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Indy 500 pole-sitter Scott McLaughlin on life at Team Penske: ‘Sometimes my best isn’t better’ than teammates

INDIANAPOLIS – There clearly has been negligible impact on Team Penske’s Indy 500 performance from the at-track suspensions of four key cogs inside the venerable organization.

For the first time in 36 years, the winningest team in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history swept the front row in qualifying Sunday for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Josef Newgarden, who delivered Penske its record-extending 19th Indy 500 victory last year, followed that up Monday by pacing a two-hour practice session.

But the man who will lead the field of the 108th Indy 500 to the green flag concedes that the absences of team president Tim Cindric, managing director Ron Ruzewski and engineers Luke Mason and Robbie Atkinson have been felt, even if the void isn’t necessarily reflected on the speed charts.

It’s especially notable in the engineering room at IMS, where Cindric (a Penske fixture since 2000) usually holds court and plots strategy at a battered and yellowed 51-year-old table that dates to the team’s origins in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Four years since its last Indy 500 victory, Team Penske has been working hard across its IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA teams to bring “The Captain” his 19th win.

“I wouldn’t say awkward, but it definitely has been a little different,” Scott McLaughlin told NBC Sports during an interview 90 minutes after setting the fastest four-lap average in track history. “You’re so used to seeing T.C. at the table when you come back (from qualifying), looking at the times and deciding whether we’re going to go out again. And he ultimately makes a call, but this year it’s Jonathan Diuguid (Penske’s IMSA guru who has replaced Cindric as Newgarden’s strategist this month).

“But you know that they’re at home cheering us on. And they respect ‘The Captain’ almost more than me in that they’ve worked with him longer than I have and understand the process he goes about. And Roger took this to heart, took it pretty heavily, and I’m just proud that we were able to rise above it, and we’ll still continue to work to build the reputation. It was a mistake, and we’ll keep working.”

Sunday was another redemptive step from the push-to-pass-scandal that erupted last month and resulted in the disqualifications of Newgarden and McLaughlin from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener. Two weeks later, Penske went a step further and suspended Cindric, Ruzewski, Mason and Atkinson from working at Indy during May (and while cars are on track).

Since then, Penske’s IndyCar team has won at Barber Motorsports Park, his NASCAR team has won the All-Star Race and his IMSA Porsche squad won at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

But none of those results could compare to the qualifying performance at the Brickyard, the track that started Roger Penske’s love affair with auto racing 73 years ago.

In an interview with NBC Sports’ Dave Burns after McLaughlin’s sixth career pole position in IndyCar, Penske name-checked each suspended team member to say, “you’re a part of this win.”

Penske: Team dug deep to sweep Indy 500 front row
Roger Penske praises his team effort and the ability to dig deep after sweeping the front row for the 108th Indianapolis 500.

Reaffirming what teammate Will Power (who qualified second) said Saturday about a decision to stand on its initial qualifying runs instead of making another attempt, McLaughlin said the team always abides by Penske’s wishes.

“Ultimately, we drive for Roger Penske, and you know whether that’s a wheelbarrow or anything else, he’s our boss, and he tells us what to do,” McLaughlin said. “And (Saturday) in qualifying, we all wanted to go out again, but he said, ‘No, look after the cars,’ and that’s why we didn’t (go back out), and you respect that.

“And that’s the same as I had a couple of people come up to me and thought it was an overkill that what happened with the suspensions. But ultimately, that’s not our decision. It was Roger’s decision. It’s his reputation. It’s his name on the side of the car, and we respect that.”

The week after the penalty announcement was uncomfortable, particularly for Newgarden, who illegally benefited from using push to pass multiple times on restarts at St. Pete. It was different for McLaughlin, who used the overtake button only once for a couple of seconds, but managing the fallout still was difficult.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin (3) wipes his face after winning pole position Sunday, May 19, 2024, during qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network

“I’ve said many times all I could do is tell my truth to (the media),” said McLaughlin, a three-time Supercars champion in Australia who made the transition to U.S. racing under the tuetage of Cindric and Penske. “And it was also the same to Roger when we went through the review and understood what exactly happened and he made a decision with (the suspensions). I mean Tim obviously is a huge part of my life and my career, and Luke Mason, Robbie and Ron, absolutely.

“When we get over this, it’s obviously been a lot of adversity, but Roger believed that something had to be done, at least for the biggest race of the year, and you have to respect that and move past it. And thankfully, like he said, we’ve got a bench that has amazing talent and amazing people on it. And I’m just thankful that we’re able just to rise above it.”

In an exclusive conversation Sunday night with NBC Sports in the IMS media center, McLaughlin, the second New Zealander to win the Indy 500 pole, discussed his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet team’s nickname, his intense preparation for the Indy 500 and what he was missing the past three years in the race (this interview has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity):

NBC Sports: So how’s this for an icebreaker: Maybe the stupidest question you will get today, because I’d been meaning to ask this, and I sheepishly don’t know the answer.: What is the origin of your team’s “Thirsty 3s” nickname?

McLaughlin: “Oh, that’s a (No. 3 engineer) Ben Bretzman question. Well, we both (came up with the nickname). I was like, “Hey, we need it.” Because they always had the ‘Double Deuce’ (when Bretzman worked with Simon Pagenaud on the No. 22 Dallara-Chevy), and that was their name of their team. I’m like, ‘Hey, we need a hashtag!’ And I think it was one day that we’re thirsty for wins. At that point, we hadn’t won a race. And we’re just always thirsty. We want to win. The Thirsty 3’s!

“And honestly, the reason it’s sort of caught on is that the boys on the telecast say it all the time. The fans yell it out when we drive down Gasoline Alley. It’s just caught on and we’ve just run with it. So it’s amazing.”

NBC Sports: Leigh Diffey indeed uses it quite often, so I thought it was a Down Under thing.

McLaughlin: “No I just think it’s just a thing! And it’s stuck.”

NBC Sports: Had you ever had a nickname for a team before?

McLaughlin: “No, no, no. We did have a nickname that was totally inappropriate for this (interview), but that was in Australia. That’s a typical Australian thing!”

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin (3) stands in his pit box Monday, May 20, 2024, during practice for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Scott McLaughlin stands on the No. 3 timing stand during Indy 500 practice Monday (Kristin Enzor/For IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

NBC Sports: Last year, you told us you would do much less preparation for the Indy 500 because it hadn’t worked for you in 2021-22. But then you started and finished 14th in 2023, so obviously that didn’t work out for you.

McLaughlin: “That was a complete wrong thing to do.”

NBC Sports: So this year you’re back to studying all the time. How many Indy 500s have you watched?

McLaughlin: “I would probably say I’ve watched, from the onboard views, I’ve watched ‘19 in all cars, ’21 in all cars and Josef’s race from last year. Every lap. That’s been a long time doing that on planes or in bed. It kills my wife, but I just put the AirPods in, and away I go. She gets it, but yeah, it’s been a lot of preparation for sure.”

NBC Sports: Did you watch qualifying, too?

McLaughlin: “No, mainly races because qualifying is what it is. You’ve got to trust your feeling in quali, but I always felt like my line was OK in quali. It was more of understanding the air and traffic and stuff.”

NBC Sports: Colton Herta recently made a reference about studying data and prepping at his bus until 10 p.m. at night, and I’ve heard NASCAR drivers say this, too, that they have to just absorb data all week from their engineers. Is a lot of your job just doing homework?

McLaughlin: “Yes, it is, but I think there’s also an overboard one. And I feel like that’s kind of overboard. I’ve heard they have meetings until like 8 p.m. at night, which is wild, but I feel like as long as my engineer is getting my feedback. Ultimately, the engineers on our team, they do the debrief. The drivers aren’t normally there, so that gives us more time to go home and focus on what we want, what we need and what we need to do better, which I think is a way better thing.”

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin (3) reacts after winning the pole position Sunday, May 19, 2024, during Fast 6 qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Scott McLaughlin set an Indy 500 pole qualifying record (Kristin Enzor/For IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

NBC Sports: So the engineers aren’t like telling you that you’ve got to plow through mountains of data?

McLaughlin: “No, and ultimately, it’s me, Josef and Will, we work pretty hard on a lot of things, and I think we respect each other so much that we have a keen understanding of what each other is doing. And we know that sometimes I’m faster here, sometimes Josef is faster than all of us there, or Will’s faster here. And ultimately, if you can put that all together at the right times like we did today, that’s the cherry on top.”

NBC Sports: After the Fast 12, Penske’s three drivers are the favorites for the pole. How does that impact how you work together?

McLaughlin: “Well, ultimately we have different driving styles, and at that point, I leave it up to the engineers to talk to each other. And if Josef and Will want to talk about stuff, we talk, but I can only control what I can control, and my execution doesn’t change. How I go out there and drive the car, my process doesn’t change, no matter if Josef goes and sets a 235. I told Nathan Brown (of the Indianapolis Star) this, the only lap I focused on today from the last four runners of the Fast Six were the first laps. And then I didn’t know the average. I didn’t even know Will was second.

“It’s just because the biggest lap is the first lap. So you know you’re in the ballpark if you do a big number, which we did the 234.5 or whatever it was, and then it was a matter of listening to my car and playing with the process and figuring it out. I can only control what I can control. I can only feel what I can feel, and the rest will play itself out, and if that’s not good enough, you’ve got to accept that, and I think I’ve been way better now knowing how good my teammates are.

“Accepting the fact that sometimes my best isn’t better than theirs. Like sometimes I’ve just got to accept they’re just hell of a racecar drivers. Will Power is just a freak. Josef’s an amazing oval racer. You’ve just got to accept that and then learn from it, and I feel like I’ve been really good about that the last couple years just figuring out my negatives and trying to turn them into positives.”

HLs: 108th Indianapolis 500 Qualifying, Day 2
Relive the high-speed action from Day 2 of qualifying for the 108th Indianapolis 500, where twelve drivers battle for pole position and four others fight for the final spot to make the race.

NBC Sports: It just dawned on me when you said it that you’re teammates with perhaps the greatest street and road course driver in IndyCar history and your other teammate is one of the greatest oval drivers in IndyCar.

McLaughlin: “Yeah, yeah, but then some people would take that negatively and get that in their head. But at the end of the day, I’ve been hired by Roger Penske for a reason. He believes in my talent, and I believe in my talent, and he believes that I can do the job when needed. And I have a huge amount of confidence in myself. It’s not cockiness. It’s just a belief. But at the end of the day, there’s a point in accepting sometimes your best isn’t the best, and I think that that comes into all walks of life. Sometimes you might write a story that may not be the best story. Someone might do a different version better.”

NBC Sports: That happens a lot.

McLaughlin: “Yeah but you can’t do much about it. It’s ultimately that you thought your best was that. And I’m the same. If they said to me, ‘Oh, that was P2,’ it would suck. I’d be pissed off. But it’s whatever. You just got to get on with it. And some people look at that and go, ‘Well, that’s probably not a do or die attitude. Maybe you need a bit of grit in your teeth,’ but I think that’s bullshit. I think ultimately you can only do the best you can, and that’s how I just lived my life.”

NBC Sports: How long did it take you to get to that point of realizing that kind of resignation? That my best isn’t always going to be better than my teammates’?

McLaughlin: “It’s probably like my first year when I won the championship in Australia. When I started working with my sports psychologist and understanding that because I was always hell bent on just beating my teammate. And not just beating, I wanted to smash everyone. Which we did a bit, but at the end of the day, I was too focused on what was the outcome and worried about the result. The rest will come if I do the bits before that right, like my process and my execution rate.”

NBC Sports: Were the Penske engineers all talking to each other before the Fast Six, keeping an open book policy despite the stakes?

McLaughlin: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Honestly, that’s just how Team Penske works. We all just all know how good each other are, and it pushes everyone forward. I think that’s why you look at how this result has happened today. It’s amazing, but it’s come with a lot of hard work to have the cars as equal as they are. It’s crazy when you look at let’s say Andretti (Global). They’ve got one car in the Fast 12 and then one’s barely qualifying. It’s amazing. Even when we were struggling the last couple of years, we were all struggling. It wasn’t just one car. It was everyone. It’s just a testament to the crew for how they build the cars.”

With practice beginning Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, these stars deserve a look.

NBC Sports: After winning the pole, you told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider, “there’s one person I know that is watching this that has helped me all week. You know who you are, brother.” Earlier this week, you referred to this same mystery person and said you wouldn’t reveal their identity until you win the race. Does that still hold?

McLaughlin: “Yes. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ve got to speak to him. Yeah, I don’t know, but ultimately it’s more just managing that person’s privacy, and I want to make sure. We’re good friends, and I asked him to do this with me, and he’s been kind enough to do it and been a complete open book. And I’ve learned a lot this week.”

NBC Sports: So it’s not Rick Mears.

McLaughlin (smiling): “It’s Rick and someone else.”

NBC Sports: You also said Indy hasn’t been kind to you in the past, but that was your own doing. Did you overthink it in the past?

McLaughlin: “I don’t think I gave it enough respect. Don’t get me wrong. I gave it respect, but I didn’t give it enough. And like understanding this place is so unique. You think it’s just another oval or whatever, but it’s incredible how different this place is to anywhere in the world, track-wise. And then it’s just like weird things that go on. It’s just weird how this is 40 years since the Pennzoil Yellow Sub went to victory lane (with Rick Mears), and all this cool stuff’s happening.

“I find it’s just amazing to be a part of, but yeah, I don’t think I drove very well over the last few years. I thought I did. I thought I was ahead of the game, but I was so behind it. And a lot of that was the reasoning why I’ve gone behind the scenes to try and improve my craft off the track, improve it from a race perspective, but also controlling my schedule, treating it the same as any race but with a little bit more intensity, and that’s what I’ve changed.”

NBC Sports: Is some of that tied to you growing up on the other side of the world. I don’t know when you watched your first Indy 500, but you couldn’t know what it was actually like until you could get here? You don’t understand it without being there?

McLaughlin: “No, you don’t. You don’t understand it. I was here for 2016 for the 100th (Indy 500), and I mean I was trolleyed half the time, so I can’t really comment on that one. But when I came here the first time as a driver, you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s so different,’ but the end of the day, the whole thing with the Indy 500 is it comes on at like 2 a.m. in Australia straight after Monaco Grand Prix, and you don’t understand the traditions or anything until you get here.

“And then it’s also just you think it’s just that Sunday. Well, it’s not that. It’s all the practice before. It’s how much your mind is just getting thrown from pillar to pillar. You’re doing media, doing sponsors. You have all your friends come here. It takes a toll, but it’s like Bathurst. Bathurst takes you three. four years to get right, and I fully believe this place exactly the same. And you think you’re ahead of the game, and then you have a shunt or something, which I did (in 2022), and I did that at Bathurst, too, and then all of a sudden, it will just click, and it certainly feels that way. That helps with a faster car for sure.”

Scott McLaughlin will lead the field for the 108th Indy 500 to the green flag May 26 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.