No one puts as much pressure on himself than Scott McLaughlin. The Kiwi came over here to the United States in the middle of a global pandemic and expected to win right away. In fact, at this time a year ago, he was questioning himself on if he even made the right decision in his career trajectory.
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 did so 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 replicating that in North America.
Easier said than done.
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 couldn’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 a year ago 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 of 2022, McLaughlin hopped into 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 were his next 3 results which took him from 93 points out in late July to just 41 back heading to the season finale a year ago. While the odds were long of making up that much ground in 1 race, he knew that he was building for 2023.
McLaughlin finished sixth that day. Six straight top sixes to close out his second full-time season in the series.
“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.
Last season: 17 races, 3 wins, 7 podiums, 8 top 5 finishes, 12 top 10’s, 8 races led for 433 laps and 16 races he was running at the finish.
“Look, absolutely. I know that we made a massive step personally for me last year,” McLaughlin said during Media Day content on Wednesday afternoon. “That was due to a number of things, things clicking, working out really good.
“But now what we know of INDYCAR racing, you just need to continue stepping up a little. McLaren is going to be fast, Andretti, Ganassi as we know is unreal. We need to continue to build as a team, myself. I’ve certainly looked at negatives that I can improve on. Hopefully that bodes me well for the rest of the season.”
Some athletes say that you can’t take much away from one season to the next. It’s a clean, fresh slate. Others say just the opposite. What side of the coin does McLaughlin fall?
“I think it’s more up to you and your mentality and what you think,” he told me. “I certainly believe you can’t stop me from learning what I learnt last year. I still know what I learn understand and what I can improve on.
“Whether it’s momentum or whether it’s just learnings, I know what I learnt and what I need to learn and be better at from last year, I know what I’ve had to work on in saying that. That’s what I’ve worked on.
“I think that hopefully will put me in good stead.”
Even with how well 2022 ended, McLaughlin reflected back on it and found some areas that he could be better in.
“Yeah, for me, I made a couple mistakes mid-season,” he said. “My Indy crash, Detroit going down the escape road, a few things that just sort of put me on the back foot championship-wise.
“If you looked at my season from maybe Road America on, I felt like everything sort of clicked. I just took races as they came. The way I finished the season last year, I’ve got to start and continue to do every race of the year like that. I can’t afford mistakes. You can’t afford mistakes in INDYCAR and be on the back foot.
“I think right now I feel comfortable with where I’m at. I know, I believe I’m fast enough to win the championship. It also comes up to me executing and doing what I can to perform on the day.
“What I tried to do last year was sometimes when I had, like, an eighth-place car, I tried to make it a second-place car and I’d crash or go down the escape road or something like that. That’s what I changed towards the end of the season. It’s just about letting it happen, letting the pace come, hopefully it bodes us well towards the end of the season.
“I know I have the speed to win a championship, but I’ve got to put it together. That’s the same for Indy 500. I’ve learnt a lot over the years that I know I’ve got the right ingredients around me, I feel like I’ve learnt enough to be a force come May. At the same time it’s about executing at the moments that you really need to and not risk too much in the moments you don’t need to.
“Yeah, I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. It’s a tough series in that regard.”
In saying all of that, this is the year the pressure comes. No one outside of himself expected that he showed in the first two years. But we all now saw this quick trajectory and with that comes pressure. The training wheels are now off. Championships and Indy 500 wins are expected. Can he live up to this pressure?
That’s something he’s not had since really 2019. Yes, he felt pressure internally since then, but not from the outside. Now, he has both factors weighing on him entering this season. Can he produce?
“I think now you just know, like, the learning is over now,” he told me. “Team Penske, you got a car that you know can win races. You’re expected to compete for championships. That’s just an expectation that I have, that I had in Australia for five, six years. I understand the mentality and understand what it’s like to have that pressure.
“I feel like it’s not an unknown for me. I’m not really stressed about it. I sort of know my ability, what I can do. If it’s good enough, it’s good enough. Yeah, it’s not an unknown and I’m not too worried about it at all.
“I put more pressure on myself than anyone can put on me. I just focus on that myself.”