Scott McLaughlin and Pietro Fittipaldi know the odds are stacked against them for this weekend’s NTT IndyCar Series doubleheader at the Texas Motor Speedway. The two rookie drivers are not only facing the daunting task of racing on a high speed superspeedway for the first time ever, but they’re having to do so with very limited amounts of experience on ovals in general. Then, factor in the aspect that there’s only a little over an hour of practice time for the two races this weekend and you get a very big learning experience for both down in the Lonestar State.
But, both aren’t completely new to the 1.5-mile track though either. Each have tested on it recently. Also both took part in the two-day open test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few weeks ago as well. So they’ve been up to speed on an oval before. It’s just that they’ve not had much experience in what makes you good on ovals and that’s experience itself.
“Excited. I’m very excited for my first oval experience. Had a lot of fun, a lot of enjoyment testing there not long ago,” McLaughlin said on Wednesday afternoon. “Obviously the Indy open test as well. I feel like we’ve got a raceable car. Heading there with the confidence of potentially doing well if I get it all right.
“Of course, I’ve got a lot to learn with the draft and the dirty air, using the weight jacker, all my tools inside the car, something I have to get used to as well.
“It’s certainly going to be very different in the race to get a feel for everything and what I need to do, changing my tools, like I said, weight jackers in front, rear anti-roll bars, all that sort of stuff. That’s all stuff I’m going to have to learn. Even little things like coming into pit lane, it’s different jumping down to the apron there.”
McLaughlin said it’s exciting though to do a completely different discipline. That has him the most excited.
“I think I’m more excited for the ovals than I am for the road courses because it’s so different to what I’ve done before,” he continued. “It’s so fast. Just nothing that’s quite as exhilarating as going 220 miles an hour with people wheel-to-wheel.
“That’s what’s so cool with INDYCAR racing, what’s so pure about it, what makes it so different to any really sport in the world, is we have a vast difference in tracks. We got a road, we got street courses, ovals, big fast oval, short ovals. It’s pretty cool and requires a whole different type of discipline which is what I’m really excited about for this weekend.
“Like I said, thankfully we’ve had those test days. I feel comfortable going into it and can only learn from here.”
For Fittipaldi, this isn’t his first oval Indy Car race. He’s actually made a start in Phoenix back in 2018. He’s also considered more of an oval ace anyways despite what many would consider him a road course specialist.
“I’m very excited. I guess what I’m looking forward to the most is to be back racing in INDYCAR, especially on the ovals. I love oval racing,” said the Brazilian driver. “I used to race late models. I started my career racing cars, I started with late models instead of going straight to single-seaters. I won the late model championship at Hickory back in 2011. That’s when I got the chance to go to Europe.
“I did a couple oval races back in 2018. To be back racing on an oval, I’m very happy about it. We tested at Texas a couple weeks ago, then Indianapolis after Texas. I was able to get back in the groove. The team did a great job in getting me back into the rhythm of racing on ovals. I’m looking forward to it.
“I mean, I have to be an oval specialist because I’m doing all the ovals this year, all the ovals for the 51 car. I’m going to have to try to make myself an oval specialist.”
Fittipaldi, said that as McLaughlin eluded to, there’s a lot to learn inside of the race car this weekend. Add to the fact that it’s going to be two races in two days on a high speed oval and that makes it even more harder with how physical it’s going to be.
“I think physically it’s going to be very tough because it’s two races, one Saturday, one Sunday,” he said. “I think the first race is 212 laps, the race on Sunday is 248. They’re very long and it’s very physical.
“I think people sometimes don’t understand how physical it is on an oval because you just turn left. Scott can say it, too, but it’s extremely physical. After like a stint, you’re destroyed. I’m sure that after a whole race, you need to recover Saturday night to be ready again for Sunday because that’s an even longer race and it’s more in the day so it’s going to be even harder in the car.”
Both drivers have some greats in their corners. McLaughlin has Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud as teammates.
“Invaluable (smiling). It’s the thing that I take very seriously, listen to a lot of their advice,” McLaughlin said of his vastly experienced teammates. “I definitely ask for a lot. I’m in their ear all the time, watching all their footage, looking at all their data, just little things.
“But they could easily be hiding away a lot of the stuff, not try and show me too much. But they’ve been fantastic in all facets. There’s stuff they’re probably hiding from me, but at the same time that’s what racing is all about with teammates. Everyone hides that last little 10th. That’s about me trying to find that myself. That’s what motorsport is all about.”
Fittipaldi has Emerson Fittipaldi, Christian Fittipaldi and uncle Max Papis at his disposal too.
“Yeah, I mean, I spoke to Christian recently. It’s taking it step by step on the ovals,” Fittipaldi said. “Max, who is my uncle as well, is the INDYCAR race steward. He was there at Texas because Cody Ware, our teammate, was there, too. We were doing a rookie orientation day. Max was there evaluating us. He’s my uncle, married to my mom’s sister.
“He’s been kind of taking me through the ropes a lot, too, teaching me everything I have to know when I was there at Texas and Indianapolis. I was in a car with him and Arie Luyendyk, in a pace car, doing laps at Indianapolis. Max was like, Arie, you have to teach him the tricks on how to do a pole lap. Arie has, like, the quickest pole lap.
“I was there with them, they were telling me all the tricks and stuff of Indianapolis. It’s awesome, great to have that support.”
As to the best advice given to them, Fittipaldi said that you have to be patient. There’s a lot to learn for both coming into the weekend, especially with him being out of the series for the last couple of years. You just have to be patient and let the car and race come to you.
But, with just one practice to be able to do so, it’s difficult.
“I’d say it’s being patient on the ovals, running in dirty air,” said Fittipaldi. I think it’s going to be difficult at Texas to follow cars and overtake. If you have the right setup, especially for dirty air, it’s going to make a big difference.
“We will work on that in practice, it’s a short practice, then you go straight into qualifying, so there’s not so much you can do. If you can unload, get the car out of the truck and it’s already in a good place, that’s going to be very important.
“I mean, there’s still a lot to learn for me as well. To race single-seaters on an oval, it’s very different, especially now with the aeroscreen. The car has a bit of a different balance than what I was used to from before. Following cars is always very difficult to get used to as well, gaining that experience not only in Texas but as well for Indianapolis.
“You can run laps on your own good, run fast laps, you could be quick in qualifying, but you go out in the race, it’s going to be hard to get that experience of following in traffic, trying to time passes and stuff. That’s going to be the main thing, trying to gain as much experience with that in Texas, then execute everything that’s in my control and get the best result possible.
“I think it’s going to be interesting with this new aero package, get a feel for what it’s like in traffic, how close we can follow and make moves as well. A lot to unravel here.”
So, how are the nerves then coming into the weekend? This is something very different for them.
“For me it’s the excitement of having never done it before, experiencing what it’s like,” said McLaughlin. “That’s something that is going to be so cool, so refreshing for me. First career start on an oval. Why not do it in the fastest race car of all? It’s a cool thing.”
“Yeah, I mean, the cars are a little bit different from when I raced in 2018, Phoenix, Gateway and Pocono. I mean, I’m just extremely excited,” he said.
“The ovals are very intimidating, especially when you have 20 other cars running around you and stuff. Just got to keep your cool and take it step by step. But it’s definitely very intimidating. The adrenaline is super high, more than any other thing that I’ve driven, and I’ve driven a lot of different race cars.
“Yeah, I’m very excited.”