Team Penske’s newest driver, Scott McLaughlin, has more to learn as an NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie than most of us realized.
In addition to learning the nuances of the car, the tracks and even his Team Penske teammates, the New Zealand-born and Australian-raised driver is still learning the nuances of traveling outside of his Down Under world.
“Little things like you wouldn’t think about, like different airports, where do you put the rental cars up, where do you do all this sort of stuff,” three-time Australian V8 Supercars champion McLaughlin said, laughing. “Stuff you don’t think about that’s second nature in Australia when you’ve been there your whole life.”
Before competing in last year’s season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, McLaughlin’s North American experience had been limited to visiting a few big cities with Karly, a New Yorker who last year became his wife. Thus, it’s safe to say McLaughlin, 27, is on a great adventure, even when it comes to watching U.S. television.
McLaughlin tells of trying to watch the NFL in Australia, which requires early Monday wakeup calls. Games often start at 6 a.m. there, and Australian TV doesn’t offer the Red Zone channel, which is commercial-free football on caffeine for six-plus hours each Sunday of the season.
Now living near Team Penske’s headquarters, McLaughlin has adopted the hometown Carolina Panthers much to the dismay of his wife, a lifelong fan of the New York Jets.
“I was like, ‘No way, they’re (terrible),’” he said. “I jumped on the Panthers’ bandwagon. Hopefully we pick up a good couple of players here in the trade period, and we get going.”
Notice the “we” in his words? That’s a sports fan.
McLaughlin said the highlight of last NFL season was seeing New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees play in person. The Saints beat the host Panthers, 33-7, on Jan. 3. Brees threw three touchdowns.
“Small attendance figures, but very cool to get to my first NFL game,” McLaughlin said. “I love American football, watched it for a long time.
“Best thing now is I don’t have to watch it at 6 a.m. – I can watch it a 1 p.m. with a beer in my hand. It’s awesome.”
As for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, McLaughlin has some interesting observations of his more experienced teammates.
“You put Will Power in a cardboard box, he’d probably get pole,” he said. “If you put Josef (Newgarden) in there, he’s just very bright. Simon (Pagenaud), he likes the car secure.”
McLaughlin isn’t sure how to predict how he will perform this season, although he believes he can finish somewhere between seventh and 10th in the standings. (He concedes he doesn’t know if that’s attainable, but he has made it his goal.)
Pagenaud predicted McLaughlin will win a race in his rookie INDYCAR season; McLaughlin said there is much to learn before he can allow himself to think about that possibility.
“There’s a lot of things I’ve got to get used to,” he said. “For instance, even just driving a turbo car; I’ve never really done that before in Australia.
“For me, I’m learning boost levels, (aerodynamic) maps, trusting aero, aerodynamics through corners and stuff. It’s taken me a little bit of time (in testing).”
INDYCAR newcomers often speak of the challenge in learning how Firestone’s alternate/red tires change a car’s handling on street and road courses compared to the black tires, especially when there is so little time to experiment with them. Then, there’s flying starts to adjust to and pit roads to learn, all while battling veterans with years of experience.
McLaughlin said he has only recently learned what INDYCAR’s different flags mean.
“Just understanding little things like how to get from the hotel to the track, where the pits are, what it’s like (at tracks),” he said. “I didn’t even realize I had a scooter when I get there to get (around on). Stuff like that.
“It’s learning not only on-track stuff but off-track stuff to make me comfortable, settle into the series quick.”
McLaughlin is part of an INDYCAR rookie class that includes seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and nine-year Formula One driver Romain Grosjean. How they each adapt and progress makes this one of the most fascinating seasons in years, and Power expects that to be proven by the Australian TV ratings.
“Because he was so popular there and won three championships in a row,” Power said.
Rinus VeeKay won an NTT P1 Award for pole last year at the Harvest GP at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a series rookie, but he had competed on the IMS road course in Indy Lights. Colton Herta won at Circuit at The Americas – a track new to INDYCAR in 2019 – in just his third series start, and of course Alexander Rossi was an IMS newcomer when he won the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in 2016. Before that, Carlos Huertas won as a series rookie in 2014 at Houston.
Mostly, INDYCAR newcomers have taken their lumps during their acclimation period, especially when they are unfamiliar with the circuits, as well. At least McLaughlin has twice tested at Barber Motorsports Park, site of the season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on Sunday, April 18.
“This year for me is a learning season,” he said. “I’ve got time. I’m planning to be here for a long time, not a short time.
“Just got to make sure I get through this year, learn the tracks, learn the car (and) come back stronger, even better in 2022.”