The first time I met IndyCar driver Patricio O’Ward, it was during the 2019 event at Circuit of the Americas. Because it was my wedding weekend, my then-fiancé and I decided to attend the race as fans instead of having me work it — and that meant we ran into O’Ward during the autograph session. He’d just cobbled together a ride after his promised full-season debut with Harding had fallen through, so my soon-to-be husband told O’Ward how glad he was to see him racing. O’Ward’s face broke into a beaming smile as he said, “Man, I’m glad to be here, too!” And that’s the mindset that has carried O’Ward to his current place at second in the IndyCar Series’ 2021 championship standings just two years later.
It hasn’t been an easy road, but O’Ward has kept a smile firmly fixed on his face as he’s faced down disappointment in the Red Bull Racing Junior Program, in securing an IndyCar ride, and in chasing down his first wins. And now, with only two IndyCar races left in the 2021 season, O’Ward is still smiling.
A difficult race at Portland last weekend now sees O’Ward in a deficit of 25 points to championship leader Alex Palou. But as I chatted with the Mexican driver ahead of this weekend’s Laguna Seca race, I had to admit: If he can keep up that positive attitude, he has a damn good shot at taking Arrow McLaren SP’s first championship victory.
Elizabeth Blackstock: So tell me a little bit about your race at Portland. It just seemed like things didn’t kind of go the way you would have wanted.
Pato O’Ward: Yeah, it wasn’t too good. Honestly, like I told the team, we did everything we could that was in our control, the best we could, and things just didn’t fall. I mean, we had a great start, we positioned ourselves to beat the race, fight for the win, and then we got screwed by yellow, that’s pretty much what happened and then from there on you’re just stuck. It was a race of following the leader, I think there was like one on-track pass in the top 10, all races. So yeah, it wasn’t ideal. It was a track position race and we got sent backwards and we got stuck there.
EB: Yeah. When you have a tough race, do you prefer having a longer break before the next event, or would you rather just jump right into the next one? Like you’re going to have to do here.
PO: No, I love the intensity. I love back-to-back-to-back weekends.
EB: Mm-hmm. How do you get prepared for those? Like, how do you stay on your game?
PO: It’s just fuel when you have a bad weekend and you know that that’s not where you’re supposed to be, which I have a lot of faith in the team that’s around me, the guys have been great in the pits. The engineers and I are going to do our best to roll off as strong as we can into Laguna and then fight for the pole, fight to start in the front rows and then fight for the win, that’s all we can do right now. There’s two races left and there’s plenty of points on the table to catch up to Palou. And at the end of the day, what we want to do is have everybody behind us when the checkered flag waves in Long Beach.
EB: I guess, do you have any strategies that you’re looking for to really come out on top in Laguna Seca? Is there anything about that track that really fits who you are as a driver?
PO: It’s a very high commitment track, is very rewarding, it’s a fast and flowing circuit, I enjoy that a lot. But the best thing we can do is execute in qualifying, qualify upfront and have the best race car we can for race day on Sunday, work on it through practice one, practice two, and then warm-up, and then just go for it, like have a good strategy, good pit stops. I mean, at the end of the day, we can’t control everything but what we can control is where we qualify and what we do during the race. I have to do my job perfectly, the team has to do their job perfectly. They know that they have to give me the tools in order to make it happen, but they know that if it’s there, I will be sure to extract everything out of it. So I think we’re in a position where we’re hunting and yeah, I don’t really feel terrible. I’m really excited.
EB: Yeah. I was going to say you’re in like a really neat position, I guess, you’ve got to overtake Palou, obviously, but you’re also fending off Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon. What does that feel like as a driver who’s fairly new to the sport?
PO: New position to be in, to be fairly honest. This is my first championship that I can truly challenge for. Last year I ended fifth, but truly Josef and Scott were long gone, so it’s really nice to be one of the contenders this year. And that’s why we do it, we do it to the win races, challenge for championships, ultimately win championships, win in the 500s. We haven’t done the championships and the 500 part yet, but I feel like we’re definitely on the way and I’d love to give this team their first championship and then, hopefully in the future their first 500 win.
EB: Yeah, I feel like that’d be a great reward for the work that you’ve put in with the team, especially now that McLaren has such a bigger stake in it. How do you feel that’s going to impact the function of the team?
PO: I mean, it’s just such a great group of people and not just here in America, but guys over in London and the whole atmosphere of the team is really nice, it’s very enjoyable. But something that I really, really want to do this year is I’d love to win when Zak is there because Zak hasn’t been there for any of my wins this year and I’d love for him to be there and experience at least one more win and, ultimately, the best one that we could get would be championship, obviously.
EB: Yeah, is he going to be at the last two races?
PO: He will for sure be at Laguna. I am not sure about Long Beach, I hope he is. Okay. Yeah, he’ll be at both.
EB: Okay, super.
PO: So yeah, I really want to make it happen, so he can be there and celebrate with all of us and really enjoy his time.
EB: Yeah. Have you turned to him for advice in the past of how to really make the most of what you need to make the most of in terms of getting on the track and just really being a strong competitor?
PO: I’m a huge Zak Brown fan. He’s such a racer at heart, but he has such a unique, and how can I say it, a very creative mind. And some of these ideas are unlike anything else that I’ve heard from someone else, but they work. I mean, the guy has such a great imagination that truly... then brings it to life. That’s something that I find very impressive and really cool that I’m associated with someone like that and someone with just great character, he’s a great boss to have. And he knows what it is to be a driver, like he understands the pressures that it comes with, he understands everything and he’s the kind of guy that he’s always got your back and obviously as long as I am giving results, I’m sure it’ll continue being that way. So I’m just really happy and proud to be a part of a great family. And, yeah, he’s always on my side. I mean, the guy is like a best friend to me, we talk like we’re best friends, it’s not like, “Oh...” You know what I’m saying?
PO: Like just it’s a different atmosphere whenever you can really be yourself with someone rather than be conservative.
EB: Yeah. You’re not like calling him sir and anything like that.
PO: Yeah. I really liked that he allows everybody to be themselves, and I think that’s what makes the team and not just... yeah, like I said, not just here in America, but I feel like the Formula 1 atmosphere as well, it’s a very enjoyable and nice environment to work in.
EB: Mm-hmm. You’ve got such a positive mindset. I mean, in the past, when we’ve done an interview, like you always just seem super stoked, but has that changed as you approach these last few races? Are you getting a little bit more forceful or any bolder knowing that you’ve got a championship so close?
PO: I’m getting hungrier. I didn’t really know it was possible, but I want this bad and I know the team does as well. And we’re in a situation right now where we’re expanding, we’re growing, we’re getting better, but we’re not quite where Ganassi and Penske are because they’ve been in the series for decades, they’ve been dominating for decades. You can’t just learn the knowledge that they have over the past many decades in two years. We’re now contenders for the championship, we’re regularly contenders for poles and wins. That’s what we’ve been really striving for is that, to continuously be out there.
There’s been some weekends this year that we just haven’t had it, we just don’t and that’s where the guys that we’re fighting against are so good. But I think that’s just going to make us better and having people, they’re so competitive and so driven to win in our group is what’s going to take this team to the next level. And then I feel like we’re definitely on the way, but it’s not something that we’re going to learn from one day to another, it takes time and you have to push through. And from my side, I’m trying my best to really push the engineers, push myself, just try and make myself better in any way I can, because anything that we can kind of make better for ourselves and for our team is just going to help us into that goal that we have.
EB: Absolutely. And how do you feel that hunger that you talked about? I guess it’s hard to imagine as someone who is not a race car driver and is not on the cusp of a championship, big one, for the first time. I can imagine, like the general hunger, like the all-season, “I’m working my butt off, trying to get as close as I can to this, but I just can’t get that next level forward.” If you know what I mean.
PO: Yeah. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like the best way to explain is that we all believe that we can do it, but actually achieving it, it’s going to back up what we believe in. And I feel like that’s the biggest thing for us is that we broke through that first win and not just once, twice and we broke through consistently fighting for poles, like we breaking through some barriers this year already and just breaking through that last barrier, which is the hardest one, it just fuels everybody for the future, like not just this year. But it just fuels the engineers, the mechanics, the owners, the drivers, it fuels everybody and it shows everybody that your hard work this year has been for something and that’s what I’d love to give this team and myself.
EB: Yeah, feel like you deserved it. Like-
PO: I’ve definitely worked hard. Like I said, there’s so many things that we can’t control and it’s hard to accept that at times where it’s like, “You know, man? It sucks.” Because at the end of the day, sometimes it’s just not going to be fair, maybe it’s just not your year. But I want to make sure these last two weekends, I do everything absolutely perfect and I know the team wants to do that as well, and then things will fall like they’re supposed to fall. But what we can control is what we’re in charge of and we want to make sure that we absolutely give it everything we have.
EB: Mm-hmm. So you mentioned like breaking barriers and I guess just on the outside perspective of covering motorsport, you see it a lot where it’s that one... like finally getting a win or a pole position or a podium that just turns things around for the team. It seems like achieving it finally proves that they can do it and at that point, they can continue to do it. What’s that like from the inside? It looks like a switch gets flipped. Is that how it feels as being part of the team?
PO: It feels like some weight has been lifted off of your shoulders in a way. I feel like once you break through that, it lets you breathe in more, it just lets you... you feel a little bit less heavy. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
EB: No, that makes a lot of sense.
PO: You just feel like, “All right, we’re going.” Like, “We’re doing this.” And you just like keep pushing through.
EB: Mm-hmm. No, that makes a lot of sense, and I think, I don’t know, it’s such a neat thing to watch it happen, especially with McLaren. It seems like it’s just been happening so rapidly. Sometimes it takes a while for teams to get the ball rolling but like here you guys have really shown that what you’re doing is working and the way you guys meshed together is paying off.
PO: Yeah, for sure. I mean, at the end of the day I’m the one that’s driving the race car, but there is so much work in the background that people don’t see, that deserve a lot of credit and that’s with the development, the engineers, the mechanics, the preparation of the race cars, perfecting, what’s it called, the sport or the art of the pit stops. Like people just see “Oh, yeah, your pit lane, you’re changing tires and you go.” But to get those last tenths in last second or so, to shave it down from what your maximum is, is what can make or break your race like that will give you a win or it’ll give you a pipeline. That’s what it takes to win in IndyCars, it’s so competitive.
EB: Mm-hmm. You’re also doing some really cool stuff, like, you helped make IndyCar available for free broadcasting in Mexico. Can you tell me a little bit about how that all came together and like the goals of what you’re trying to achieve with that?
PO: Yeah. Everybody has pitched in some. IndyCar helped me obviously with getting the fee into being able to broadcast in our open TV. And then I wanted my country to be able to watch me fight for the championship. The last three races are going to be on open-air TV and it’s the first time that races from IndyCar are in open TV in Mexico. I feel like that’s what I had to do for people to truly see that what we’re doing is deserving of the recognition that we’ve gotten the past few months. I know a lot of people are, “Hey, that’s all that Formula One.” But life isn’t just all Formula 1. There’s so many categories and one of those is IndyCar that is so underrated, but it is such good racing and it is so damn competitive because the difference from a top team to a smaller team is not as big as in other series, like you just don’t see that anywhere else.
I feel like that’s what makes IndyCar so exciting, so hard to win for a driver, for a team. And I wanted them to be able to experience these last few races and watch me fight through the championship, whether I win it or not. Whatever happens, I want them to see what and how it went down, how the races were and I want them to get pumped like I am. I want them to enjoy it and hopefully, we have reasons to celebrate in the next few weeks and I want them to celebrate with me. And yeah, like for me, it’s been a plan that I’ve had for many months or for a few years actually but finally, it’s sort of coming into fruition. Would love to have more next year.
EB: Yeah. What is the response to IndyCar in Mexico?
PO: People will enjoy it. I don’t think it’s as big as it should be, and it’s not as respected as it should be, that’s a little disappointing, honestly. But I hope I can change that because I love where I’m at and I think it’s so enjoyable from a driver’s perspective. And just from a personal perspective, I feel like they should be happy with what we’re doing in IndyCar, not focus on, “Oh, where do you have to go? Or where are you going to go in the future?” It’s like, “Man, enjoy where I am right now because it’s awesome.”
EB: Yeah. Yeah, IndyCar is great. And I mean, I would love to see your return, like having an actual race in Mexico because-
PO: Oh my God, you and me both.
EB: ... I’ve been dying for an excuse to go.
PO: I would love to go back to Mexico. I’m telling you if we ever go back there in the next few years, I guarantee you, it will be a sold-out event. No doubt.
EB: The Mexican fans go hard. The Sergio Pérez fans that came to COTA for the first couple of years that I went, like, they go hard and it was the most delightful thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. So I would love to have that. I would love you to have that response in your own home country, like that would be incredible.
PO: Yeah, it’d be awesome.
EB: Mm-hmm. So no matter what happens when the checkered flag flies in Long Beach, what do you think will be the biggest thing that you’ve learned and taken away from this season?
PO: Biggest thing. I think we grew a lot. I think we’ve grown a lot as a team all year. We know where our flaws have been, and we’re working on them. But like I said, you can’t just fix them from one day to another, it’s something that we have to continue working on and try and continue improving. I think that’s the biggest takeaway, it’s just we’ve grown so much and we have to continue growing because I feel like we have a great future together, talking about me with the team, and we should just strive to grow more and we should leave our bars high, like, we should put our objectives pretty high because I feel like we’ve accomplished some pretty cool stuff this year so far. And next up it should be a championship or a 500, we’ve been so close. We’re close to the championship right now, we were so close to the 500, so I feel like we’re right there, we’re not far.
EB: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that’s going to be really good momentum be taking into the next season. Like you said, you guys have come a long, long way as a team and it’s awesome to see that, just the success you guys have had.
PO: I agree. It’s been a ride for sure but it’s been really, really enjoyable.
EB: Yeah. Before I wrap up, I have to ask, you posted photos of you and a dog earlier today, is that your dog?
PO: Yes, it’s my dog.
EB: What’s his name?
PO: His name is Rocky. I call him Ronnie. Yeah, he’s a big boy.
EB: Yeah, he’s adorable. I just have to say, I love a good dog, and he looks like the best one.
PO: Oh, thanks. Yeah, he’s a good puppy.
EB: Yeah, those are all the questions I had for you today. Thank you so much and good luck on the last two race of the season.
PO: Thank you so much.
EB: Thanks. Bye-bye.