Scott McLaughlin is living the dream driving Dick Johnson’s famous #17 Ford in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship for DJR Team Penske.
Heading into the team’s home event at Queensland Raceway this weekend, McLaughlin leads the standings by 131 points over nearest rival Shane van Gisbergen.
The #17, which Johnson used throughout a career that netted five ATCC titles and three Bathurst 1000 victories, has been used heavily in the promotion of the Ipswich event.
McLaughlin posed with his #17 – the 2018 Shell V-Power-backed FG X – and a classic DJR #17 EB Falcon representing Johnson’s 1994 Bathurst win – on Thursday.
Taking place on Queensland Raceway’s front straight named in honour of Johnson, the shoot will feature in the opener to Fox Sports’ coverage of today’s action.
McLaughlin, who recently moved from Melbourne to Brisbane and calls himself a ‘Kiwi-Queenslander’, says he’s proud to be part of the #17’s legacy.
“This is one of the rounds where I sit down and think ‘far out, I’m driving a pretty iconic race car with a pretty iconic number’,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.
“I feel privileged. I remember before I did the deal at DJR, knowing that potentially I would be driving the #17 car for Dick, it was very exciting.”
Since joining DJRTP at the start of 2017, McLaughlin says he’s learnt plenty from 73-year-old Johnson, who, although not at Ipswich, is still a significant presence in the team.
Johnson’s legend was forged on overcoming adversity – hitting a rock while leading Bathurst in 1980 and a subsequent fan-funded rebuild launching him to national fame.
He went on to build one of Australia’s most prominent race teams, which survived a number of tumultuous periods before the 2014 buy-in from American giant Team Penske.
Asked of the biggest lesson he’s taken from Johnson, McLaughlin said: “Just battling on and not giving up.
“There’s never, ever something that we can’t do. No matter where we are, he’s got a positive attitude towards me and what we can do.
“When we were 19th on the grid in Perth, it was obviously a negative environment, but he was one of the first ones to say to me that we can still win it.”
Johnson's last Supercars start came at Queensland Raceway in 2000, 10 years before McLaughlin made his debut in the Super2 Series at the same venue.
Just over a year old when Johnson took the EB to victory at Bathurst in 1994, McLaughlin says he loves the team’s classic cars, but appreciates what he has now.
“I wouldn’t want to drive it, to be honest, I reckon I’d look like a clown. I wouldn’t do it justice,” he smiled of the EB, which lives in the museum at the front of the team's workshop.
“We’ve got a lot of luxuries these days with sequential gearboxes and things like that. I’ve never driven an H-pattern!
“I think what we’ve got now is awesome, but it’s cool to see the old cars that were taxis, literally, and built up to be race cars.”
Far from just filling Johnson’s shoes, McLaughlin has built his own legion of fans in recent years, with his amiable and at times cheeky persona also endearing him to the media.
There is one question, however, that he won’t answer about the famous #17 – will he trade it for the #1 if he wins the championship?
Johnson stuck with #17 after each of his titles and, having been used since his retirement by son Steven and subsequent DJR drivers, the number has never left the grid.
“No mate, don’t ask me that question,” interjected McLaughlin as soon as the topic of whether he’d swap #17 for #1 was raised.
“It’s a no-comment," he added with an uneasy laugh. "It’s a bad question!”
McLaughlin is still chasing his maiden Supercars title after missing out to Jamie Whincup in a heartbreaking final day of the 2017 campaign in Newcastle.
Whincup's team-mate van Gisbergen opted against taking #1 when defending his title in 2017 – the first time that had happened since Johnson’s 1990 season.