Interview: Scott McLaughlin on IndyCar

We asked Bathurst-winning Supercars champ Scott McLaughlin about life in the States, days before his maiden IndyCar victory


Since we chatted with McLaughlin, the Kiwi dynamo has claimed his first IndyCar win. Taking pole position for the season opener at St Petersburg, Florida, McLaughlin managed to to hold off defending series champion Alex Palou in the final laps to win by 0.509 seconds.

It’s a packed call when Scott McLaughlin faces media on a Friday morning. In his DEX Racing shirt, complete with Chevy bowtie emblem, the 28-year-old Kiwi has just completed several days’ testing at Sebring ahead of the IndyCar season opener at St Petersburg, Florida on 27 February, and displays a measured confidence following a strong 2021 IndyCar rookie season.

“We were just building the toolbox, man,” he says to the group. “I’m getting used to my surroundings, but I’ve got a new engineer [Ben Bretzman], basically a new engineering stand with me, so I’m focusing on that. We showed some pretty good speed throughout the day, and I felt like we built a really good baseline set-up, so I’m excited to hit the track at St Pete with what we’ve learnt and see what we’ve got.”

After three Supercars titles on the trot, achieved after missing a debut title in 2017 at a heartbreaking final race, McLaughlin stepped up another gear to dominate the series, a master of qualifying and setting records wherever he went. That all changed when he made the switch to IndyCar for 2021 at the height of his powers, leaving near-certain future Supercars success on the table. He was the rookie all over again.

“Yeah, I mean, mentally, you come from a place where, you know, you’re The Guy in some ways – you’re competing for race wins and poles every week. Trying to shift that mentality is quite a difficult thing,” McLaughlin admits. “You feel like you’re an established racer; you feel like you’ve climbed that tree from rookies all the way up. And now, you get to a point where, all right, I’ve got to start again – I’m that 18-, 19-year-old again, but I’m 28.”

McLaughlin made the most of it, with a stunning second-place finish in Texas – his first oval race – and beating NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson and ex-F1 driver Romain Grosjean to the 2021 Rookie of the Year (still impressive, despite Grosjean skipping oval races). But a new start in a new country during a global pandemic made family support that little bit harder to come by. This year should be better, with flights already booked for his family for this May’s Indy 500.

“I can’t wait to give my mum a hug, I’ll give you the tip! Nothing like a mum hug, right?” he laughs. “I haven’t seen my sister for about a year and a bit, and my mum and dad it’s two years now. So it’s difficult, especially when you’re going through the topsy-turvyness of a new career. You’re doing that alone without your mum and dad, who’ve always been there by you. It’s tough, regardless of whether you’re 28 or 40; not having Mum and Dad’s presence there all the time is hard.”

McLaughlin made his IndyCar debut at the St Petersburg street circuit after jetting Stateside having won Bathurst in 2019. Despite a DNF in that first race, McLaughlin’s show of professionalism and raw speed saw the legendary Roger Penske sign him on for his rookie season – which meant relocation from Queensland’s Gold Coast to Charlotte, North Carolina.

On social media, he’s become a fan favourite thanks to his Scott Learns America series, where he samples local culture. He’s a self-confessed wannabe pro golfer and massive sports fan, supporting the Western Bulldogs AFL team but adopting the Carolina Panthers NFL team and the New York Knicks (his wife Karly hails from New York) with the switch to the US. Yet he’ll always be a kid from Hamilton, New Zealand.

“I’m able to get from A to B without looking at the GPS anymore, and I’m speaking a little bit more lingo – I’m definitely picking up some American terms,” he says. “But look, I’ve always got that Kiwi twang in me, and I’ll never forget that. New Zealand and Australia are always going to have that home spirit, because everyone’s there – all my friends, family, that sort of stuff.”

The biggest surprise for the Kiwi has been on the track, where the intensity of the series has delivered a challenge. “It’s just mind-blowing how hard this series is,” McLaughlin says. “It’s so hard to put into words. You have to dot every ‘i’, cross every ‘t’. You have to be on it, and if you make one mistake qualifying or you just do a little thing in the pit stop that costs you two or three tenths, it’s huge in this category.

“Look, Supercars was tough – don’t get me wrong – but the level of competitiveness throughout the whole field in IndyCar, and that fact that when you go out, you can start 18th, 19th, 20th and potentially win the race that day. I believe that every driver goes into that day thinking that they can win, legitimately – on strategy, if things fall their way. It’s crazy. It’s pretty exciting.”

Coming into his second season, McLaughlin admits that he’s on a long journey – as Roger Penske and Tim Cindric counselled him mid-way through last season – and that he needs patience. That said, his two Penske teammates are both Indy 500 winners and will rightly expect to be fighting for the championship, with McLaughlin expected to be not too far behind.

“If anything, it boosts me; it makes me excited. No one puts more pressure on themselves than me,” McLaughlin says. “I feel I can compete with these guys, and if they are competing for championships, I feel like I can be right there with them on pace. Whether I do that week in and week out, that’s the difference – that’s what I’ve got to work on, the consistency factor.”

Does he think there’s a genuine chance of taking his first win this season?

“Absolutely,” he says. “I still think there’s certain races last year that I could’ve won as well; it’s just that’s what IndyCar’s like. I feel very confident that I can race with anyone up the front, but it’s a matter of getting there – and that’s the tough part. I’ve just got to keep working and keep believing in myself and believing in my team, and we’ll get there.”