There is no denying Scott McLaughlin endured an eventful rookie campaign last year in the NTT IndyCar Series, which is why he is relishing that winning feeling for the first time at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It was about as perfect a weekend any driver could hope for these days in North America’s premier open-wheel championship. The 28-year-old New Zealand native led 49 of 100 laps from pole and fended off a late charge by reigning series champion Alex Palou to grab the victory, which came in just his 18th start.
This was always the expectation from McLaughlin, who came over to the United States to drive for Roger Penske in IndyCar after winning three Supercars titles in Australia. However, it didn’t come without some ups and even more downs after finding the podium just once in 2021 (runner-up at Texas Motor Speedway), along with an additional top five (World Wide Technology Raceway) over 16 races.
One element that helped provide the spark to his sophomore season in the Sunshine State was winning the pole – the first of his IndyCar career – on Saturday.
“I felt like… you back yourself,” Mclaughlin said. “But in our pre-event we said top seven, if we can come out of here with a solid top seven. Obviously the goal was changed last night [after getting the pole], but it was just phenomenal the way the car rolled out of the truck and I felt like I could really do what I wanted to do with the car from the get-go.
“What that does for confidence as a race driver is something that just feels very special. I knew halfway through that race that it was somewhat — a bad yellow or something was really going to affect us. We knew that we were going to fight there the whole way, and I just had to keep calm and control the race myself, and I felt like we did that until the back markers made it pretty exciting, which would have been great for everybody at home but not for me.
“But it was just a phenomenal weekend. Perseverance. You just don’t give up. You don’t doubt yourself. I knew I could do it. Last night I had a great sleep because I just said to myself, I’ve done this before, let’s just — I did it with a roof over my head. Now it’s just a matter of just feeling it and seeing what I had today.
“Look, I had a great start, got into a rhythm and away we went. I’m very proud, great for DEX Imaging. It’s their home race. Team Chevy gave us awesome fuel mileage and drivability, as we’ve said all weekend.
“Yeah, I just ended up on my ass at the podium, but that’s okay. Felt a little roly-poly, but anyway, that wasn’t part of the act.
“I’ll never forget it, man.”
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) February 27, 2022
McLaughlin was also reflective on the journey to this point, sharing some of the early struggles in the transition to IndyCar.
“I came over three times. I had won straight back-to-back championships, and I know I’m a rookie and I wasn’t kidding myself, but at the same time it’s hard to go from the mindset of, ‘Okay, win every week and that’s all that matters, nothing less,’ to going, ‘Hey, I’d love a top 15.’ I don’t work like that. I’m a competitive bloke. I want to win. I want to get poles. I want to dominate races and not even worry about things.
“I did that for four years (in Supercars), and then coming here and was basically… it just mucks with your head, and you’ve got to be realistic about things. I put a lot of pressure on myself, like, ‘Why isn’t this happening? Why am I sucking in qualifying when I’m good? I’ve done that before, I’ve proved that.’
“It’s a mind game, man, and you’ve got to be on top of it. You’ve got to just believe in yourself.
“Karly [wife] has been my absolute rock with that. She’s put the belief in me. I would be nothing without her.
“Definitely some hard times, but she’s pulled my head in, Roger’s pulled my head in, and we just got on with it. Speaking pretty candid, it’s just how it is. As a professional sportsman you go through highs and lows. You’re getting paid good money and you’re running 15th, it’s not good. For me, it’s not good. I drive for the biggest motorsport team in the world. For me, it wasn’t good.
“But I feel like today, this weekend, we proved that hard work, perseverance, you can get there, and I felt very proud of that.”
The addition of race engineer Ben Bretzman on the timing stand is someone McLaughlin was quick to point out as a critical piece to the puzzle as they move forward this season.
“I think the way that I’ve worked with Ben Bretzman, my new engineer, I think we can really start working on what we need,” McLaughlin said. “We know what we want from a street circuit car, which we just showed that it’s going to be pretty good, so I’m excited for Long Beach. I’m heading back there for the second time.
“But I’m not kidding myself; I could quite easily be 20th next round. This is what IndyCar is all about. This is why everyone loves it, why it’s becoming the world’s most competitive motorsport series. Proud to be a part of it, but it’s all about now. I’ll celebrate this, I’ll have a few beers, don’t you worry about that, but I’ll make sure that I get back on the horse, actually back on the simulator on Wednesday and to go get ready for Texas and then get ready for what’s ahead at Long Beach and a few things. It’s going to be hard, but I’m there.”