IndyCar CEO Mark Miles announces new race in 2021.

Indianapolis Star

As it turns out, Scott McLaughlin didn’t need a race to test out the next step in his racing career. Team Penske announced Friday evening the three-time defending Supercars champion will drive Indy cars full-time starting in 2021, marking the team’s return to a four-car stable for the first time since 2017.

The 27-year-old New Zealander touched down in the U.S. on Monday this week, primed to make his IndyCar debut in the series finale in St. Pete on Sunday after undergoing three separate open-wheel tests this winter. Roughly 18 months ago, team owner Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric approached their dominant touring car driver with a proposition, knowing his lifelong dream of racing in the United States.

Three-time Supercars series champion Scott McLaughlin will make his IndyCar debut Sunday at St. Pete with Team Penske. (Photo: Provided by Team Penske)

While in the midst of his second Supercars championship run, where he won 18 races during the 31-event season, the team officials proposed a run in IndyCar to follow in his idol Scott Dixon’s footsteps, first awarding him a mid-January test at Sebring earlier this year.

Three weeks later, in early February, McLaughlin had been announced as a one-off driver for the 2020 GMR Grand Prix, though Cindric told IndyStar a week ago that he’d hoped to run the latest IndyCar rookie in as many as six races in 2020. McLaughlin also ran in the series open test, logging the third-fastest lap time of the week at Circuit of the Americas, while also completing his oval test at Texas Motor Speedway just days later.

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic that brought on scheduling conflicts between the two series and a load of governmental red tape for intercontinental travel, Cindric said midway through the summer that McLaughlin’s imminent debut, and therefore a likely shot at a series transition for the start of 2021, was in serious jeopardy.

Yet, with the Supercars finale at Bathurst falling last weekend and IndyCar’s own finale falling the following Sunday in St. Pete, the smallest of windows opened up for McLaughlin to take three flights around the world, log nearly a half-dozen hours of simulator time, acclimate with team personnel and then fly down to Florida in a matter of five days this past week after finishing fifth while trying to defend his lone Bathurst 1000 title.

St. Pete had been pegged as McLaughlin’s decision ground, where Penske said as late as this week that the New Zealander would determine, through his comfort and success in the car, whether he’d be willing to give up a certain date with the Supercars record books to pursue his IndyCar dreams. Additionally, McLaughlin told IndyStar that he still had a contract to drive in 2021 with DJR Team Penske and had already booked a flight back across the Pacific Ocean.

But rather than race each kind of IndyCar track before making a decision about his future, Penske has signed his first IndyCar rookie since his CART team ownership days in 1999. The news also means Penske’s exit of the Supercars series starting with the 2021 campaign, though team officials will help co-owners Dick Johnson and Ryan Story navigate the phasing out of their majority owners.

“Unfortunately, with the challenges we have faced in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to readjust our business initiatives for 2021 and beyond,” Penske said in a release. “I know that Dick, Ryan and the team will continue to build on that success moving forward.”

Penske’s racing series exit comes in the same offseason as the end of Team Penske’s running in IMSA with Acura in the DPi category, leaving them solely running in IndyCar and NASCAR starting in just a few months.

During his four-team DJR Team Penske tenure, McLaughlin amassed 48 of his 56 wins, which sits tied for fourth all-time, and he currently owns 76 pole victories.

“The last four years with DJR Team Penske has been amazing, I want to thank every single person on the team and everyone that has helped me reach this point in my career,” McLaughlin said. “I wouldn’t be in position to continue to chase my dream without the hard work of some many people along the way.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of joining one of the most iconic motorsports programs of all time, Team Penske’s IndyCar team. I wish the 2021 series would begin tomorrow.”

Alongside seven NASCAR Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson, who will also make his American open-wheel debut over the next year in a partial-season program with Chip Ganassi Racing, the 2021 IndyCar season may now be primed for its biggest-name rookie class in decades.

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.