INDIANAPOLIS — Pato O’Ward was scheduled to arrive at his hotel at 8:15 a.m. on the first day of practice for the Indianapolis 500. He texted that he was 15 minutes late, but would try to make up the time on the road.
Of course he did, because O’Ward wasn’t up for a lazy drive through downtown Indianapolis. He got into a custom McLaren GT, matte black with the number 5 on it and flashing the peace sign.
“Ciao, senorita,” said the amiable young IndyCar driver, noting that he had shaved nine minutes off his commute. He then took a casual drive with the Associated Press to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to get to work.
The car was just loaned out – all four Arrow McLaren drivers took part in Sunday’s round-the-town race in branded McLarens – and the ride-sharing made for a wonderfully compelling story about why O’Ward became such a sensation in the IndyCar series and as a team.
He was miserable at the start of last season, when he wanted out of Formula 1 and felt his contract was not worth it. Overthinking it all ruined his performance. So he decided to focus on his work at McLaren.
Sure enough, he signed a new contract and O’Ward worked a McLaren 720 into the deal.
When his new car arrived in Indianapolis, he already knew it wasn’t right. The delivery driver thought he was crazy, so O’Ward started pulling the lid off, and it was clearly not the right shade of blue. (The McLaren is with particular attention to the shadow. )
“And I’m like, ‘Dude, that’s not my car,’ and he’s telling me that he does this every day, and there’s no way it’s not the right car, and I’m like, ‘It’s not the right car. color!” O’Ward recalled. Bad model too.
So O’Ward Facetimes his boss, McLaren Racing boss Zak Brown, who laughs hysterically. As a prank, the wrong car was packed and delivered to O’Ward. Just to get the reaction you get.
The relationship between the team principal and his many drivers – McLaren competes in Formula 1, IndyCar, Formula E, Extreme E and esports – sets the tone for the whole organisation. Arrow McLaren is the fun team, with a polished and youthful social media presence that is the best in IndyCar and a real spark plug in O’Ward.
He could have had three wins this season, but instead had three second-place finishes. It’s frustrating, but he’s just six points behind series leader and Indy 500 pole winner Alex Palou. O’Ward was second at Indy a year ago, and this Sunday he is making his fifth start.
O’Ward is so focused that she decided to stay single earlier this year. She felt 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 controversy. It was clear to him that O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist had a close relationship at McLaren, but Rossi had no idea what to make of his excited Mexicans.
“He’s not crazy. Very funny,” Rossi said. “He’s more analytical than people give him credit for. And he is a complete competitor. He’s not a kid who gets in quickly and is bad and that’s it. You know what’s going on.”
O’Ward finished fourth and third in his first two years with McLaren. He was a distant seventh last year, but reigning champion Will Power saw a change in O’Ward’s racing style midway through last season.
“He’s more in control of the races themselves in terms of tire (deterioration) and fuel economy,” Power said. “He’s definitely taking the approach of trying to win the championship.”
O’Ward admitted to the speedway and discussed his stance at length with the AP during his on-track encounter with six-time series champion Scott Dixon last month. Dixon, 42, vehemently believes O’Ward was too aggressive, but O’Ward is unrepentant and refuses to apologise.
O’Ward was confused by all the spat.
“The dude’s been doing this for a long time,” O’Ward said. “I don’t know why he’s such a baby.”
That confidence has made O’Ward one of IndyCar’s rising stars, and the numbers show. His jersey sales are tops in IndyCar, nearly 35% higher than the next driver. It has the highest revenue among drivers’ retail lines from its collective merchandise offering.
O’Ward also has her own line and her merchandise store is booming. For the April race at Texas Motor Speedway, O’Ward bought three suites and offered the tickets to all fans who bought something from his merchandise. It filled the suites as well as the overflow seats in the grandstand.
Yes, many of his fans are Mexican. O’Ward is from Monterrey, but was raised mostly in San Antonio. Texas is still home, but she spends most of her free time in Monterrey or Punta Mita, where she celebrated her 24th birthday this month.
“People say, ‘Oh, how lucky you are to be Mexican. You have many fans. And it’s like ha-ha, funny,” O’Ward said. “No, bro, that’s what I work for. I work to get the fans on the field. I’m running another giveaway and bought 100 tickets to the Indy 500. I might be losing money, but I’m trying to connect with my fans and try to grow my audience.”
He’s accepted that IndyCar is his home – the list of F1 seats has grown long and only one name is on it – and he’s excited. Like his peers, he believes IndyCar is the most competitive racing series in the world and is at the top of his game.
O’Ward also loves where he works, and his relationship with Brown has helped keep him focused on winning the IndyCar title. He recently noticed that Brown had acquired a new watch – a rather expensive Richard Mille, Rafael Nadal model.
O’Ward wants it, so he made a deal with the boss: win the Indy 500 and I’ll get the watch.
Brown said firmly.
“But right now I’m rooting for one of my other cars to win,” Brown said. “I like my watch.”