The news that two-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin has tested an IndyCar isn’t new. Ostensibly, the test days he took part in were a reward for a brilliant couple of years of work for the DJR Team Penske outfit, and nothing more.
But in the space of a couple of weeks, the young Kiwi has driven an IndyCar four times around three tracks, participated in PR and marketing photo shoots, tested on road courses and speedway circuits and locked away a race appearance in the series later in the year.
And all of this comes before his 2020 Supercars title defence has even started.
McLaughlin's good IndyCar timing
Admittedly, a few stars have aligned for McLaughlin to log so much seat time so quickly; his first run in Florida came on the back of a holiday with new wife Karly – a US native herself – and he acquitted himself very well.
The news that he would compete in an IndyCar road-course race in Indianapolis later in the year put more butter on the bread of a potential move, but McLaughlin’s camp insisted his focus was still on Supercars.
His second test came at what the IndyCar folks call spring training, which references similar events held by baseball teams. All of the established stars of the series were there, and McLaughlin’s top-three times during the day against the stars of the sport raised plenty of eyebrows.
Part of the event, too, included photoshoots for promotional purposes, with McLaughlin wearing a personalised race suit emblazoned with the Chevrolet bowtie logo, not the Ford oval, in deference to Team Penske’s IndyCar engine supplier.
It’s a mark of the team’s professionalism that McLaughlin would score a new suit and carbon-fibre helmet – minimum cost $5000 – for a test day, especially as McLaughlin already has a few Penske suits in the walk-in wardrobe already. And teams don’t take the notion of sponsor conflict lightly.
But when the news came through that McLaughlin had stretched his US trip right up to the front edge of the Supercars season to test an IndyCar at the fearsomely fast Texas Motor Speedway, turning oval laps at the better part of 350km/h, the die was cast rock-solid. Young Scott McLaughlin is heading to America in 2021.
McLaughlin's complete lack of open-wheel racing miles, plus the fearsome nature of oval racing, is a factor against this bold claim, of course.
But consider, in addition to the Indy street race in April, there are several other IndyCar race dates notably free of Supercars conflict, including two events in August at Mid-Ohio raceway and the Gateway oval in Illinois.
But McLaughlin has never raced open-wheelers
But there are more reasons that McLaughlin is arguably US-bound in 2021.
Team owner Roger Penske is a titan of the automotive industry, with an estimated 64,000 people around the world on the payroll of his multiple truck leasing companies, car dealerships and even at race tracks like the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The 82-year-old is also an astute businessman, and like every other facet of his business world, his race teams are in business to make money, not lose it.
Bunging a driver into a car at the end of a test day for a handful of fun laps on old tyres is not uncommon – but McLaughlin was tested properly, with more than 40 staff on hand each day to run a Dallara DW12 IndyCar at the three circuits.
Figure on each day costing Team Penske the better part of A$50,000 by the time everything is totted up, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Let’s face it… Mr Penske isn’t spending that kind of money because McLaughlin is a nice guy.
No, Penske is grooming McLaughlin to fill a slot on his IndyCar roster – and it may well be that of Queensland-born Will Power (below left), whose 11-year tenure at Team Penske has netted him a championship and a coveted Indy 500 win.
The 39-year-old is still a force to be reckoned with, but with his contract up at the end of the year, it’s a seat that Team Penske will need to fill.
As well, Frenchman Simon Pagenoud is of a similar vintage, and is reportedly being courted by other teams.
Penske’s IndyCar program was scaled back a couple of seasons ago from four to three cars – no sponsorship, no car, says Penske – but even if Power and Pagenoud stay on with 29-year-old Josef Newgarden in 2021, running a fourth car for 26-year-old McLaughlin isn’t beyond the realms of reality.
And the cost is in personnel, not parts; Indycar is a cost-controlled series that is based on a 2012-spec chassis, so building a car for McLaughlin is not such a financial burden.
As an aside, the Indy road course event for this year has already been budgeted for, according to reports, with former IndyCar star and current Penske sports car racer Helio Castroneves originally slated to take the wheel as part of a two-race deal that includes the Indy 500.
Is 2020 McLaughlin's final year in Supercars?
So 2020 will arguably be – for the interim at least – the swansong Supercars year for one of the brightest young talents to emerge in the series for some time.
Even his team owner, the great Dick Johnson, thinks so, telling the Daily Telegraph that "it's pretty obvious he will be gone next year" ahead of the season-opening Supercars round in Adelaide.
A championship three-peat isn’t a certainty, thanks to a few key regulation changes, but there’s a real motivation for the DJR Team Penske crew to do it properly in 2020, and McLaughlin is at the peak of his Supercars powers.
“This week testing IndyCars in Texas has been just like a dream,” gushed McLaughlin, who has had to manage a growing level of media interest in his movements.
“Thanks again to everyone at Team Penske and especially to Roger Penske for putting their faith in me. Now I head home to start my Supercars title defence in Adelaide.” Will it be a farewell tour? We reckon so.