My first real interaction with Scott McLaughlin came with the Garry Rogers team in 2014, as he tried out the successful but short-lived Volvo S60 Supercar for the first time.
He looked impossibly young, and his cheery demeanor lit up the garage like a 100w bulb. In a paddock where closed doors and sour faces can proliferate like a weed on a summer field, McLaughlin was just happy to be there.
Fast-forward six years, and that sunny demeanor has faded a little over the years, as the toll of winning three championships on the trot with DJR Team Penske, a sometimes fractious relationship with Supercars rivals and fans, and a turbulent 2020 season made its mark.
The season wrapped up in October with a fan-limited Bathurst 1000, and Scott had the series win in his back pocket… but that wasn’t enough.
His defence of his 2019 Bathurst 1000 win was important to him – while it’s in the record books, question marks around his qualifying engine and his team’s tactics on the day blighted the result in a way that wouldn’t have sat well with him.
And you could hear it in his voice and see it in his face. He wanted to make amends.
Fate will show that he and good mate Tim Slade missed out on a podium – and there, perhaps, went the only chance for Scott’s fans to say a quiet fare-thee-well to the young ace.
Then there’s the whole IndyCar thing.
With Supercars success in his pocket and the ear of the most influential man in world motorsport, Scott’s focus turned to the US.
It could have been NASCAR – a route trodden by a former Ford-driving Supercars champion, Marcos Ambrose – but McLaughlin has chosen the arguably more challenging path, IndyCar.
Penske’s influence notwithstanding – Roger not only owns a team, he owns the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – it’s an interesting choice; McLaughlin’s only open-wheel experience is limited to a handful of runs in an 80kW Formula Ford, not a 650kW wings-and-slicks beast that can top 390km/h.
I’ve written about how he’s made that journey, and as a fan of the sport, of Scott and of Supercars, I’ll be watching every step of the way.
What bums me out, though, is that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
Scott has been a central character in the Supercars story for the last six years, from his brilliant ‘give it the jandal’ slip on live telly to his otherworldly ability to wrest poles and wins from some of the best operators in the game - and he deserved a Craig Lowndes-like send-off season of his own.
Sure, COVID-19 put a sizable dent in that notion early on, but I’d argue that the inability (unwillingness?) of the Penske operation to lay out a clear roadmap for either Scott or the Australian operation will not sit well with the team’s legions of fans.
The shutters came down on the line of questioning early in the year, in fact, despite growing signs that there may well be movement at the station.
Penske loves racing, but it has to pay its way and have a purpose – and DJR Team Penske was formed to sell trucks and form business relationships, nothing more.
In a game where having next year’s plans locked down six months in advance is considered late, the silence from DJR Team Penske was deafening.
If, as I suspect, Penske’s departure was already locked in at Mt Panorama, then denying Scott a chance to at least make an announcement at the end of the race is pretty average treatment for the legions of Australian and New Zealand fans that have backed the driver and the team since its inception.
Yeah, yeah, commercial deals and all that… but motorsport is as much about the man as the ball.
Scott will be back in 2021 to race at Bathurst, according to the team, but for the situation to devolve to the point where a three-time Supercars champion has to say a farewell from a St Petersburg hotel room… it doesn’t sit right.
Good luck in the US, Scott, and give it some jandal.