Simon Pagenaud

Scott McLaughlin’s secret is out. He has been taking Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval lessons from Simon Pagenaud, the winner of the 2019 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, a race where he was the pole sitter.

This pairing shouldn’t come as a surprise, although McLaughlin tried to keep it that way after winning the pole last weekend. The drivers live near each other in North Carolina, and Pagenaud spent seven years with Team Penske, the organization that employs McLaughlin. They were teammates for 17 NTT INDYCAR SERIES races over the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

Prior to this month, McLaughlin had struggled in the “500,” never leading a lap in the race or posting a result – qualifying or the race – higher than 14th. Looking for any help he could get, he rang up Pagenaud, who hasn’t raced since his Meyer Shank Racing machine barrel-rolled through a gravel trap last summer at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

But Pagenaud, 40, is as studious as any driver of his era, and McLaughlin is known to be an intellectual sponge when it comes to his craft. They naturally fit well together.

“He’s a very keen observer of many things, a note taker,” McLaughlin said of Pagenaud, a 12-time starter in this event. “We’ve been exchanging notes.

“I asked him to do this like in January or February, and we’ve been analyzing a lot of things since.”

Pagenaud spent Friday’s two-hour Miller Lite Carb Day practice atop McLaughlin’s scoring stand, which, ironically, is positioned in the same pit box as Pagenaud had when he won in ’19.

The Frenchman conceded it was familiar territory.

“First of all, Scott doesn’t need that much advice -- he’s a true champion,” Pagenaud said on NBC’s Peacock broadcast. “But like every champion he’s always trying to find the little edge, a little more. It’s so tight right now. The field is just so talented.

“When he asked me if I could help, I kindly wanted to do it because working with someone like him who really wants to get better, that’s exciting. I did open all my books to him – a lot of books, a lot of writing – and I just tried to walk him through the process of how everything goes and how much you have to crank it up every day without making a mistake or cranking it up too much.

“He’s just incredible with the way he can pick up things – he’s a special guy. You tell him exactly what he needs to do (and) he goes out, first lap does it. Unbelievable. He has such capacity to understand that’s really incredible, so I’m very proud that he asked me to help him, and obviously the team has done a sensational job with the speed of the cars.”

Team Penske has all three front-row positions for Sunday’s race (11 a.m. ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network), a feat it also accomplished in 1988. At McLaughlin’s side when the green flag drops are a pair of former “500” winners: Will Power (2018) and Josef Newgarden (2023). Pagenaud knows all three of them as former teammates.

In another Team Penske connection, Pagenaud will participate in pre-race festivities as the driver of Gil de Ferran’s winning No. 6 car from the 2003 race. De Ferran died Dec. 29 at age 56.

Pagenaud said this is the first time he has been at a racetrack since the Mid-Ohio accident, and he was honored Friday morning along with 22 other former drivers – and de Ferran’s family – with a blue champion’s sport coat much like The Masters gives a green jacket to its winners.

McLaughlin said the combination of events has been good for Pagenaud, and he is happy to have been part of bringing him back to Indy.

“He’s always been a Team Penske (champion),” McLaughlin said of Pagenaud. “He’s won the ‘500’ for (Roger Penske), and at the end of the day, we all just want him to be OK.

“So, this is an opportunity for me to work with him but also an opportunity for me to help maybe bring him back to the race and get his name back involved. Whether that’s not driving a race car, at least he’s involved, and he gets that feeling of being at the ‘500’ again.”

Said Pagenaud: “It’s been fun for me to be involved, fun for me to again be with Team Penske and (McLaughlin), and then when he got the pole, I was as excited as if I was in the car. That was really cool, and I hope everything goes smoothly. I think (McLaughlin’s) got a real shot (to win).”

McLaughlin only had the 20th-fastest lap Friday at 224.264 mph – Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon led the way at 227.206 mph – but the Team Penske driver is roundly considered one of the favorites to win the race. If that happens, McLaughlin will extend his team’s record to 20 wins in the event, and he would become the 15th different driver to take the organization to Victory Lane.

McLaughlin said he wasn’t worried about where his Friday performance placed him on the speed chart. He knows he and the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet are ready for Race Day.

“Very similar to what we started with this week,” he said of the car’s setup. “We haven’t really played around too much mechanically with the car. It felt good out of the box, and (we’re) just sort of building my confidence with it.”

Friday’s only hiccup was exceeding the speed limit coming to pit road, an error McLaughlin was happy to have out of the way ahead of the real stuff.

“Felt really good,” he said. “Didn’t put a big (speed) number up, but I think we’re OK.

“Just keep my emotions in check, enjoy the moment and see what happens.”

That’s what Pagenaud would do, too.