or Simon Pagenaud.

“We look at it as a bigger plan and a bigger timeline for Scott, so we do what we can to not put that additional pressure on him and just keep him positive. And he gets it. He also knows he has a lot to learn, and he’s coming into IndyCar with the right mindset. We’ll just coach him through any rough days he has, but I don’t see him as the kind of guy to have a lot of them. He’s a champion, and even though it’s in a series that’s very, very different from ours, our starting point with Scott is with a champion.”

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