Scott McLaughlin enters IndyCar debut with Team Penske eyeing a full-time ride for driver

Scott McLaughlin IndyCar future
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Scott McLaughlin will be making his NTT IndyCar Series debut this weekend with a future on the U.S. circuit apparently in the three-time Supercars champion’s hands, according to his car owner.

In a Tuesday interview with SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel, Roger Penske said it’s a tryout less about the team evaluating McLaughlin than the driver confirming he wants to race IndyCar.

“He’s going to see exactly whether he wants to do that full time,” Penske said. “We’ve got to make that decision over the next 30 days.”

McLaughlin, 27, already has proven much in winning the past three titles with Penske’s Supercars team in Australia. He said Penske and team president Tim Cindric approached him with the IndyCar opportunity about 18 months ago.

WEEKEND SCHEDULE: When cars will be on track at St. Petersburg

That led to McLaughlin wowing IndyCar drivers in February with top-five speed during a preseason test at Circuit of the Americas. He was scheduled to race the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic scuttled the series’ schedule. There also were travel restrictions that made it difficult for the New Zealand native (he had to get visa approval to leave Australia with his wife, who is American).

But he has been putting in the extra time to prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, eavesdropping during the Indianapolis 500 on the radio of Helio Castroneves (whose part-time team McLaughlin will have at St. Pete).

He also went straight to an IndyCar driving simulator Monday night in North Carolina after jumping on a plane directly after Sunday’s Supercars finale at Bathurst (where he helped wrap up the team championship), flying to Sydney and then to California and Charlotte. He then returned to the simulator Tuesday.

“It’s a different experience, and if I’ve got the opportunity to do it, I’ve got to grab it with both hands,” McLaughlin said in a media availability Thursday morning. “COTA was good in some ways where I understood the car but when you’re doing one lap by yourself, it’s a lot easier than with 23 other drivers into Turn 1. I’m fully expecting a new challenge in the race with in and out laps and pit stops. There’s still a lot of things I haven’t come across that I need to learn and understand before I actually make a decision and before as a team.

“It’s something I’m just going to go in like a sponge and soak everything up and see what comes out of it. I’m pretty confident I’m going to like the series and the cars, there wouldn’t be a reason I wouldn’t be here. It’s cool I’m able to have that support from Roger, the team, Tim (Cindric) to allow me at 27 years old to try and accomplish dreams.”

Fellow Kiwi Scott Dixon, who is aiming for his sixth IndyCar championship Sunday, met McLaughin about five years ago in Auckland and told NBC Sports he’s “a huge, huge talent.

“He’s a beast, man, obviously we’ve seen in his track record and even when he came over to the COTA test,” Dixon told IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in a Wednesday interview. “Obviously it’s a pretty steep hill this weekend, but I expect him to be very fast, he’s a very quick learner. Obviously a massive talent, but I’m super excited to have another Kiwi on the grid. He’s a fairly young guy and with a fantastic team. He’s got a bright future.

“It’s just so cool to see someone like him have the opportunity from where he’s been racing. It’s almost unheard of, it is unheard of, so I’m excited for him, man. I hope it goes smoothly.”

McLaughlin will be teamed in the season finale with three champions in Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who is competing against Dixon for the title.

“It’s going to be really fascinating to see how he handles this challenge,” Newgarden said of McLaughlin. “This is going to be an enormous task for Scott. He’s really, really good. We already know that. You could see that a mile away. I think we all admire his strengths around the Supercars side. I think he’s a great racer overall, doesn’t matter what car you put him in. As far as IndyCar this weekend, he doesn’t have a lot of time.

“This is a very abnormal St. Pete weekend. Normally you have three practices, an hour apiece, maybe about two and a half hours total. He’d have an overnight to kind of understand things and make sure to distill it down to useful information. He’s got to work on the fly. He’s never been to this track. He’s never really driven the car on a true street circuit. It’s an enormous task. If he finishes in the top 10, it’s a great weekend. If he finishes in the top five, it’s an amazing weekend. Who knows, maybe he goes and wins the race. Very possible for someone like him.”

McLaughlin joked if he finishes in the top 10 at St. Pete he’ll be “doing cartwheels. I’ll be going crazy! I’m fully expecting a tough battle. I might have a great experience running last. I’ve got a lot to learn and fully expecting that I could be last. At the end of the day as long as I get a good feel for the category and the cars, we’ll be all right.”