McLaughlin ready to make INDYCAR debut Sunday in St. Pete, may feature on him on why INDYCAR and why now?

While all the focus and attention this weekend is on the fight for the championship in the NTT IndyCar Series between Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden, one under the radar storyline that’s going to turn out pretty big is the debut of Scott McLaughlin.

McLaughlin, tested a car for Team Penske in the open test at COTA this past February. It seems like forever ago with how 2020 has gone. But, he’s now getting his first opportunity in an actual race.

The New Zealand native was actually supposed to race in a few select races prior to now, but with COVID wrecking havoc on this world of ours, the logistics never allowed for him to take part. He’s here though and ready to tackle the streets of St. Pete for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).

“I’m super pumped to finally get a crack at my first INDYCAR race,” McLaughlin said. “Feels like it’s been years since I was part of spring training, but due to COVID-19, we had to hold off. But hey, sometimes the best things are definitely worth the wait.

“It’s a dream come true to be running an INDYCAR race for Team Penske and Roger (Penske), especially coming off of such a successful Supercars season. I’ve been trying to get to know my team as well as possible virtually for a few months now, so it’s been great being able to see everyone in person and work with them.”

McLaughlin, 27, isn’t your typical rookie. He’s not this young brash teenager that rose through the Road to Indy ladder system. He’s pushing his 30’s and has a ton of racing experience. That’s why it wasn’t too shocking that he was as quick as he was in his testing debut this past winter.

He’s won the last three championships overseas in Supercars and was second in his first year with Penske. He’s won 56 times over there in 251 starts.

McLaughlin, came to the US last week to work on the simulator and has no plans of going back for now. He’d like to make this a full time future to remain in INDYCAR for 2021.

“For me it’s one of the most competitive series if not the most competitive series in the world,” McLaughlin said on Thursday. “You look at the closeness, how different the winners can be up and down the field. It’s an all-around package. You can race on road courses, ovals.

“For me it’s a fresh start with being an open-wheeler, very different to what I’ve had before. I guess, yeah, it’s a different experience. If I’ve got the opportunity to be able to do it, I’ve got to grab it with both hands.”

McLaughlin, also said that he accomplished everything that he’s strived for overseas and is ready for a new adventure.

“In Australia, yeah, for sure,” McLaughlin said on if he’s accomplished everything that he had hoped for overseas. “I’ve done everything I wanted to achieve. I wanted to win at Bathurst and a championship. Thankfully I won three championships and one Bathurst. I moved my way up the ranks in terms of the wins and stuff like that, poles. I’ve done everything I wanted to achieve. If it did come to the point where I was moving on from Supercars, I would be satisfied.

“At the same time that series leaves you wanting more, as well, especially when you have a race like I did at the weekend at Bathurst. It wasn’t my best race. It’s one of those races that you love so much but hate just as much as well because it’s such a wild card. It leaves you wanting more.”

So why INDYCAR? Why does this series make McLaughlin want to try it out?

“For me it’s one of the most competitive series if not the most competitive series in the world,” he said on why he wanted this to be his next venture. “You look at the closeness, how different the winners can be up and down the field. It’s an all-around package. You can race on road courses, ovals.

“For me it’s a fresh start with being an open-wheeler, very different to what I’ve had before. I guess, yeah, it’s a different experience. If I’ve got the opportunity to be able to do it, I’ve got to grab it with both hands.”

Roger Penske said that this weekend isn’t necessarily a tryout per say, but a venture to see if this is something McLaughlin really and truly wants to do. Penske says that they need to have this next deal done realistically by Thanksgiving if they’re going to put a program together for McLaughlin to run here in this series in 2021.

“I think it’s an opportunity to learn and understand what goes into it,” McLaughlin said of the timeline and this being a tryout to just see if he likes it here. “COTA was good in some ways where I understood the car, I understood how to sort of get some time out of the car, out of the race car.

“When you’re doing one lap by yourself, it’s a lot easier than when you’re put with 23 other drivers heading down to turn one. I’m fully expecting a new challenge when I get into the racing side of things with in-and-out laps, pit stops, all that sort of stuff.

“I think there’s still a lot of things that I haven’t come across that I need to learn and need to understand before I actually make a decision, as a team.

“Like I said, this is an opportunity. It’s something that I’m just going to go in like a sponge, soak everything up, see what comes out of it. I’m pretty confident that I’m going to like the series, I’m going to like the cars, I’m going to like everything. There wouldn’t be a reason why I wouldn’t be here.

“It’s cool that I’m able to have that support from Roger (Penske), the team, Tim (Cindric), to allow me to be able — I’m 27 years old, try to achieve stuff overseas, accomplish dreams. To have that support, it’s a pretty cool thing for a person who drives for someone.”

McLaughlin knows this is going to be a difficult task this weekend anyways. INDYCAR isn’t easy to win in. His teammate Josef Newgarden said it would be a tall task for McLaughlin to finish in the top 10 in his debut on Sunday. McLaughlin, agreed.

“I think if I finish top 10, I’ll be doing cartwheels, going crazy,” McLaughlin said of expectations this weekend. “I think, look, it depends on what goes on. I’m fully expecting a tough battle. I might have a great, great experience running last. I don’t know. It’s not going to change how I feel or whatever. I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m fully expecting I could be last.

“At the end of the day, as long as I get a good feel for the category, a good feel for the cars, we’ll be all right.”

He’s spent very little time here outside of his test back in February. It was a grueling process getting prepared for this race over the last week that has seen him prepare more in a simulator or in the shop than actually sleeping.

“Yeah, it’s been pretty wild,” he said of his travel. “I did the race on Sunday in Australia, Saturday your time. I basically jumped on a plane straightaway. Bathurst is about two hours west of Sydney. I flew quickly to Sydney, spent the night in Sydney, then flew 10:30 a.m. Monday morning to America, to California, then California to Charlotte. That was Monday night.

“I went straight to the simulator that night. I did basically a four- or five-hour session on the simulator. It was probably the best thing for my jet lag. I feel amazing now because I stayed up. Went back to the simulator on Tuesday, plus seeing the guys, a little bit of a seat fit here and there.

“The last couple days, Wednesday and Thursday, it’s just been seeing everyone, getting acquainted with the team a bit more. Everyone has sort of taken a couple days off before St. Pete. Myself and my wife, we’ve sort of just been having a look around, hanging out, staying safe. Now we head to St. Pete tonight.”

Being with Penske is going to lend him a prime opportunity. Just to race a Penske car over here has his excited even though a large challenge is ahead.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s a big challenge. There’s a lot of different things I have to learn. Even on the simulator Monday, 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.

“Yeah, I’ll literally race a wheel barrel if I can. I don’t care. I’ll race anything. It’s one of those deals where, yeah, I’ve certainly got a lot to learn. It’s a challenge.

“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 INDYCAR, it’s the complete opposite.

“Certainly got a lot to learn. I’ll race anything, like I said. Just adapt to how I go.”

With the challenge and anticipation comes expectations. He’s in a Penske car. He knows that while he’s new, he has to perform too. That’s has him feeling some pressure inside the cockpit as well.

“I think I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling some pressure, but it’s probably from myself more than anything,” McLaughlin said. “I’m pretty hard on myself in regards to where I’m at in terms even on the simulator. I was a little bit slower than the guys. Most people would be pretty happy still where I was, but I wasn’t. I wanted to be closer than I was, which wasn’t far.

“Yeah, there’s probably I wouldn’t say intimidation but there’s an unknown there. I’m excited to see how I fare in a racing situation because I haven’t had that before. Like I said, it’s going to be a lot different.

“But I trust my ability. I trust what I can do in a race car. I trust the process that Team Penske have put me on. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I was ready and they wanted me to do it. That gives me already a lot of confidence in the process, what goes on.

“Yeah, probably the only thing I’m just getting used to is dealing with the media, dealing with other things in the team. It’s a lot bigger than what I’m used to. That other stuff has probably been the harder part.”

McLaughlin, said he hopes to finish every lap on Sunday and not get too many enemies in the process.

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