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Constant learning, team-topping improvement and becoming one of the crew: Scott McLaughlin’s rise to lead Penske

Written by Archie O’Reilly


Heading into the fourth full year of his NTT IndyCar Series career, Scott McLaughlin is ready to take the next step. 


Since making the move over from Australian Supercars, the Kiwi has been on a significant learning journey having delved into single-seater racing for the first time. He has spent his first few years Stateside continually absorbing crucial information from his pair of two-time IndyCar championship-winning teammates amid his adaptation to a wholly new discipline.


But, for the first time, McLaughlin seems to feel as though he can start to be left to his own devices. IndyCar’s annual Content Days in early January marked the first time the Team Penske drivers had reconvened since the off-season commenced.


“I’ve really leaned on Josef [Newgarden] and Will [Power],” McLaughlin said during his Content Day media appearance. “Josef helped me a lot with short ovals last year and Will from a qualifying perspective as well. We’ve got really good camaraderie… it’s a really cool team, and it’s certainly helped me accelerate to the point where I am today.”


McLaughlin has relished and enjoyed the building process during his maiden dabble into open-wheel racing. He has taken an abnormal path, not making his open-wheel race debut until he turned 27 years old - a one-off IndyCar race for Penske on the streets of St. Petersburg, in which he finished 22nd.


This only makes his rapid ascension through the IndyCar ranks across the subsequent three years all the more impressive. He may have moved over as a three-time champion Down Under, but his familiar touring car discipline is worlds different to IndyCar in its nature.


And after a period of education from his teammates, whether imperious short oval driver Newgarden or the series’ best ever qualifier in Power, McLaughlin is now using his colleague’s tips to gain an edge on them. 


A second-place finish in the 2023 finale at Laguna Seca was enough to secure McLaughlin a team-topping third-place in the championship.


Finishing behind Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou and Scott Dixon, McLaughlin rounded out his third season in the series as the lead Chevrolet car, four points clear of Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward and nine ahead of Newgarden. He ousted reigning champion Power, who admittedly had a difficult year of off-track personal issues, by 63 points.


It was always a dream of McLaughlin’s to race in the United States. During the pandemic, he competed in competitive IndyCar races on iRacing - and with success, winning twice and standing on the podium in half of his six races. This level would prove to translate over time.


The fact that his Supercars successes came on the books of Penske meant that he had a pathway to IndyCar if an opportunity was granted by Roger Penske. The initial reward for his successes came in the form of a test at Sebring International Raceway, then an oval test at Texas Motor Speedway, before his one-off race at the back end of 2020.


McLaughlin debuted full-time in 2021, enduring some difficult moments while getting up to speed but ultimately finishing 14th-place in the championship and securing the coveted Rookie of the Year title. A podium in only the third race of the season - on his oval debut at Texas, which is notorious for being a tough track to learn - was evidence of McLaughlin’s ability to get up to speed extremely quickly. 


Fast forward two years from the start of his IndyCar career and expectations had continued to rise exponentially, to the extent that McLaughlin headed into 2023 regarded by some as championship favourite. 


In many ways, it was hard to dispute claims that McLaughlin could almost unthinkably etch his name onto the Astor Challenge Cup in only his third year in open-wheel racing. And in a series widely regarded to be one of the world’s most competitive too.


McLaughlin’s sophomore season featured seven podiums, including three victories - the most managed by any driver in the series in 2022 aside from teammate Newgarden. He made a drastic jump of 10 positions in the standing from 14th to fourth-place. 


In hindsight, claims that McLaughlin could win the title in only his third year probably placed unfair levels of expectation on a driver still only in his third year in the discipline. There were still inconsistencies that needed to be ironed out on the back of 2022, even with McLaughlin’s peak performance level better than that of the vast majority in the series.


A few remaining learning curves may have been masked by McLaughlin’s sophomore successes, with 12 top-10 finishes but five races seeing the Kiwi finish 14th-place or lower. But the fact that his inexperience was so easily forgotten spoke to the rapid rate of development he underwent. 


McLaughlin’s start to 2023 was not necessarily the smoothest. He was contending for successive St. Pete wins in the opening race, but as he tried to keep Romain Grosjean behind on cold tyres having just exited the pits on lap 72, the pair collided and ended up in the turn four tyre barrier.


Three top-10 finishes inside the opening six races was not a disastrous return, with McLaughlin also taking his only win of the season at Barber Motorsports Park in Round Four after another duel with Grosjean. But the Kiwi was not content with his Indianapolis 500 campaign, which followed a 16th-place finish on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) road course. 


McLaughlin had his best Indy 500 campaign to date but improvement in May is still viewed as being necessary. His teammate, Newgarden, progressed through the field to win his first IMS oval crown after starting three places lower. But McLaughlin never managed to get into the same window, starting and finishing in 14th-place. 


But following on from the Month of May, McLaughlin managed to develop consistency that had not been established previously in his short IndyCar career to date. He went on to finish inside the top nine in the 11 races post-May.


He has appeared to grow much better equipped to respond to any poor races or errors made, avoiding any repeat of an early 2022 rut of finishing 14th or lower four times in a five-race run - a spell that possibly cost him an unlikely sophomore championship.


McLaughlin rounded out 2023 with 14 top-10 finishes. This was an improvement on 2022 and, looking long-term, should prove more valuable than having managed only one race win and four podiums compared to three wins and seven podiums the year prior. 


When you zoom in further on McLaughlin’s 2023 campaign, you could outline a number of races that he could have gained more headline results in anyway. If things went ever so slightly differently - in terms of external factors - in a number of races, namely Toronto, Nashville and Portland, there could easily have been more podiums or wins.


McLaughlin heads into 2024 having really found his groove and developed consistency - a core principle of IndyCar - both in terms of one-lap pace and race results, in a way that he has not done so before. 


An average race finish of seventh was an advance on Newgarden, who had not finished outside the top two in the standings since winning the 2019 championship, and reigning champion Power’s shared average of 9.4 in 2023. 


Comparing McLaughlin’s performances against his teammates - the biggest benchmarks - best outlines the level he showed in 2023. This is particularly pertinent given they are both two-time champions and Indy 500 winners, with Newgarden winning 29 of 198 races competed in and Power winning 39 times in 255 starts.


The outperformance was even more stark in qualifying, made all the more impressive by documented issues that Penske had away from ovals. Power has the most poles in IndyCar history, but he and Newgarden largely had a difficult time when attempting to make it to the latter part of road and street course qualifying sessions on a consistent basis.


Power came away from 2023 with only the single road and street course Fast Six appearance, with Newgarden only two appearances better off. 


By contrast, McLaughlin managed seven road and street course Fast Sixes in 2023 and heads into 2024 with seven of his last eight qualifying runs having seen him finish inside the top two. Across 17 races, he finished inside the top two in qualifying on eight occasions and only missed out on the top 10 four times.


While the gap to the champion was greater in 2023 than in 2022, Alex Palou’s remarkable season was a freakish anomaly as the Spaniard became the first driver to wrap up the championship before the closing race in almost two decades. McLaughlin still made a certain step forward and seems genuinely equipped for a 2024 title fight.


The next step for McLaughlin is to build on the edge he had against his teammates on road and street courses and notch his first oval victory. Otherwise, his adaptation to IndyCar is almost entirely complete.


“I guess the first oval win is the next thing for me, to finish off everything,” he said on Content Day. “But I think from a comfort, pace, feeling perspective, I feel really at home. I certainly don’t feel like the new kid anymore, and I feel more like an open wheel driver than a touring car driver now.”


Penske were the strongest outfit across five oval races in 2023 and with two more oval events on the calendar this year - a HyVee-sponsored Milwaukee Mile doubleheader - the opportunity for one of their drivers to take advantage and mount a championship run in 2024 only grows. 


A finale on Nashville Superspeedway, which was decided upon due to logistical issues preventing a race on the Music City streets and essentially replaces the outgoing Texas on the oval schedule, also means the final eight rounds will be made up of six oval races. Any Penske drivers being in the championship ballpark around the mid-season mark could be ominous for the competition.


If McLaughlin can maintain his road and street course edge and secure a maiden oval win, which would align with his continued upwards trajectory, he will have to be considered a very viable championship contender. And it does feel as though an oval win is coming.


A late-season statement was made in 2023 by edging Newgarden to the NTT P1 Award at World Wide Technology Raceway - a short oval regarded as one of Newgarden’s strongest tracks. The pole margin was not insignificant either, with McLaughlin’s two-lap run 1.512 seconds faster than second-place Newgarden across a 1.25-mile track.


The fact that McLaughlin is even managing to consistently stay in tact and battle with Newgarden on ovals - a track type on which he is regarded as one of the best ever - warrants high praise in itself. Four years ago, the Kiwi had never even ventured onto a track of that style, which necessitates such a different style of driving.


Newgarden’s advice, plus that of Rick Mears, who is a four-time Indy 500 winner, three-time series champion and former Penske driver now in a role assisting the team, has been crucial for McLaughlin’s oval development.


“Rick’s basically my eye in the sky in some ways,” McLaughlin said in January. “He’s not my spotter, but he certainly watches everything with a keen interest and where I’m positioning the car. He’s one of the first people that always comments about my driving when I come back in from an oval. 


“It has been more so his help has been on ovals to accelerate that phase, and that’s been amazing for me, particularly at Indy, but short ovals as well. I just find myself picking up the phone and ringing him, which I’ve had the privilege to, which is an amazing feeling. But, yeah, trying to use him the right way has been really enjoyable to do.”


McLaughlin is now at a stage where he is completely settled in the US with his partner, Karly, and two dogs. Visa issues have been sorted and he has also recently moved into a new house too. And with off-track consistency as well as constant on-track improvement, McLaughlin has the belief he has a good shot at the big prizes.


“I think ever since I won my first race, I knew that every year after that, every year I come into the sport now, I’m going to have a legitimate shot, knowing that the tools I have at hand and where I am in my development as an IndyCar driver,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the best possible spot I’ve ever been for a long time, but even probably better than last year.”


If he does find himself in a championship fight, he has experiences of both success and coming up short to draw on from his time in Supercars.


“I definitely think having the experience of trying to win a championship and being in a position to have that pressure, have the TV, have the media talking all about it, it definitely is a nice thing compared to someone who hasn’t been in that position before,” he said. “I think that helps… I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage, but it definitely probably settles me down.”


McLaughlin has firmly established himself as a valuable character and exciting on-track asset to IndyCar too. He has proven a perfect fit for Penske too - incredibly well-liked in the team and possessing a tight-knit bond with his ‘Thirsty 3s’ team.


As much as he is a skilled driver, McLaughlin is, by all accounts, a pleasure to work with and has been a “blessing” of an addition to the team. He is one of the crew rather than being on a pedestal as the driver and constantly sings the praises of the rest of his team.


“He truly is just one of the crew,” a source told DIVEBOMB. “He never acts like a ‘driver’ - always greets you every morning at the track and sees you before he leaves every night. He’s very appreciative of every one on the crew.... 


“He stands out as a great driver just in his character alone. He’ll be a multi-time champion in IndyCar at some point. He’s still ironing out the kinks currently. But mostly he’s just a cool dude that treats you like friends.”


McLaughlin has been a revelation and one of the best stories in IndyCar in recent years since making the move over from Supercars. And you get the sense it could be only a matter of time before his successes in the series are notched up a level further.

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