Sunday’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg appears like an IndyCar tryout for Scott McLaughlin, but it’s actually the other way around.
Team owner Roger Penske, who is also the owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Thursday and said the choice will be entirely up to his driver.
“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.”
Penske is already aware of the superstar potential within the 27-year-old.
McLaughlin has already won Penske three-consecutive championships in Supercars competition. He was the youngest driver to compete in Supercars during his debut season in 2012 and was its youngest winner the next season at 18.
The New Zealander has won early and often in every opportunity presented to him, which is why Penske and team president Tim Cindric offered him an IndyCar test in 2019. McLaughlin responded by posting top-five times during the Spring Training test at Circuit of the Americas in February.
Penske knows what they have in McLaughlin.
He would have been in a car sooner if not for the COVID-19 pandemic that limited travel in necessitated a shutdown in the early portions of the summer months. That created other problems for McLaughlin who needed a work visa to leave Australia with his American wife, Karly Paone.
It will all be worth it this weekend when he turns his first official laps in the No. 3 Shell V-Power NiTRO+ Chevrolet in Central Florida.
“It’s all a bit weird when you’re saying it like that,” McLaughlin said at the start of an IndyCar Zoom teleconference on Thursday morning. “I’m just used to Shell V-Power Racing. Now I’m adding the NiTRO on the end of it. A little bit weird but very excited.”
To prepare, McLaughlin has spent time in the Team Penske IndyCar simulator in Mooresville, North Carolina this week. He spent time listening to Helio Castroneves’ radio frequency during the Indianapolis 500 – important because it’s the same team he will work with in St. Petersburg.
The logistics of this week alone were impressive.
McLaughlin traveled from the Supercars finale in Bathurst on Sunday (finishing fifth and winning and closing out on the championship) to Sydney, and then to California and Charlotte to begin his simulator work on Tuesday. Surely jetlagged, McLaughlin is now preparing to take his first IndyCar Series green flag, where he hopes to score no less than a top-10.
He’s here for the schedule diversity, competition and parity.
“For me, it’s one of the most competitive series — if not the most competitive series in the world,” McLaughlin said. “You look at the closeness, how different the winners can be up and down the field. It’s an all-around package. You can race on road courses, ovals.
“For me it’s a fresh start with being an open-wheeler, very different to what I’ve had before. I guess, yeah, it’s a different experience. If I’ve got the opportunity to be able to do it, I’ve got to grab it with both hands.”
He enters the discipline with the immediate respect of his peers, including championship finalists Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden.
“Yeah, he’s damn good,” Dixon said.
That’s from a five-time IndyCar champion, who is 99 percent certain to win a sixth title on Sunday.
“He’s been crushing it obviously down there with his pole record, championship situation,” Dixon added. “Then for him to have this opportunity, I know he loves America, always wanted to come to America. I think it’s really cool to have another Kiwi in the field, which didn’t really even seem to be on the radar for quite a few years.”
Newgarden echoed that sentiment, but indicated there will be a learning curve, especially with the shortened race weekend.
“He’s really, really good,” Newgarden said. “We already know that. You could see that a mile away. I think we all admire his strengths around the Supercar side. I think he’s a great racer overall, doesn’t matter what car you put him in.
“As far as IndyCar specifically this weekend, he doesn’t have a lot of time. This is a very abnormal St. Pete weekend. …
“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.”
Again, this is his debut.
As for McLaughlin’s own personal goal?
“I just don’t want to rip a corner off,” McLaughlin said. “Let’s just say that. Get through, keep my front wing on, don’t piss off anyone. As long as I get out of here with no enemies, I’ll be happy.”
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