Three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin may have conquered seemingly every accomplishment in New Zealand and Australia. Still, he believes his upcoming debut in the IndyCar Series next weekend is arguably his greatest challenge.
The Kiwi has been strongly linked to a full-time switch to the open-wheel category as soon as next year.
During the Spring Training tests in February, McLaughlin played a pivotal role with Team Penske which led to a confirmed debut drive at the Indy GP in Indianapolis.
However, with the global pandemic forcing a reshuffle of the IndyCar calendar, McLaughlin’s Supercars commitments meant he had to wait until a free opening after the Bathurst 1000 in October. It left just the season finale on the streets of St. Petersburg as the Kiwi’s only opportunity for a drive in 2020.
Now just over a week out from race day in St. Petersburg, McLaughlin says he is not withholding any expectations.
“I have a huge amount of respect for everyone in the NTT IndyCar Series and what they do, and how close the racing is,” he told RACER.com.
“I’m going in, fully expecting that it’s probably going to be the toughest challenge of my career. I think you take whatever opportunity you can get. Obviously, with COVID changing so many things on my schedule, I never actually thought I’d get a chance to race in IndyCar this year. Still, I loved my tests at the start of the year, and I was so excited about what was going to be my race debut in May.
“But, first, I’ve got one of the best races in the world this weekend in Bathurst, and then it’s crossing all kinds of time zones for my IndyCar debut, and it’s going to be hard. My body is going to be pretty torched after 1000kms at Bathurst. It’s a pretty mentally draining week.
“On top of that, jumping straight onto a plane, flying to the U.S. and jet lag, then I jump in the simulator for a couple days, then go live at St. Pete. I think it’s a hell of an opportunity.”
The weekend in Florida will be the backdrop of the crowning of another IndyCar champion. Fellow Kiwi Scott Dixon holds a steady points advantage over McLaughlin’s to-be Penske teammate Josef Newgarden.
The incumbent Supercars champion is no stranger to last race title showdowns, having felt the misery of losing a title on the brink of victory as well as experience the triumph and jubilation as an entire season’s work is rewarded in one race. Thus, he doesn’t want himself to be troubling both parties as he focuses on getting up to speed.
McLaughlin is also forecasting a baptism of fire for his debut as he grids up one of the series’ narrowest and most daunting street circuits.
“It’s probably one of the most competitive open-wheel series in the world, so there’s that, and my first debut was going to be on a road course with heaps and heaps of runoff,” he said. “And now I’m going to head to a tight street course — a bit of a bullring-type thing — which will keep my attention.
“But I’m also heading in with the best team, and I’ve got a hell of good teammates. All are Indy 500 winners or champions, so I’ll do as I did at COTA — just look at their data and go ‘well, he’s braking here, there’s no reason I can’t’.
“So, it was one of those things where I’m so lucky and grateful to have that opportunity with that great team and great support from a teammate that allow me to learn a lot quicker. That’s certainly going to help me on the weekend.
“In regards to the championship, I’ve got to be fast enough to catch them first! But I’ll do my best, and I’ll do what I need to do in regards to not being in the way. I’ve enjoyed the battle between Josef and Scott.
“And obviously Josef coming back in the last few races, it’s been impressive and many stories throughout the year, and after it all, you’re going to come down to two great drivers and two great teams settling it at St. Pete. I don’t think IndyCar could ask for more.”