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Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin excels despite little sleep in iRacing

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If the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series had begun as planned, Virgin Australia SuperCars champion Scott McLaughlin would be preparing for his IndyCar Series debut with Team Penske. His first IndyCar race was scheduled to be the May 9 GMR IndyCar Grand Prix.

That, of course, won’t happen, at least not on that day.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought an unexpected halt to the start of the season. The IndyCar Grand Prix is now scheduled for July 4 as part of an IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

McLaughlin won’t be able to compete in that event because he is committed to trying to win a third consecutive SuperCars title.

McLaughlin has won an incredible 44 races and back-to-back championships in SuperCars. He remains determined to drive in an IndyCar race for Team Penske this year.

He is also putting in the extra time to help the series during its IndyCar iRacing Challenge – a six-race virtual series on iRacing.

Because the New Zealander lives in Australia, the time difference is dramatic. McLaughlin’s home in Brisbane, Australia is 15 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in the United States.

McLaughlin has turned his sleep schedule upside down so that he can participate in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. It paid off in just the second race as McLaughlin won at virtual Barber Motorsports Park last week.

This past Saturday, McLaughlin finished second in the Chevrolet 275 at Michigan International Speedway to Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud.

With three consecutive top fives (a fourth in the opener at Watkins Glen International, McLaughlin unofficially leads the series points standings, which makes the lack of sleep worth it.

“This is my third time getting up at 4, 5 in the morning for the practice races to learn the draft, what it was like with group practices,” said McLaughlin, who has been waking up as early as 2:30 a.m. on race days the past three weeks. “With the fixed setup races, I enjoy it because everybody is in the same boat. You can’t do much about it. It’s all about how you understand the tire, how it heats up, how it goes across the run.

“I guess just a little bit of effort, yeah, sacrificing my sleep, getting around it.

“For me, it’s a lot of hard work. In some ways I’ve really worked hard on my setup and my understanding of the setup in the SuperCar and the tracks. Certainly, haven’t driven a SuperCar in Monza before, so that was good to learn.”

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Sleeping during the day and staying up all night has been important to McLaughlin. He is learning the characteristics and traits of the drivers he will race one day for real.

“For me to race against the IndyCar guys is even a better treat for me, to learn how everyone races, who is aggressive, who is not aggressive, it’s quite interesting,” McLaughlin said. “I appreciate Team Penske allowing me to jump in the IndyCar Challenge. It’s been fun. I’m taking it on board and learning. I’m learning some tracks I’ve never been to before in real life.

“For instance, Barber last week, Michigan as a speedway, learning the oval side.”

McLaughlin doesn’t know when he will get to make his first real IndyCar start, but he is determined it will be in 2020

“For me right now it’s a wait-and-see type thing,” McLaughlin said. “Obviously the Indy GP is put off. It’s a matter of waiting and seeing what goes on with border controls and travel restrictions, all that sort of stuff.

“It’s all good. I just have to keep doing what I can do. I’m focused on keeping myself fit, making sure I’m ready whenever the call comes. We’ll see how we go.”

He had a spotter in iRacing competition for the first time on Saturday. At times, he found it distracting.

“This is the first time where I’ve actually had a human genuinely telling me where the cars were, the runs,” McLaughlin said. “Getting used to that, the constant talk, how much chatter I wanted was interesting, I really enjoyed it all week.

“I’m glad I did it a few practice races to get used to oval stuff, how hard some people race, how hard some people didn’t.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

McLaughlin was actually involved in the crash heading to the start of the virtual Michigan race, the Chevrolet 275. Because it is sim racing, teams are allowed to make a fast repair to the car, so in the gaming world, McLaughlin’s crash did not take him out of the contest.

“I was able to repair my car and get back out,” he said. “it became a strategy to the end in saving fuel. I think me and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. did very similar strategies all the way to the end, as well as Simon.”

There was concern there would be several virtual “big ones” at MIS. But after the crash at the start of the game, it became more of a duel of strategy.

“In the practice races everyone was crashing, stuff going on everywhere,” McLaughlin said. “When you get into the real thing, unbelievable, everyone was really good. I was in really clean air most of the race. I only raced sort of four or five cars, most of it with the strategy, how it all worked out.

“In the end, we were all trying to save a little bit of fuel there. The conduct was really good. I think everyone is getting use to the Internet racing side of things because it’s not exactly the same in regard to how close you can touch people, all that sort of stuff, pinch people down. It’s getting used to that.

“It gives you a really good feel, I’m sure, of what it’s like in the real-life thing.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500