The Grinch hasn’t quite managed to steal Christmas from Scott McLaughlin, but he faces a long wait to unwrap his big gift from Santa Penske.
McLaughlin’s long-dreamed-of present must remain wrapped and parked under the tree just a little longer thanks to IndyCar delays caused by the ever-present worldwide grinch of Covid-19.
The coronavirus has forced a postponement of the opening round of the 2021 IndyCar championship and, with it, McLaughlin’s debut as a full-time member of the all-conquering Team Penske mega-operation.
It’s almost certain that the Covid championship re-shuffle in the USA will also prevent McLaughlin from trying for another Bathurst win alongside Will Davison in October, as the historic Long Beach Grand Prix has been moved from April until September.
Slated to make his full-season debut alongside Penske team-mates Aussie Will Power, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud and American Josef Newgarden – the 2020 IndyCar title runner-up to Scott Dixon – McLaughlin had been eagerly awaiting the chance to unwrap his new Dallara DW12 in St Petersburg, Florida, on March 7. He also knew what to expect in his full-season debut, as he raced the final event of last year’s season on the same track.
But the Christmas gift for McLaughlin, as well as his new career as an open-wheel driver, has now been pushed back until April 11 at Barber Motorsport Park in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I’ve got itchy feet. But we do start testing soon,” McLaughlin said recently on a social post.
The postponement of the St Pete race comes as no real surprise, with seasoned IndyCar observers predicting the change for the last couple of weeks.
With the USA establishing itself as a world leader in Covid-19 infections and – rather horrifyingly – deaths, Florida has been one of the states leading the grim charge to the top of the rankings thanks to its elderly population of sun-chasing retirees.
On January 6 alone Florida reported almost 18,000 new cases, raising its overall tally to well north of 1.4 million people infected with a death toll of over 22,000. It’s a very dark cloud hanging over the sunshine state.
A Covid-19 map of Florida shows more hotspots than the surface of the sun and exposing the IndyCar teams to such a petri dish situation was, to be honest, an incredibly stupid f%$cking idea.
“It’s not surprising that an event of this magnitude, scheduled for the first week of March, is still subject to the implications of the pandemic,” the president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp. President, Mark Miles said.
“We’re delighted we were able to work with Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration and Green Savoree Racing Promotions to find a more suitable date, which helps consolidate the beginning of our schedule and allows us to stay on NBC network television.”
Make no mistake, network TV is a VERY BIG deal for IndyCar, which is eager and determined to spread its footprint across the US and, to a lesser extent, overseas countries after years of fighting for fans.
For IndyCar, the eyes are the prize in the expansion plan.
Despite the postponement of his full-time Team Penske debut in the #3 entry, McLaughlin can use the time to his advantage.
He is almost a daily visitor to the giant Team Penske HQ in Mooresville, North Carolina, getting to better know and bond with his crew ahead of his rookie season.
“Looking at it, I’ve got more time to get ready and prepare with my team so we all come out firing at the first race,” he said.
There’s also the chance to add another pre-season test session, apart from one already scheduled, to give him ever more seat time before the heat of his first full championship assault.
But McLaughlin will almost certainly lose his shot at Bathurst in 2021 as Long Beach moves to September 26 as the finale for the coming year’s IndyCar championship.