Scott McLaughlin unfortunately entered the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season with downward spirits. He was honestly deep down questioning on if his move from Australia was a mistake. He had won three straight Australian V8 Supercars championships and a total of 56 victories over there. However, he was wanting more. McLaughlin, a Team Penske driver overseas, knew that Penske had a lot more to offer.
A move to NASCAR? He was willing. A move to INDYCAR? That was also in the cards. They settled on the open wheel series and in the midst of a global pandemic, McLaughlin packed up and moved to the United States with hopes of showing what he’s done in Australia and doing so in North America.
The first race was the 2020 season finale on the streets of St. Pete. That was a learning experience. 2021 was a full slate and one that he expected to be more competitive. 16 races run. 1 podium, 2 top 5 finishes, 5 top 10’s and 5 laps led. That relegated him to a 14th place finish in the final standings.
More times than not, he was left questioning on what he was doing. Why did he come over here? This wasn’t what he envisioned.
McLaughlin is close with his parents but we’re in a pandemic and they can’t come over here to be with him. The only support system he had was his wife and Team Penske who kept assuring him that he’d be fine. This was part of the learning curve. The NTT INDYCAR Series is no joke. McLaughlin was just in Year 1 and quickly finding out that this isn’t an easy task at hand.
“I had won straight back-to-back championships, and I know I’m a rookie and I wasn’t kidding myself, but at the same time it’s hard to go from the mindset of, okay, win every week and that’s all that matters, nothing less, to going, hey, I’d love a top 15,” McLaughlin said back in February in St. Pete. “I don’t work like that. I’m a competitive bloke. I want to win. I want to get poles. I want to dominate races and not even worry about things.
“It definitely took — I did that for four years, and then coming here and was basically — it just mucks with your head, and you’ve got to be realistic about things, and I put a lot of pressure on myself, like why isn’t this happening, why am I sucking in qualifying when I’m good? I’ve done that before, I’ve proved that.
“It’s a mind game, man, and you’ve got to be on top of it. You’ve got to just believe in yourself.
“Like I said, Karly has been my absolute rock with that. She’s put the belief in me. I would be nothing without her.
“Definitely some hard times, but she’s pulled my head in, Roger’s pulled my head in, and we just got on with it. Speaking pretty candid, it’s just how it is. As a professional sportsman you go through highs and lows. You’re getting paid good money and you’re running 15th, it’s not good. For me it’s not good. I drive for the biggest motorsport team in the world. For me it wasn’t good.”
In late February, McLaughlin hopped in to his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet with the same desire to compete but he felt he needed to prove himself. The opening day of practice went well. So did Day 2. He was quickest on the speed charts. The juices were flowing and he came into qualifying with a shot at a pole. It was a feeling he hadn’t had in nearly 2 years.
McLaughlin prevailed. He set a track record in topping teammate Will Power for his first career INDYCAR pole. Now the thoughts overnight was, I can do this. I now have to prove myself and take his pole to a win.
He did just that in leading 49 of 100 laps en route to his first career victory.
“I feel like today, this weekend, we proved that hard work, perseverance, you can get there, and I felt very proud of that,” he said following his St. Pete win.
The next race, he led 186 of 248 laps but was passed by his other teammate Josef Newgarden for the win at Texas on the last lap. He’d finish 2nd after starting there. Instead of relief, he was disappointed.
That’s the moment that he knew he was ready for shine. Last year he would have been happy with a runner-up. This year he’s down.
A rough weekend in Long Beach saw him finish 14th but in Barber, he came home 6th for his 3rd top 6 result in the opening four races to 2022. That had him sitting 2nd in points coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
On top of that, his parents were going to be here at the end of the month. Times were good.
The last time he’s seen his parents?
January 2020 he said. He last saw his sister during his INDYCAR debut in Oct. 2020. That was the last time for both.
“Yeah, I miss them dearly,” he said. “My mom and dad, they’re the ones that got me here and made me believe in myself. My mom and dad have been infatuated with the USA for many years, and I guess that put the love of the USA and the want to come over here to the big leagues when I was a young kid, even way before my Supercars success.
“Then obviously I met just a guy named Roger Penske and we kicked it off. I’m tremendously grateful for the position my mom and dad put me in and the position Roger and Tim Cindric put me in.”
The GMR Grand Prix was tough. 11th place start, 20th place finish. That dropped him to 3rd in points. The next weekend was bad luck for Indy 500 qualifying. He had a shot for a top 15 starting spot. They pulled his time. He went slower. Rain came. Fin.
He’d start 26th and crash in Turn 3 in finishing 29th in the double points race. That dropped him to 7th in points. Belle Isle he qualified 10th, make a mistake and finished 19th. He was now back down to 10th in the standings.
This time however, McLaughlin wasn’t panicking. He knew the talent he had and the speed the car he was driving could produce. It was just a rough stretch that he just needed a solid weekend to climb out of.
Road America was it. 9th place start and 7th place finish isn’t sexy. But it was enough to get the tide turned back the other direction.
“I think it just — I went through so much adversity last year that this was nothing,” he said on the 3 race struggles and how he turned it back around. “This is water off a duck’s back in some ways to what was going on. We were still — the last few races unfortunately haven’t gone great for us. We were competing potentially to be in top 5s and whatnot. It’s not like the pace wasn’t there.
“I think it’s hard going from my mentality of in Australia where I was winning a lot and I think the last — last year in Australia we won 14 races or something. It’s hard to go from a mentality of just cutthroat, you have to win every weekend, if you don’t it’s a bad race, to just coping with top 10s, top 15s. Regardless of what situation you are, you’re a competitive beast, you built yourself out to be. Every person in here, every driver is a competitive individual.
“It’s very hard to sort of get out of that and just go, okay, well, I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to just build with this. I’ve got to build with the team. I’ve got to build with the car. It does take some time, and it definitely took me more time than I thought. I think Tim and Roger knew exactly how long it was going to take. That’s why they’re the experts.
“I just had to trust the process, trust them and trust what we had going on here, and I think, yeah, we are in the right spot. I’m competing for top 5s every week, top 8s every week. I think we’re right where we want to be, but we’ve got a long which to go before we’re where Josef is right now, and I’ve got certainly a nice person to groove myself on.
“Last year we lost ourselves a little bit because the pace wasn’t there. That’s sort of — that was what was the tough pill to swallow. But yeah, certainly last year shaped me to be — trust the process, trust what I’m doing is right.”
The next race at Mid-Ohio, he qualified on the front row again. He turned that into his 2nd win of the season. This time, his parents were here to witness it.
“It’s awesome. It’s not just to be together but just to win with them here,” McLaughlin said after his Honda Indy 200 triumph in Mid-Ohio. “That’s the coolest thing. Even in Australia, I didn’t really win with them a lot in Australia. It’s been a while since they’ve been — I think the last win I had was the Bathurst 1000 in 2019 with them in town.
“Really excited to have them here, and it just means so much. They’re the people that shaped me as a person, and to have them here with me and my wife and Charlotte and just hanging out, it’s been a cool couple months. We’re definitely — I’m probably giving them a few more gray hairs, but that’s part of the development of everything, and I’m really proud to win in front of them, win in front of mom.”
That propelled him back up to 7th in points. Toronto he’d only finish 9th. Iowa 1 a bad pit stop dropped him to 22nd. He still sat 7th. He’d make up for it a day later in another podium (3rd). Then came the return trip to the IMS road course. He finished 4th. He’d not finish worse since.
2nd, 3rd and now 1st are his next 3 results which took him from 93 points out in late July to just 41 back heading to the season finale this Sunday in Laguna Seca. While the odds are long of making up that much ground in 1 race, he says it makes his job easier this weekend to race with nothing to lose.
“I have nothing to lose, but at the same time I want to do the best job for my team,” he said. “I don’t need to be a Kamikaze or anything like that, but I just need to focus on what I’m doing and just dot my Is, cross my Ts, and have a good run.
“Ideal weekend is a pole race win. It’s no doubt that I can go to Laguna Seca and win, and I’m ready to do that.”
The thing is, he also doesn’t want to ruin this momentum. He has 5 straight top 4 finishes and has led at least 10 laps in each one. That his him more focused on 2023 than 2022 now.
“I think what we’re doing right now is building for a massive year next year. I haven’t finished out of the top five or top four for the last six events or something. I’m feeling really strong. There’s no reason why this can’t be great momentum for next year, and yeah, I feel like I’m driving the best I ever have in my whole career right now.
“I feel really comfortable and comfortable with the team. That’s what you need to tackle championships, especially in the series.”
Prior to this season, he made 17 starts with 0 wins, 1 podium, 2 top 5 finishes, 5 top 10’s, 1 race led for 5 laps and 16 times he was running at the finish.
This season: 16 races, 3 wins, 7 podiums, 8 top 5 finishes, 11 top 10’s, 8 races led for 433 laps and 15 races he was running at the finish.
He told me in late July that his goal was a top 5 finish in the final standings and felt like he could get there by two more wins. He has 1 and in 5th place….
“Yeah. Starting to learn who I am now,” he quipped. “I’ve just had good teammates, got a good team, good cars, for me to be able to extract the speed and be really comfortable with it and learn quickly. I’m very thankful for that.
“Yeah, I think off-track life is a lot easier. I feel a lot more at home in the INDYCAR SERIES. Know a lot more faces. It doesn’t feel as unknown, even in the media, sponsorship land, even the Penske organization. It was a lot to take on last year. I’m very happy with where we’re at right now.”