INDIANAPOLIS — Pato O'Ward was supposed to arrive in front of the hotel at 8:15 a.m. the first day he'd get his car on the track for Indianapolis 500 practice. He texted he was 15 minutes late, but would try to make up time on the road.
He did, of course, because O'Ward wasn't out for a lazy drive 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'd shaved nine minutes off the commute. And off he went for a casual drive into Indianapolis Motor Speedway with The Associated Press along for his ride to work.
The car was just a loaner — Arrow McLaren has all four of its drivers entered in Sunday's race tooling around town in branded McLarens — and the rideshare elicited a far juicer tale of 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 crack at Formula One, and he felt his contract didn't match his worth. Overthinking it all was ruining his performance. So he decided to focus on his job with McLaren.
Sure enough, he got a new contract and O'Ward worked a McLaren 720 into the deal.
When his new car arrived in Indianapolis, he could tell it wasn't right — even before it was uncovered. The delivery driver thought he was nuts, so O'Ward began to pull off the cover and it was obviously not the right shade of blue. (McLaren is particular about shade. )
“And I'm like, ‘Bro, this isn’t my car,' and he's telling me he does this every day, and there's no way it isn't the right car, and I'm saying ‘It’s not even the right color!'" O'Ward recalled. Wrong model, too.
So O'Ward Facetimes his boss, McLaren Racing head Zak Brown, who is laughing hysterically. He'd had the wrong car wrapped and shipped to O'Ward as a prank. Just to get the reaction he received.
The relationship between the team boss and his many drivers — McLaren competes in Formula One, IndyCar, Formula E, Extreme E and esports — sets the tone for the the entire organization. Arrow McLaren is the fun team, with an elaborate and youthful social media presence that is best in IndyCar, and a true spark plug in O'Ward.
He could have three wins this season, but instead has three runner-up finishes. 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 he starts fifth this Sunday.
O'Ward is so focused that earlier this year he decided to remain single. He 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 dissension. It was clear to him that O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist had a close bond 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 give him credit for. And he's a complete racer. He is not some kid that gets in and is bad fast and that's it. He knows what's going on.”
O'Ward finished fourth and third the first two years with McLaren. He was a distant seventh last year, but reigning champion Will Power has seen a change in how O'Ward raced since midseason last year.
“He's controlling himself in the races more when it comes to tire (degradation) and fuel save,” Power said. “He's definitely taking an approach to try to win the championship.”
O'Ward admits as much on the drive to the speedway, discussing in depth with AP his position about an on-track incident with six-time series champion Scott Dixon last month. Dixon, 42, vehemently believes O'Ward was way too aggressive, but O'Ward is unrepentant and refuses to apologize.
O'Ward is confounded by the entire spat.
“The dude's been doing this a long, long, long time,” O'Ward said. “I don't know why he's being such a baby.”
That confidence is what has made O'Ward one of IndyCar's growing stars, and the numbers show it. His jersey sales are tops in IndyCar, nearly 35% higher than the next driver. His collective merchandise offerings supply draws the highest revenue of any driver retail line.
O'Ward also has his own line and his merchandise shop is booming. For the April race at Texas Motor Speedway, O'Ward bought three suites and offered the tickets to any fan that purchased an item from his merchandise shop. He filled the suites as well as grandstand overflow seating.
Yes, many of his fans are Mexican. O'Ward is from Monterrey but was mostly raised in San Antonio. Texas is still 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 have lots of fans.' And it's like ha-ha, funny," O'Ward said. “No, bro, I work for this. I work to get fans to the track. I'm doing another giveaway and bought 100 tickets to the Indy 500. I may lose money, but I am trying to make a connection with my fans and trying to grow the audience.”
He has accepted that IndyCar is his home — the list for a seat in F1 has grown long and he's just one name on it — and he's thrilled. Like his peers, he finds IndyCar to be the most competitive racing series in the world and he's at the top of his game.
O'Ward also loves where he works, and the relationship he's built with Brown has been a part of what has 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 the boss a deal: Win the Indy 500, and I get the watch.
Brown said absolutely.
“But now I'm cheering for one of my other cars to win,” Brown said. “I like my watch.”