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Payne: Ogling Detroit auto show's EVs and V-8s with Penske Indycar star Scott McLaughlin


Detroit – Even professional race car drivers get weak in the knees around the Corvette Z06.“That’s going to be mine when I win the Indy 500 next year,” smiled IndyCar star Scott McLaughlin, driver of the #3 Chevrolet for Team Penske, as he eyeballed Chevy’s mid-engine hellion. With a production-car record 670-horspower from its normally-aspirated V-8, the sports car is one of the highlights of this year’s show.

A week after the Detroit auto show opened with a presidential visit and media previews, the public portion of the show is abuzz with customers, musical entertainment and the occasional celebrity visitor. A native of Hamilton, New Zealand, McLaughlin’s visit put the “international” in North American International Auto Show in a year in which foreign automaker displays are scaled back from years past.

McLaughlin’s appearance also showcases the intersection between the Detroit automakers, global markets and motorsports. Chevy, for example, brought McLaughlin to the show floor to not only highlight the Detroit Grand Prix but also to understand the larger Chevy product lineup the brand promotes when its race cars win in front of millions of TV viewers.

The Kiwi is a natural ambassador for American muscle.

Unlike European drivers who grew up negotiating narrow city streets in wee, four-cylinder shoeboxes, Australia is a country with miles of open roads like America – and V8-powered American sedans to match. McLaughlin is a veteran of Australia’s biggest auto show in Melbourne.

“I craved V-8s as a kid. It’s hard not to. The national sport is the V-8 Supercars,” said the 29-year-old of the Ford Mustangs and Holden Commodores (similar to the late Chevy SS in this market) that are similar to NASCARs Down Under.  In Australian Supercar, Team Penske waves the Ford Mustang flag, different from the Chevy IndyCar colors he flies here.

“That’s what I raced, and I grew up idolizing V-8 Supercars,” McLaughlin continued. “My Dad had a V-8, my mom had a V-8.”

McLaughlin’s dominance of the Supercar series in Australia – winning three titles from 2018-2020 – convinced Penske to bring the personable New Zealander stateside.

“This is the big leagues. I grew up idolizing America,” said McLaughlin. “Roger asks a lot of (his drivers). We promote the sport, we promote his brands, we promote his town. I wouldn’t want to drive for anyone else.”

Where Chevy made its reputation on American muscle, it is now joining the international market to go all-electric by 2035. For McLaughlin, that means getting familiar with the brand’s new EVs, which surround the Corvette display in Detroit. McLaughlin – just like other showgoers on the floor Wednesday – got an in-depth tour of the Silverado, Equinox and Blazer EVs and the Ultium battery chassis they ride on.

“Coming here as a Chevy driver, it’s been an awesome introduction into the GM family,” said McLaughlin. “To see the resources they put into their race cars and into their production cars is great.”

The push to electrification is not as pronounced in motor racing. McLaughlin’s Chevy-powered IndyCar will get battery assist in 2024 as a V6-powered hybrid. And the Corvette Z06 is based on the V8-powered C8.R race car that Chevrolet is, for the first time, selling to international race teams.

McLaughlin’s primary task here is selling tickets for the Detroit Grand Prix, which will return to downtown streets for the first time in more than 30 years next June. NAIAS planned to offer showgoers a tour of the new 1.7-mile track in Chevy Bolt EVs and Volkswagen ID.4s – but that hasn’t come to pass. Instead, visitors can get a brief ride in the vehicles on Atwater Street on Huntington Place’s riverfront.

McLaughlin did manage to take some laps of his own on the new circuit while in Detroit.

“On paper it doesn’t look very interesting, but then you get on track and see how wide it is and the monuments you pass like the Renaissance Center. It’s gonna' be a really cool and unique race,” McLaughlin said of the circuit where IndyCars will approach 180 mph on Jefferson Avenue into the Griswold hairpin. “Chevy being a part of it and promoting it in the Motor City is really a big deal.”

After leaving downtown Wednesday afternoon, McLaughlin’s day continued with laps on a second track: GM’s Milford Proving Grounds out I-96. In a Corvette Z06.

“To get to drive a Z06 will be awesome,” he laughed. “I’ll get a taste of what I might own one day.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.