Story By: DAVEY SEGAL / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – This season’s K&N Pro Series East field features series veterans, rookies with experience and rookies with a lack of experience.
Max McLaughlin is in the middle of that spectrum: tons of experience for a teenage race car driver, but virtually none on asphalt.
The Mooresville, North Carolina, driver’s background is all dirt. From 2016-2018, he competed in the Super DirtCar Series Big Block Modified tour and finished third in the driver standings last season with eight top-five and 18 top-10 finishes.
But since that season concluded, his mind has shifted to asphalt, trying to gather as much information as possible to better himself in his rookie K&N Pro Series East season. Despite thinking it’s easier to transition from dirt to asphalt rather than vice versa, there’s still much to learn after starting from square one with Hattori Racing Enterprises.
“It’s been a lot to learn and there’s still a ton to learn,” McLaughlin said. “(Dirt) teaches you a lot of car control. Sometimes in areas it may hurt me a little bit at the beginning of my asphalt experience, because at New Smyrna Speedway, we were loose loose loose and I just kept driving out of it and didn’t really feel like we were that loose. I’m so used to being yawed out and sideways. It’s a huge learning curve for me.”
To aid in the schooling, he has a handful of people in his corner. To name a couple: crew chief Robert Huffman and his father, NASCAR Xfinity Series winner Mike McLaughlin.
“I’ve got some really good people behind me,” he said. “They’ve all been a huge help. It’s nice to have really knowledgeable people behind you to speed up the learning process. It’s a lot to take in coming from a completely different world of racing. Robert is a super hard worker. Dad and Robert never stop working on the cars. It’s cool to see how much ambition they have with the sport and how much they put into it to go out and run good. They’ve been a huge help. It’s been pretty cool to get involved in this organization.”
McLaughlin has also reached out to fellow drivers who have forged a path from dirt to the upper levels of NASCAR. More than any other, he says a former K&N Pro Series East winner with Rev Racing, Kyle Larson, is someone he’ll be trying to emulate.
“He’s kind of done the same thing I’ve done, started in outlaw karts, worked his way into the K&N Series, did really well over at Rev Racing and is now one of the premier drivers in the sport,” he said. “Probably one of the most talented drivers NASCAR has ever seen, honestly.”
Aric Almirola and defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano, both who have won K&N Pro Series East races in the past, have also been instrumental thus far in McLaughlin’s development. But not as integrated as team owner Shigeaki Hattori.
HRE opted to run in the series full-time for the first time since 2014 before the start of the season. And it’s not a terrible idea, considering the “little team that could” is coming off a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship and won with that driver, Brett Moffitt, at Watkins Glen International in the K&N Pro Series East last season.
“Shigeaki is a really cool guy, he does a lot for the sport,” McLaughlin said of his owner. “He loves it. Sometimes he’s at the shop until midnight in his office figuring out what we need to go to the next race. He’s a really hard worker. Really involved with the organization. Without him I don’t know if I’d be running in the K&N Series this year. I’ve been really lucky to be involved with the people I am. Really thankful for Shigeaki and hopefully we can get him some wins soon.”
The partnership got off to a bit of a rocky start, as McLaughlin started 13th and finished 11th at in the New Smyrna 175 to open up the season. But with all the variables working against them, a sub-par result was to be expected in their first go at it.
“We got behind at New Smyrna but I think we learned a lot as a team working together,” he said. “If we had to go back to there tomorrow, I know we’d be a lot better off. I think if we could’ve run a race or two before New Smyrna, it would’ve been a different result.”
Don’t get it twisted: just because he lacks experience where countless other drivers have a leg up on him doesn’t mean he’s tempering expectations for his No. 1 Mohawk Northeast/Toyota Racing Development/Textron Off Road/Simpson Toyota team. It’s all about winning.
“We just want to win races,” he said bluntly. “(HRE has) proven to be a team that can go win races and championships. I’m going to learn as much as I can.”
He’s still planning to race his outlaw kart on dirt “whenever (he) can, as much as possible” this season. Just this week, he won at Millbridge Speedway
“I’ve always been a firm believer that if you can stay in the seat you’ll be better at any form of racing,” he said. “As long as you stay active and you pursue what you’re doing, I think the success will come.”
McLaughlin and company will look to gain more success with HRE at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 6 in the Zombie Auto 150, the second event of the 2019 season.