INDIANAPOLIS — Pato O’Ward was supposed to arrive outside the hotel at 8:15 a.m. on the first day he would put his car on the track for Indianapolis 500 practices. He texted that he was 15 minutes late , but that he would try to catch up on the road.
He did it, of course, because O’Ward hadn’t gone for a lazy stroll through downtown Indianapolis. He pulled up in a custom McLaren GT, matte black with the No. 5 on it, and he was flashing the peace sign.
“Ciao, senorita,” said the affable young IndyCar driver, noting he shaved nine minutes off the ride. And he took a casual ride down the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the Associated Press on his way to work.
The car was just a loan – Arrow McLaren has its four drivers entered in Sunday’s race tooling around town in branded McLarens – and the carpool prompted a far more specific story about why O ‘Ward has become such a sensation for the IndyCar series and his team.
He was miserable at the start of last season, when he wanted a chance in Formula 1, and he felt his contract did not match its value. Thinking too much about it was ruining his performance. So he decided to focus on his job at McLaren.
Sure enough, he got a new contract and O’Ward put a McLaren 720 into the deal.
When his new car arrived in Indianapolis, he could tell it wasn’t right – even before it was discovered. The delivery driver thought he was crazy, so O’Ward started pulling the blanket off and it obviously wasn’t the right shade of blue. (McLaren is particular about shade.)
“And I’m like, ‘Bro, that’s not my car,’ and he tells me he does that every day, and there’s no way that’s not the right car, and I say, ‘That’s not even the right color!’” O’Ward recalls.
So O’Ward faces his boss, Zak Brown, head of McLaren Racing, who laughs hysterically. He’d had the wrong car wrapped up and shipped it off to O’Ward for a prank. Just to get the reaction he received.
The relationship between the team boss and his many drivers – McLaren competes in Formula 1, IndyCar, Formula E, Extreme E and esports – sets the tone for the entire organization . Arrow McLaren is the fun team, with an elaborate, youthful social media presence that is the best in IndyCar, and a real spark plug in O’Ward.
He could have three wins this season, but instead has three second-place finishes. Frustratingly, he’s only six points behind series leader and Indy 500 poleman Alex Palou. O’Ward was second in Indy a year ago, and he starts fifth this Sunday.
O’Ward is so focused that he decided earlier this year to stay single. He felt that a relationship could be a distraction “and I don’t want to leave anything on the table. The goal is to win the championship.
Alexander Rossi joined Arrow McLaren this year from Andretti Autosport, where his final season was marred by divisiveness. It was clear to him that O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist had a close connection at McLaren, but Rossi had no idea what to make of the excitable Mexican.
“He’s not crazy. He’s very funny,” Rossi said. “He’s more analytical than people think. And he’s a complete runner. He’s not a kid who comes in and is bad quickly and that’s it. He knows what is going on. »
O’Ward finished fourth and third the first two years with McLaren. He was a distant seventh last year, but defending champion Will Power has seen a change in the way O’Ward has raced since mid-season last year.
“He controls himself more in races when it comes to tires (degradation) and fuel economy,” Power said. “He’s definitely taking an approach to try to win the championship.”
O’Ward admits it on the drive to the speedway, discussing his position in depth with AP over an incident at the track with six-time series champion Scott Dixon last month. Dixon, 42, vehemently believes O’Ward was far too aggressive, but O’Ward is unrepentant and refuses to apologize.
O’Ward is confused by all the spitting.
“The dude has been doing this for a long, long time,” O’Ward said. “I don’t know why he’s such a baby.”
That confidence is what made O’Ward one of IndyCar’s rising stars, and the numbers show it. His jersey sales are the best in IndyCar, almost 35% more than the next driver. Its collective merchandise offerings offer the highest revenue of any driver retail line.
O’Ward also has her own line and her merchandise shop is thriving. For April’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, O’Ward purchased three suites and gifted the tickets to any fan who purchased an item from his merchandise shop. He filled the suites as well as the grandstand overflow seats.
Yes, many of his fans are Mexican. O’Ward is originally from Monterrey but mostly grew up in San Antonio. Texas is still at home, but he spends much of his free time in Monterrey or Punta Mita, where he celebrated his 24th birthday this month.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky, you’re Mexican. You’ve got a lot of fans. And it’s like ha-ha, funny,” O’Ward said. “No bro, I work for this. I work to get the fans on the track. I’m giving another giveaway and I bought 100 tickets to the Indy 500. I may lose money, but I trying to connect with my fans and increase the audience.
He’s accepted IndyCar as his home – the list for an F1 seat has grown and there’s only one name on it – and he’s delighted. Like his peers, he finds IndyCar to be the most competitive racing series in the world and he is at the top of his game.
O’Ward also loves where he works, and the relationship he’s built with Brown is part of what motivated him to focus on winning an IndyCar title. He recently noticed that Brown had acquired a new watch – a rather expensive Richard Mille, the Rafael Nadal model.
O’Ward wants it, so he made a deal with the boss: Win the Indy 500, and I get the watch.
Brown said absolutely.
“But now I’m cheering on one of my other cars to win,” Brown said. “I like my watch.”