Some things in life are worth waiting for, and that couldn’t be more true for Scott McLaughlin.
McLaughlin will make his long-awaited NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut driving the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet for Team Penske in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this Sunday, Oct. 25 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network).
The wait for three-time Virgin Australia Supercars champion McLaughlin to enter the top open-wheel series in North America dates back further than 2020, but his path to single-seaters took an accelerated, yet challenging route this year after a promising start to the year was derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m very excited,” McLaughlin said. “I think it's a great opportunity. I obviously never thought I'd get a chance this year due to the nature of the beast with COVID, all that sort of stuff. I've got a lot to learn, but I'm excited for what's ahead. Excited to see what everyone is like, meet some of the media, meet some of the fans, see how the schedule goes like on the weekend. I'm really excited.”
McLaughlin, a native of Hamilton, New Zealand, first sat in an Indy car when he tested in January at Sebring Raceway. Then, he participated in the INDYCAR Open Test in February at Circuit of the Americas, where he posted the third-fastest time on the first day of testing.
The two tests went so well that Team Penske was ready to enter McLaughlin for his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut May 9 at the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
However, the race was rescheduled to July 4 due to the pandemic, and McLaughlin’s focus returned to his stellar Virgin Australia Supercars career while keeping INDYCAR in the back of his mind.
McLaughlin had a masterful 2019 Supercars season for DJR Team Penske in which he won a record 18 races, including the historic Bathurst 1000.
This season, he kept his hot streak going. He won 13 times, and he scored his third consecutive drivers’ championship last weekend at Mount Panorama with a fifth-place finish in the Bathurst 1000. With the title, McLaughlin became the first driver in Supercars history to turn his maiden championship into three straight.
Immediately after the race, McLaughlin hopped on a plane and headed for the United States for this weekend’s race on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street circuit.
Going from a touring car to an open-wheel car on back-to-back weekends certainly has its challenges. McLaughlin said he has been in the simulator all week trying to understand what habits translate from Supercars and what doesn’t. But even then, McLaughlin said he fully expects he will be able to adapt.
“I'm not going to lie; it's a big challenge,” he said. “There's a lot of different things I have to learn. Even on the simulator Monday and Tuesday, I had a couple bad habits and stuff, not trusting the aerodynamics of the race car, something you really can't do in a Supercar. But I'll literally race a wheel barrel if I can. I don't care. I'll race anything.
“Even coming to St. Pete on a street circuit, the car will handle a lot different than what I'm used to over bumps and stuff. A Supercar, you do a Supercross jump, no drama, you wouldn't even feel it. In regards to the Indy car, it's the complete opposite.”
While McLaughlin was making history Down Under, he was simultaneously keeping INDYCAR on his mind. McLaughlin competed in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, scoring wins in the virtual races at Barber Motorsports Park and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Plus, McLaughlin, 27, fortified his training regimen in preparation for the day he would finally get to make his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut. He changed his diet, practiced intermittent fasting and upped his cardio and high-intensity training to shed some weight.
While McLaughlin joked he needed to lose weight because he was “a bit fat for Supercars anyway,” the change in lifestyle was done to prepare for the challenges of racing an Indy car. In hindsight, the move will have added benefit as McLaughlin’s debut comes at a bumpy street course, which are some of the hardest circuits on the INDYCAR schedule.
“The Indy car is very strenuous with no power steering, a few other things, and that's a bit I had to learn, beef up my shoulders a bit more,” McLaughlin said. “For me, I need to be competitive when I come here. I want to be competitive, especially when I get to St. Pete. For me to be competitive, I needed to lose some weight, get my weight down. I didn't want to be one of the heavier guys. I’m definitely still going to be, because I've always been a bit bigger, but definitely better than it was.”
While he has spent nearly a year preparing to race in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, McLaughlin has been dreaming of this moment since he was a kid.
Growing up, McLaughlin was an avid fan of fellow Kiwi Scott Dixon, and because of that he has closely followed INDYCAR since he was a kid. McLaughlin has vivid memories of recording INDYCAR races on VHS and watching them after school. The one that stands out the most: The 2008 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, won by Dixon.
McLaughlin said racing against his hero, who is battling McLaughlin’s teammate Josef Newgarden for his sixth Astor Challenge Cup, will be surreal.
“Yeah, the guy is unbelievable,” McLaughlin said. “He doesn't get enough credit in New Zealand, either. New Zealand is full of rugby. Motorsports takes a bit of a backseat. What he's done, even with five championships, to be going for his sixth is phenomenal. Very excited. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Scotty has always been someone that in New Zealand is just an icon.”
McLaughlin’s debut this weekend at St. Pete comes at a time when he is weighing his options for the next stage of his career. What’s in store for 2021 is unknown. Between making his debut in a series he was watched his whole life to checking off another career goal and racing in the same era as his racing hero, this weekend will be special for McLaughlin.
“(This will be) probably, personally a cool moment for me,” McLaughlin said.