INSIGHT: Bretzman on McLaughlin's meteoric rise in IndyCar

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INSIGHT: Bretzman on McLaughlin's meteoric rise in IndyCar

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Bretzman on McLaughlin's meteoric rise in IndyCar

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That’s three poles, three wins, and seven podiums for the new pairing of Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin and race engineer Ben Bretzman which, as we get ready to say farewell to the season, should scare the daylights out of the NTT IndyCar Series field when we return to kick off the championship in 2023.

Winning on debut as a tandem in St. Petersburg, the No. 3 Chevy led 49 of 100 laps, and with the new Zealander’s next win, at Mid-Ohio, it was another big flex from the IndyCar sophomore who led 45 of 80 laps on the way to victory. Sunday’s 110-lapper at Portland was the most definitive win for McLaughlin and Bretzman who took total command of the race with 104 laps spent at the head of the field.

When the Kiwi wins, it’s done with an emphasis on control. All of this from someone who was an absolute novice in open-wheel racing as recently as October 25th of 2020 when he made his IndyCar race debut at St. Pete.

From Bretzman’s perspective, who led Simon Pagenaud to a championship and Indy 500 win at Team Penske, McLaughlin has become a constant threat in less than two full seasons of IndyCar racing.

“He’s a special talent,” Bretzman told RACER. “But he picks up on things really well. He picks up on how everything works and he learns every time there’s an opportunity. That’s what you want; if you make a mistake, you learn from it, and he’s been learning since day one here. He’s been pretty special on the ovals, too. We’ve just got to get the win for him.

“That’s the last new thing for him to win because he’s done it once on a street course and now twice on permanent road courses. We arguably could have won twice on ovals this year, and he came so close at Texas, so there isn’t really any doubt that he’s got the whole package. It’s all there now.”

McLaughlin’s stood on the podium in four of the last five races, and from his view on the timing stand, Bretzman feels like he’s the luckiest guy on pit lane.

Ben Bretzman can’t speak highly enough of Scott McLaughlin’s rapid progress in open-wheel cars. The stout pole run and Sunday drive he took in Portland is testament to that. Richard Dole/Lumen

“Really, since Detroit this year, we made a mistake there, and from that point forward, he’s been the hottest driver out here,” he said. “If you look at the last five races, he’s got the most points of anybody. You look at the last eight races, I think, since Elkhart Lake — he’s either first or second in earning points. He’s really, really strong. He’s got it all and makes me thankful I get to work with him.”

Among the various talents that make Bretzman one of the best engineers in the sport, it’s his ability to find what his drivers need to extract the ultimate performance from their cars and deliver upon those needs at an alarmingly consistent rate. Where some race engineers apply a heavy ration of their own ideas and beliefs in the chassis tuning process, Bretzman has always relied on listening to his drivers and acting upon their feedback in a selfless manner.

His process — his working style — tends to eliminate big swings in performance if his driver is locked in and ready to deliver. As he did for so many years with Pagenaud, Bretzman’s driver-first approach is central to all the success McLaughlin has delivered this year.

“It’s just been more of homing in and learning what we need to do to make sure that he has what he needs,” he said. “And now, since…the mid-part of the season, we know exactly what kind of cars he drives at what types of circuits. How he uses the tires, and how the temperature of the tires get affected by how he drives and manages the race, is pretty incredible.

“I’m just surprised with the recollection of it all and how well he holds on to the information. He misses nothing. Because he puts on as a fun, jovial, golfing guy, right? A total bro, and all that stuff. But he remembers it all. He knows what he’s supposed to do. He’s doing a really good job. Super proud of him.”

There aren’t many people in the IndyCar paddock who are as humble and giving as Bretzman. Getting him to accept the fact that he’s been an important cog in the No. 3 Chevy’s rise this season—with more wins than any driver, except for teammate Josef Newgarden—is an ongoing process.

“You have to have a driver and you have to know what that driver wants and how that driver drives,” Bretzman said. “And, you know, one thing that helped me, honestly, with all the years with Simon was how detailed he was and how to figure out how to maximize him.

“Well, that’s just made it easier now with a different driver and using Scott, and his talent level, we can get to what he wants really quickly. His feedback is plenty good to know what’s right and wrong. So yeah, getting two people to work together is a pretty key thing, right? A talented driver overcomes everything, but you have to be able to put the talent in the right spot, and I guess that’s what we’ve been doing.”

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