Ovals tracks are supposed to be the toughest challenge for IndyCar rookies, but that’s not the way it’s working for Scott McLaughlin.
After starring on the super-fast Texas Motor Speedway with second at the start of the season, then running strong and safe through the Indianapolis 500, he proved his oval-track chops with a solid fourth at Gateway Motorsports Park outside St Louis.
McLaughlin showed skill, commitment and patience as he improved by seven places from his qualifying spot, after losing a potential top-10 slot with a tentative approach to the first of his two timed laps.
“I’m learning the car and getting better and more comfortable with it,” says McLaughlin. Eventually when I get some more laps under my belt we’ll get several results like this.”
The Bommarito 500 was a great night under lights for Team Penske, as Josef Newgarden won to push his drive for the series championship, with pole-sitter Will Power finishing third and Simon Pagenaud in eighth.
McLaughlin’s result ended a rough run of races for the Rookie, who also had to watch as Romain Grosjean starred at times through his first oval-track race. He’s been battling in the pack on road courses, even been punted by Power, but stayed out of trouble on the Gateway short oval where cars routinely lap at an average more more than 225km/h.
He was helped by a test at Gateway in the run-up to the race, something he admits gave him extra confidence.
“We tested here not long ago and my feedback has translated to some performance gains for all the guys. I’m really proud of that,” he says.
“I’m trusting myself – and that’s the biggest thing on our journey right now – trusting my ability, trusting what I want from the car.”
The IndyCar series now moves to a west-coast sweep on road and street courses – Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach – and McLaughlin looks unbeatable for the 2021 Rookie of the Year award.
He is also showing the confidence that comes with lots of laps, even though the Gateway oval punished many of his rivals with a string of mishaps and crashes.
“It was an awesome day for us. We had a decent car,” McLaughlin says.
“Initially in the (re) starts I probably didn’t pick the right holes and was a bit safe in some ways, but then the second or third re-start – or tenth restart; it was crazy – I really got into it and was comfortable and got ourselves into a nice position and were able to save some fuel and make our way through the (pit) sequences.”
For Power, who scored the 63rd pole position of his career and was coming off the back of a last-start win, the race was not what he wanted.
“I was really happy with third. We didn’t’ really have a good car and we struggled,” Power says.
“I was really happy when that all shook out and we were in P3… I got the most out of my day and my car.”