Scott McLaughlin leaving pit lane.

NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Scott McLaughlin got his first taste of the “Racing Capital of the World” on Wednesday when he completed Rookie Orientation Program ahead of next year’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 30, 2021.

The three-time defending Virgin Australia Supercars champion was excited, humbled and proud of his first 88 laps around the historic 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in a Team Penske-prepared Chevrolet.

“(That was) incredible,” McLaughlin said. “I think INDYCAR did a fantastic job with how they had the rookie mileage, and you get your run in up the speeds. I felt really comfortable. I think it took me 45 laps to get flat, but I eventually did.”

Like many first-time drivers that arrive at IMS, the sharp, 90-degree left-hand corners seem daunting when blazing down the long 5/8-mile straightaways, leaving drivers to wonder if they really can drive through the 1/4-mile long corner at speeds over 200 mph. And like the hundreds of the daredevil Indy 500 veterans that have competed at these hallowed grounds, they always make it through without lifting.

“Well, you see a 90-degree corner, and you’re like ‘No way I can go flat out through there. No way,’” McLaughlin said. “And then you just hope that it sticks, and it does. Team Penske has got an awesome package here for me to build up to speed. I know what I’ve got underneath me, and I’m very lucky in that regard.”

The Rookie Orientation Program that McLaughlin took part in is required for all drivers who are new to the high-speed oval. The program is split into three phases to help drivers acclimate themselves to the famed racetrack.

Phase 1 requires a driver to complete 10 laps at speeds between 205-210mph. Phase 2 requires a driver to complete 15 more laps at speeds between 210-215 mph. The final stage, Phase 3, requires a driver to complete 15 laps at speeds over 215 mph. McLaughlin completed more laps than required on Wednesday, making him more than ready for his first attempt at “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“One (feeling) is satisfaction, because I’ve worked very hard for this,” he said. “But the feeling of driving for ‘The Captain’ (Roger Penske) and having that trust from him as a racing driver, you’re built on confidence and trust. It just skyrockets when you drive for a person like him. I’m feeling on top of the world right now. I’ve ticked all my goals, and I can race in the Indianapolis 500 now, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”

McLaughlin’s run wasn’t his first visit to IMS, but it was his first on-track performance. He was scheduled to make his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut last May in the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course. However, the race was rescheduled for July 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and McLaughlin had to wait an extra five more months before making his INDYCAR debut in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this past Sunday, where he finished 22nd after being involved in an accident in Turn 1 on Lap 47.

The 27-year-old from Christchurch, New Zealand was in awe of the size of the mammoth racetrack without fans in it, a sight he had never experienced before. The atmosphere of the empty racetrack, where the sound of Indy cars bounces between vacant bleachers, was only heightened after Wednesday’s test.

“It’s bigger without people in it, and I can’t imagine what 400,000 would look like inside it,” he said. “I’ve only been on this sort of side. I’ve never been in this cathedral right here on pit lane, so I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like with driver intros, and all that sort of stuff. I’m super excited.”

McLaughlin will have to wait seven more months before he can experience the thrill of Indianapolis 500 race morning, but he only has five more months to go until his first full-time season in North America’s top open-wheel series commences at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 7, 2021. And when he hops in the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet, he won’t just be writing a page or two for his career.

“It’s the start of a novel,” he said. “Not a short story.”

Scott McLaughlin and Rick Mears