Wheels Australia Magazine|Yearbook 2020

“I HOPE YOU’RE quoting me on this, because it needs to be said.” Scott McLaughlin clearly has a few things to get off his chest, and we’re here to listen. But don’t think the winner of the past three Supercars titles is unhappy. Speaking from his new home in Huntersville, North Carolina, and barely weeks into his new life in North America, the 27-year-old from Christchurch is comfortable, confident and still has an immense fire in his belly. He fits right in here.

Having conquered the Australian scene in a four-year juggernaut – he’s second only to seven-time champ Jamie Whincup for race wins (56) and pole positions (76), despite having contested half as many races (251 versus 501) – McLaughlin has hit ‘reset’ and goes into 2021 as an IndyCar rookie. Though not with some underfunded backmarker; he has the biggest name in American racing behind him.

McLaughlin is following his dream with the backing of the almighty Roger ‘The Captain’ Penske, who has left Supercars, selling his stake in Dick Johnson Racing Team Penske (now back to ‘DJR’) and taking its star driver with him. “I didn’t think I would be an IndyCar racer to be honest,” McLaughlin told Wheels. “I never thought [Team Penske] would ever think of me as that. In my head I was thinking, ‘If I’d like to go to America, I’d go to NASCAR, right…’ I just wanted to be in America.”

An open fascination with the US tells you a lot about McLaughlin’s personal values. His wife, Karly, is from New York, which he has joked is a ‘bonus’. He loves the family-oriented way of life in the US and the sense of occasion for events and holidays like Thanksgiving. “Not that we don’t do it over in Australia and New Zealand, but I think they just do a great job of making every occasion a celebration or a party. I’m a bit of a party guy – I love going out for a beer, I love hanging out with my friends away from the track – and that certainly gets me really excited.”

His sporting hero is basketballer Michael Jordan. He prefers the US version of The Office, his favourite TV show, to the UK original despite an appreciation for Ricky Gervais. In basketball he has adopted the poor-performing New York Knicks out of respect for his wife’s home city and the history of the team, but drew the line when it came to football. “My NFL team is the Carolina Panthers, because it’s the first place we’ve lived. I was going to go for the New York Jets, but they’re worse than the Knicks, absolutely terrible, so I’m not going to go for them!”

IndyCar aroused McLaughlin’s interest as a youngster – he would watch the series before school, more so than middle-of-the-night Formula One – yet it was never something he thought he could seriously aim for. That was despite another Kiwi named Scott, surname Dixon, taking his first win while a seven-year-old McLaughlin watched on from New Zealand. Dixon is now third on the all-time winners list and in October, perhaps symbolically, claimed his sixth title in McLaughlin’s first IndyCar race.

It was Tim Cindric, second only to Roger in the Penske organisation and who calls race strategy from the Indy pit wall, who saw the makings of an IndyCar driver in McLaughlin. “TC came to me and said, ‘Hey, have you thought about IndyCar?’, and I’m like, ‘Well, I love IndyCar, I watch IndyCar – why? You think I can do it?’ I just didn’t think I was the build, you know. I was a big boy.”

It all began in mid-2019. Step one was a simulator drive, which McLaughlin says he enjoyed, modestly describing his performance as ‘okay’, but this effort, combined with his ongoing Supercars success, saw him rewarded with a fullblown test at Sebring in January 2020. In his first drive of an IndyCar, he completed 141 laps in front of Cindric, IndyCar legend Rick Mears and Penske teammates Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden – all of them series champions – and was third-fastest.

Convinced of the New Zealander’s speed, Cindric signed McLaughlin up for the Open Test at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) the following month. Tellingly, it was only open to drivers who would be racing in 2020. McLaughlin was third-fastest again, yet this time ahead of reigning champion Newgarden in a 27-driver field. A rookie test in Texas followed days later, and then came COVID… Races were cancelled or rescheduled, including McLaughlin’s planned debut. He didn’t know when his next chance would be, or even if IndyCar was still possible. He wasn’t aware of it then, but he already had a full-time 2021 IndyCar seat.

McLaughlin finally raced the #3 Shell Team Penske Dallara in the season finale at St Petersburg in Florida, the weekend after Bathurst. He had not driven an IndyCar since February – apart from in the simulator and virtual E-Series, which he would have won if it had been tallied like a championship. He and Karly packed up and moved to the US not knowing if the St Petersburg race was a one-off or an audition for a 2021 seat.

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