Scott McLaughlin knew coming into this weekend’s that he was facing a tall task. This would be his first oval start of his racing career. Yes, he had been on the Texas Motor Speedway before for a offseason testing session as well as taking part in a two-day Indy 500 open test a few weeks ago. But, none of that was in racing conditions. This was new.
McLaughlin, also only had one short practice session on Saturday to get used to everything. That includes what he said was learning the draft, the dirty air, the weight jacker, all the tools inside the car and everything else.
He had 90 minutes available to do so.
Still, he shared his excitement to try out a new experience.
“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 said on Wednesday of this past week. “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.”
McLaughlin, started 15th but brought his No. 3 Chevrolet home runner-up in Saturday’s Genesys 300. It was his first career top 10 in just his fourth career Indy Car start. He did so on a track that’s become difficult to pass on.
“Well, it’s definitely the most happy I’ve ever been finishing second,” said the rookie driver. “It’s one of those things where a little bit unexpected just because I knew how tough it was going to be sort of getting through the field. But, yeah, things fell our way. For it to happen on an oval is a pretty proud moment.
“A lot of preparation. I’ve worked very hard behind the scenes looking at footage, talking to my teammates about where we can get better. Really proud to have been able to deliver tonight when I needed to. The boys on the team put me in position. I was able to deliver. That’s what I’m really proud of.”
McLaughlin though was helped by not pitting before the opening of two cautions during the race when his Penske teammate Josef Newgarden got into the back of Sebastien Bourdais and sent his No. 14 Chevrolet into the Turn 2 SAFER barrier.
McLaughlin, was one of just 14 cars that had yet to pit, but three of those 14 were already a lap down. McLaughlin’s pit crew got him out inside the top 10, then he steadily moved up the rest of the way. On the final pit stop on Lap 164, he exited second.
He’d restart the race one spot behind Scott Dixon in the closing laps and would get a tutorial on how it’s done from his countrymate as he’d ride in his wake the final stint.
“Look, I’ve been watching Scott since really 2001 when he first joined PacWest, around that time,” McLaughlin said of Dixon. “Then obviously when he went to Ganassi and won the championship in 2003. ’08, the Indy 500. A big fan, a massive fan.
“So to follow him and race him towards the end, have genuine pace for him, was pretty cool. I said to the guys in the caution period, This is pretty cool, isn’t it? I think they were trying to calm me down a little bit. It was cool. Probably too happy finishing second. Definitely you won’t get me like this ever again. I’m sure hopefully we can go one better next time.”
McLaughlin, would cross the finish line just .2646-seconds behind Dixon and now moves up to sixth in the standings heading into Sunday’s XPEL 375 on Sunday.
“I had a tremendous amount of fun, about as much fun as I thought I was going to have,” he said. “The PPG Chevy was great. We also had great strategy calls, pit stops. The crew on pit road were unbelievable. Have to thank them a huge amount.
“It’s a big thing taking on my first oval race. Just tried to get through the first few laps. I was pretty cautious, probably too cautious in my first stint. Just sort of worked up to it. Managed to dodge the Bourdais wreck, which was pretty close for me. Then the Hinchcliffe one which put us right there.”
As to if he’s comfortable heading back to the same track one day later? He said that he’s more comfortable in dirty air, how he needs to sort of adjust his driving style, what changes inside the car he can do to help himself in dirty air, stuff like that.
“What moves I can do,” he continued. “Like the restarts I felt really strong tonight. I made a couple moves in the early parts at the start, went sort of outside into three, a few others. That worked out good for me. Was a bit of a chance, but you got to try them sometimes.”
But does he overall feel comfortable in these cars on ovals?
“Still haven’t (laughter),” he said. “I think I’ve still got a bit of time before I’m comfortable. I don’t think you’re ever comfortable. Rick Mears told me as well. I said, I’m still nervous every time I go out on the track. I don’t know what to sort of feel, quite numb initially. When it’s numb, it’s quite nerve-wracking.
“He said, You’ll never get rid of that.
“He won the Indy 500 four times. I totally understand that.”
McLaughlin said that he physically feels fine and that it’s definitely a different art to racing on an oval.
“Yeah, a lot more mentally tiring than physically obviously. The road course, you’ve got to really wheel it. With the power steering — no power steering, stuff like that, it hurts at the end of a race. St. Pete was probably one of the hardest, physical races I’ve done for a very long time.
“But the oval is completely different. I don’t feel sore, I don’t feel anything. I have heaps of padding and stuff like that. The mental game, figuring it all out, reading the track, what it does, it’s interesting and very draining mentally.
“I got caught out midway through the race, just how fast the track was picking up grip, getting faster and faster. I settled in as I was going, what lines I could run. Kind of nice to follow Scottie there, see what lines he was running, too. That was a nice thing.”