New Zealand transplant Scott McLaughlin described his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES season as a journey, and it started with something as simple as ordering a couch. He was surprised it took four weeks to get one delivered.
“You sit on bean bags for a while,” he said.
It took longer than that for McLaughlin to find the peak of Firestone’s alternate (red) tires in qualifying for road and street races, which represented three-fourths of the INDYCAR season. Sometimes it would be the first lap, sometimes the second or third. Time spent solving the riddle often cost him in starting positions, reducing him to an average of 16.2 in the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet.
McLaughlin figured out the actual racing enough to win the series’ Rookie of the Year Award, but he imagines he would have finished much higher than 14th in the standings had he resolved qualifying. But like the couch, he must wait for that knowledge because it takes experience, and now he has it.
Remember, this was the first open-wheel championship of his career after all those years in Australia’s Supercars series, where he won the title in his final three seasons (2018-2020). McLaughlin’s only open-wheel experience was a pair of races in Formula Fords, and there aren’t two different tire choices for qualifying.
“(In Supercars), you only had one lap to do it, basically,” he said. “The peak of the tire you learn quite quickly.
“Here … trying to get the tire to come on at the very perfect right time is very difficult and very hard to understand or explain. That will certainly be what I work on in the offseason, trying to understand.”
McLaughlin beat Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean for the rookie award by 33 points, and the strength of that was the 84 points he scored in three oval races where Grosjean did not compete. McLaughlin was particularly strong in the doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway, where he finished second to countryman Scott Dixon in the opening race, the Genesys 300.
McLaughlin also showed extremely well in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, although a 20th-place finish wouldn’t suggest that. However, a pit road speeding penalty on Lap 116 of 200 necessitated a drive-through penalty from which he didn’t recover.
“I’m going next year to Indy with the idea of winning,” he said. “I’m going to be in a car that can win the race. I know I’m quick there. I know I’m quick on ovals. I feel like I’ve got a handle on it, it’s just a matter of having a good month, building up to it. … Not speeding in pit lane.”
Had McLaughlin finished a half-dozen positions higher in the “500,” an event which paid double points, he likely would have achieved his goal of finishing in the top 12 of the standings. Next year, he’ll aim for the top 10.
“I feel like this whole rookie thing could have been sealed a lot (sooner) if I could have finished where I was going to finish at the Indy 500,” he said. “I was infatuated with the Bathurst 1000 before I won it. Now, I’m infatuated with the Indy 500.
“With my wife (Karly), I’ll watch old Indy 500s on the tele, YouTube videos, (I’ll) watch anything at the end of the day. I just will be infatuated with it until I go good there and get a result.”
McLaughlin’s other hope for 2022 is that his parents can attend at least one race if not several. Global travel was limited this season due to pandemic concerns.
“They haven’t seen me in INDYCAR in the flesh yet,” he said. “It’s been on the box, watching on TV.
“They’re my biggest fans. I can’t wait for them to be at the Indy 500 next year.”
McLaughlin will officially be presented with the Rookie of the Year Award on Friday night in Indianapolis. The 2022 season begins Feb. 27 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.