Life is good for Scott McLaughlin. For the first time since he embarked on the move from overseas to the United States, his life away from the track is in order.
“It's nice because you feel like you're building actually the American dream in some ways,” McLaughlin said. “Last year my visa was sorted, I had a green card and everything was sorted, but I was going through trying to buy a house with (wife) Karly.”
Buying a house is never an easy process for anyone, let alone someone like McLaughlin, who isn’t an American citizen and lacked a U.S. credit score.
That added some headaches to the process and could have caused a distraction. But the McLaughlin’s worked through it, allowing the New Zealand native to feel welcomed at home in America.
“It's just nice,” McLaughlin said. “I love this place. I love the people. I love the places we go, the racing, and I can certainly see myself being here for the rest of my life. Yeah, it's nice to have that off-track sorted. Not that it's going to reinvent my wheel, but it's a nice feeling. It's just really cool.”
The next thing he wants sorted? An NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
McLaughlin enters his fourth full-time season in the series, all coming with Team Penske. While he had an illustrious career in Australian V8 Supercars touring cars, winning 56 times and taking three titles, he feels at home in a race car here, too.
“I certainly don't feel like the new kid anymore, and I feel more like an open-wheel driver than a touring car driver now,” McLaughlin said.
That’s something seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Jimmie Johnson, struggled with during his move to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES after two decades in stock cars. He admitted the never fully grasped the feeling of being an INDYCAR SERIES driver.
McLaughlin held similar legendary status in Australia for his skills in Supercars but for someone of his stature to say he feels like home now over here, that’s a statement the paddock can’t take lightly.
“I can finally at the start of the season focus on racing in some ways,” he said. “I'm excited to hit the ground running hopefully at St. Pete, a place that I love. I feel like we really finished the year strong last year and it is going to be important to start the year strong.”
McLaughlin ended the 2023 season on a hot streak, with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes, including three runners-up. He also qualified on the front row in seven of the final eight events. That helped him finish third in the championship as the top driver in Team Penske’s trio that also includes multiple season champions Will Power and Josef Newgarden.
“I think ever since I won my first race, I knew that every year after that, every year I come into the sport now, I'm going to have a legitimate shot, knowing that the tools I have at hand and where I am in my development as an INDYCAR driver,” McLaughlin said.
“I never come out and say I'm going to win the championship. I don't. I know that I've got the tools to. I feel like I'm in the best possible spot I've ever been for a long time, but even probably better than last year.
“But it's the same for everyone. Everyone comes in and says the same thing, that they feel better and whatever. It's just a matter of doing your talking on the track. I feel comfortable. I knew what we could do last year. I knew that I could beat Will and Josef in the championship, and especially when I had an opportunity to.
“I think we can certainly do that -- with the championship side, we can have a really good run and put ourselves in position to hopefully finish off the year in a position that we are in contention for the championship.”
McLaughlin has improved his point standing every season, going from 14th as a rookie in 2021 to fourth in 2022 to third in 2023. The next logical step is to seriously contend for the championship.
That final step to the top is always the steepest.
“It’s like weight loss, right?” McLaughlin said. “You lose a heap, and the last little bit you want to lose is the hardest part.
“The same thing with this sport. The hardest thing here is you just know you're competing with the world's best drivers in some ways. It's so competitive, the margins are so tight, but you're trying to get that last little bit.”
McLaughlin noted, at times, that last little bit in this sport comes down to some luck.
“You might have the fastest car and certainly places like Nashville and other places, road course that's we've been to throughout the year, we had a really good opportunity to win, but the yellow didn't fall our way or fuel strategy didn't work our way or whatnot, and you find yourself fifth or sixth in a race that you could easily have been maybe the top step of the podium,” McLaughlin said. “I think that's -- what Alex (Palou) did last season was incredible. His season was fantastic, and it's a credit to him and his team.
“We all strive for one of those seasons, and there's no doubt that it can be done because he did it. But it is hard to find that last little bit. Somehow, some way, you find it. You've just got to keep working.”