Who will ever forget the night that a young teenager set the Super DIRTCar Series quick time at the annual World Finals at the Dirt Track at Charlotte? He bested 44 other guys that night. Stop right there though. That might seem kind of cool, but when you add the fact that it was his first time strapping into a Big Block Modified, the fact goes from cool to amazing. Now factor in that he only spent one year in a UMP type modified prior to that, and it goes from amazing, to a new level of "are you kidding me?"
|Jeremiah Fish Photo|
That was then. November 5, 2015 to be exact. This is now. And as of the conclusion of the SDS portion of the DIRTCar Nationals at Volusia, McLaughlin has to be considered a legitimate contender for podium finishes and perhaps a win or two on the tour in 2017.
McLaughlin finished with two top fives and spent both races at the front, battling lap after lap with the likes of Hearn, Danny Johnson, Matt Sheppard and Tim Fuller at the top of the field. But more than that, he even spotted his own setup mistake, owned it and learned from it while running out of tear offs and driving blind for a few laps. And it's hard to say how many hardcore Big Block fans truly and honestly saw it coming.
|Jeremiah Fish Photo|
We don't have to tell the folks reading this the back story, they already know he's the son of a legend that grew up far away from the traditional hot beds of NY, Canada, PA and New Jersey. That he had the honor and privilege of being able to have some fantastic equipment at his disposal courtesy of Heinke-Tommy Baldwin racing. And we don't need to inform you of the decision to go full bore on the tour in 2016 with precious little experience, driving against the best in the industry night in and night out.
McLaughlin is his own person, and is forging his own path to success. And that means jumping in and taking lumps and lessons while trying not to hurt the car or himself. He did that in 2016, finishing 13th in tour points while competing at Brewerton and Fulton Speedways on a weekly basis where he earned five top 5's in 24 starts. It was a sink or swim approach. And in McLaughlin's case it seems to be working.
The equipment around him might be top notch, but a trained right foot and uncanny instincts are things nobody can provide. They're acquired with natural ability, and a willingness to learn and then work hard to perfect the craft of driving in circles with 23 other cars on an ever changing surface that's sliding out from underneath you. And it's in those elements, the stuff the money doesn't buy, that McLaughlin may be light years ahead of other young aspiring drivers. Anybody can strap in to great stuff, but if they're not willing to take advice and put in the work, they're headed quicker for the mid pack than the front. If McLaughlin's performance at Volusia shows us anything, it is that even though his results were not always what he was hoping for in 2016, the learning and work are starting to come through.
|Jeremiah Fish Photo|
The surface this past weekend at Volusia was heavy, as evidenced by the photos of the cars, and the shortening of races. One could make the argument that McLaughlin's time trial ability and redraw hand put him in a good position to simply hold on and collect a good finish. But to hold off the pack of enormous talent behind him, even more motivated to get to the front due to two cancelled races and less chances to take home good prize money, speaks volumes of his development to this point.
2017 could be a very big year for McLaughlin. And an SDS title might be a little far fetched at this point. Matt Sheppard shows no signs of decline and perhaps might even be better (there's a scary thought), and other more experienced drivers will get their share of wins, it happens every year. But be sure to check in on McLaughlin and watch what another solid year of development does for him. That weekend in Charlotte, it was more than beginners luck, it was more than whatever circumstance surrounded it, it was the first sign of his natural talent on a big stage. This past weekend in Volusia, was a display of how preparation and work meet the talent. Chances are, you'll be seeing him in your press releases on a semi regular basis sooner rather than later.