Look up and down the grid of the NTT IndyCar Series and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a driver with a more raw and unfiltered personality than Scott McLaughlin. The 27-year-old New Zealand native still possesses the professionalism of his peers, but also presents himself as a guy just enjoying everything about life and not afraid to share that with the world.
Prior to his full-time move to North America’s premier open-wheel championship this year, McLaughlin touched anything he could with four wheels around his homeland in Australia. He spent the majority of the past decade racing in Supercars, finding enormous success as a three-time champion (2018-20). In 253 starts there, he amassed 56 victories (fourth all-time), 106 podiums and 76 poles.
But that was then. Now, he is less than 24 hours away from competing in his first-ever Indianapolis 500, where he will start 17th in the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet.
So, how does a guy who grew up in the Oceania region end up wanting to come to IndyCar and not follow the likes of Daniel Ricciardo or Mark Webber into Formula 1?
“I was always on the Supercars dream because that was really the most realistic thing for me at the time,” McLaughlin tells RACER. “When you’re young, you go to Europe very early and you try and make that dream work. But to me, I was a bigger kid. I didn’t quite fit that sort of open-wheeler regime and didn’t want to go to Formula 1 like I did say, America. I’ve always been infatuated with American racing — NASCAR, IndyCar, everything — and the country itself.
“My family brought me up with the American hot rods and everything. I’ve sort of grown up idolizing America, but the first goal obviously was Supercars, with the dream of maybe one day go to America and race NASCAR or something. The IndyCar thing was always there because I was infatuated with Scott Dixon and what he was doing over here with Ganassi, especially in 2003 and after 2008, when he won the 500.
“When Roger (Penske) started showing interest about coming to Australia to race Supercars, I immediately emailed (team boss) Tim Cindric. I got his details from Marcos Ambrose, actually. This was 2014; I was 21. I just said, ‘I’m not sure if you’re coming to Supercars or not, but if you are, here’s my details. And if there’s ever vice versa, an opportunity to come race a Nationwide (now Xfinity) race or something like that. I’d love to do it.’ It was pretty chill. He said, ‘Thanks for the details. Great to hear from you.’ Nothing really came of it.”
Not at first, anyway. Penske partnered with Dick Johnson, founder of the most-tenured Supercars squad, to form DJR Team Penske in 2014. It took until 2017 for the team to grab McLaughlin.
“During those contract talks, I told them that I’d love to be in America, and they knew my aspirations of being in America,” says McLaughlin. “It was basically, ‘Hey you win us a championship and a Bathurst. Then, once we’ve done our goals, we’ll worry about everything else.’ In 2019, fast tracking to that when we had won all that sort of stuff, TC [Cindric] was like, ‘Hey, would you like to try an Indy car?’
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll race a wheelbarrow with a Penske sticker on it. I don’t give a s***. I want to go out and race whatever you guys want me to, but I’d love to just be in America.’ I did the simulator, and felt good with that. Did the Sebring test, felt good. Did the COTA test — which meant I knew I was going to race at some point, because I had to do a race to do the COTA test — and then COVID hit and the rest is history.
“I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I think when we spoke about IndyCar, it was very similar to the schedule I see in Australia — it’s not as unforgiving as the NASCAR schedule. You race on more street courses, race on more road courses with the devil of an oval, which is probably the biggest of them all. I was so excited for this race more than any.”
The “infatuation” with six-time IndyCar champion Dixon, who starts on pole for Sunday’s Indy 500, began in 2001 via racing magazines.
“I’d read everything up,” he recalls. “I remember when Scott won his first Champ Car race in 2001 Nazareth with PacWest and stuff. I knew about Scott going for Rookie of the Year in Champ Car or whatever it was at the time. I was like, ‘Oh, this guy is pretty cool.’ Then he obviously got the Ganassi role, and was just someone that I followed.
“I wasn’t infatuated with Scott as much as I was Greg Murphy (four-time winner at Bathurst), who was my absolute hero growing up. But for someone showing what Kiwis can do on the world stage — especially in America, where I always was infatuated with — that’s where it all happened, when he started winning the championships in IRL and then, 2008, the Indy 500. I remember meeting Scott when he came back home to New Zealand in 2008. After that race, he was doing a charity thing for Canteen, which is for kids with cancer, and he was just so nice. I was just a kid back then in go-karts. It’s funny how it’s all changed — now 15-odd years later, I’m racing him.”
Despite having just six IndyCar starts under his belt, McLaughlin has already found himself battling Dixon. At Texas, in the opening act of the doubleheader earlier this month — which marked McLaughlin’s first oval start — he found himself trying to chase down his hero for the win before ultimately settling for second. He has since rattled off consecutive top-10s to sit eighth in the championship. It’s been a remarkable transition to open-wheel racing for a guy who, at one point, didn’t know where his career would go beyond Supercars.