Shane van Gisbergen’s miracle NASCAR win completes the creation of a second dimension for Supercars. It is no longer just a destination category. It can be a pathway as well.
The series has always enjoyed a healthy notoriety outside of Australia and New Zealand, largely thanks to the spectacle that is the Bathurst 1000. At least once a year, better-than-casual motorsport viewers around the globe tune in for their glimpse of how loud and unruly the cars are. And how close the racing is. And how much the odd international driver that dares to dip their toe in the water, seemingly regardless of how decorated they are, will struggle to come to terms with getting the best out of these V8-powered monsters with their skinny tyres, locked diff and right-foot braking demand.
The argument for that has always been that, for these Supercars drivers, this is all they’ve done. They’ve been so focused on these unique cars that it is impossible to beat them at their own game.
And to some extent that’s true. Supercars has long been a destination category. If you’re good enough, you get paid handsomely, you race at marquee events, and you can go down in history by winning the Bathurst 1000 – It’s a good life.
For years, young Aussie drivers have effectively faced a fork in the road, pretty much straight out of Formula Ford. Do you want to be a Formula 1 driver or a Supercars driver? If it’s the former, you get on the first plane to Europe and hit the open-wheel ladder. It’s expensive, but if you’ve got the cash, then you’ve got options. Maybe you’ll go all the way like Mark Webber, Daniel Ricciardo or Oscar Piastri. Maybe you’ll sidestep to IndyCar like Will Power. Maybe you’ll run out of money, at which point you can still come home and have a crack at Supercars like Will Davison and James Courtney.
If you don’t have the money to go overseas, you can stay put in Australia and focus on Supercars. Head to Toyota 86s, Porsches or perhaps even straight into Super3 or Super2. Let’s call it the Scott McLaughlin approach.
Except, from what we now know, taking the Scott McLaughlin approach doesn’t lock you into Supercars for life. It can be a destination if you want it to be but it can also be a pathway.
Marcos Ambrose famously used Supercars as a way to springboard into NASCAR, although to a large extent, he had to start from scratch in the US. He had to work his way through Trucks and Xfinity before he graduated to the Cup Series. The Supercars runs he had on the board didn’t afford him the luxury of skipping the steps.
For years Ambrose was one of very few Supercars drivers able to make the switch to the States
Supercars has moved on since 2005, Ambrose’s final year. For all those that long for the ‘good old days’, the series is significantly more professional and more competitive. The depth of talent at the top is immense. We’ve seen that with the likes of van Gisbergen and Chaz Mostert racing GT cars. The former won a GT World Challenge Europe title with McLaren and the latter, the Daytona 24 with BMW. The German carmaker even tried to lure Mostert into a full-time, factory GT role, but wasn’t successful.
But customer GT programmes and top-line, professional series are different, and we now have two solid examples of Supercars drivers successfully switching codes and performing at an elite level very quickly.
The first is McLaughlin. What he has achieved in his two-and-a-bit years as an IndyCar driver is nothing short of remarkable. He’s won races. He looks like he belongs. He looks like a guy brought up in the IndyCar system.
But he wasn’t. Until he rocked up for that cameo at St Pete in 2020 his only open-wheel experience was a couple of local Formula Ford starts to help get his racing licence. He had to learn to drive a single-seater and learn how real downforce works. Oh, and oval racing. And he has made it all look relatively easy.
What McLaughlin and van Gisbergen have achieved in the States proves beyond doubt how good Supercars drivers are
The second, more timely example is van Gisbergen’s shock NASCAR win on debut. For the first time in the category’s modern era, a driver rocked up and won, straight away. He became just the sixth driver born outside the US to a win a Cup Series race. He had completed a single, half-day test in a Cup car heading into the race meeting.
Yes, some things were stacked in his favour. Like the fact it was a new track for all of the Cup Series drivers. And even better it was the first street circuit most of the field had seen, while it’s Shane’s bread and butter in Supercars.
Would he have won straight up on an oval or a road course that the other drivers were more familiar with? Almost certainly not. Would he have disgraced himself? No way. The guy is the real deal. And the reaction to his Chicago triumph proves it.
The situation may have played into van Gisbergen’s favour on his NASCAR debut but he took full advantage of it
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
It’s easy to look at the past five Supercars seasons and surmise that McLaughlin and van Gisbergen were/are in a class of their own. Between them, they’ve won every title since 2018, often in dominant fashion. And at times, both were absolutely in a class of their own.
But McLaughlin’s success came with the might of Roger Penske behind him, and his 2019 campaign was, whether he likes to admit it or not, aided by the introduction of the wild Gen2 Mustang. Van Gisbergen, meanwhile, is also a three-time Supercars champion – but has been racing full-time in the series since 2008. When he’s on, he seems unstoppable. But he’s been beaten plenty of times before. Right now he’s fourth in the standings, behind his team-mate.
None of that is to disparage what either of the Kiwis have achieved in Supercars. It’s purely to demonstrate that these guys aren’t head and shoulders above the rest of the Supercars drivers. Van Gisbergen basically said as much after his Chicago success. “Hopefully this shows how good our Supercars drivers are and opens the floodgates and we can come over here and race,” he said.
“There hasn’t been anyone from Supercars since Marcos really came and had a go, but there’s plenty of good drivers now wanting to come and try and expand and come over here. Any of the top 10 in Supercars are good enough to come and do what I just did.”
The theory could be proven soon enough with Brodie Kostecki and Cam Waters both eyeing outings in NASCAR, as soon as this year.
What McLaughlin and van Gisbergen have achieved in the States proves beyond doubt how good Supercars drivers are. And even a driver like McLaughlin, raised in the Supercars system, can develop the ability and diversity needed to succeed in a completely different environment.
That means young drivers don’t necessarily need to choose anymore. They can head to Supercars, get paid, and see what happens. Because it should now be clear to the motor racing world. If you can run at the front in Supercars, you’ll run at the front almost anywhere else, given the right opportunity.
Will van Gisbergen be racing in the States in 2024?
Photo by: Edge Photographics