It was the moment Pato O’Ward had been hoping for.
On Jan. 4, the 18-year-old was announced for the fourth seat at Andretti Autosport for the upcoming season in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy. Anticipation already building for preseason testing next month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he was at the airport, helmet in hand, waiting for a flight to Florida.
But it was to Daytona International Speedway to test a car in the Prototype category a week ago for the upcoming Rolex 24 At Daytona, the season opener and biggest race on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule.
Candid and confident, O’Ward looks forward to battling an all-star lineup that includes Verizon IndyCar Series standouts Sebastien Bourdais, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Oh, and 2017 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.
“I’ll be all right,” said O’Ward, winner of last year’s Rolex 24 in the Prototype Challenge class that no longer competes. “I’m excited to race against Alonso, Montoya, Castroneves and all those big names. It’s just something you always dream of.”
Following that opportunity, it will be time to refocus on the Mazda Road to Indy, where the native Mexican now living in Texas was a breakout star two seasons ago.
In the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires – the second step of the MRTI ladder –O’Ward nabbed seven wins, nine podiums and five poles in 16 starts in 2016, but was edged for the title and Mazda scholarship to advance to Indy Lights by Team Pelfrey teammate Aaron Telitz.
O’Ward found his way onto the Indy Lights grid for the 2017 season opener in St. Petersburg and drove to respectable results of fifth and third in the doubleheader weekend, but momentum came to a halt with a collision at the start of the second race of the next round at Barber Motorsports Park. The outcome derailed any chance of continuing the season, leaving his open-wheel career in doubt.
He turned to sports cars and went on to win seven races and claim podium finishes in all eight events en route to the Prototype Challenge championship.
“I’m a big believer in sometimes things just falling into place at different times, but were meant to for a reason,” said O’Ward. “If it wasn’t for me having to stop Indy Lights, I wouldn’t have done the PC stuff. All these things, you give in to one, but you give out in the other and, as of right now, I wouldn’t do anything different.”
O’Ward will be part of a four-car effort at Andretti Autosport, joining returning drivers Colton Herta, Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman. He realizes this is a golden opportunity to re-establish his presence in the feeder system for the Verizon IndyCar Series with one of the top teams.
“I’m really excited to get this year going. I know I have the team and the resources behind me to win the championship,” he said. “If everything works well and I can do my job, then we can do a really good job and have a really strong season just like I did in Pro Mazda."
Despite nearly a full year away, O’Ward is looking to close the gap by immersing himself in testing with the team.
“I know I have what it takes if I have the car and I work well with the team and everything,” said O’Ward, who will drive the No. 27 Dallara IL-15/Mazda. “I want to do a full season with everything, just like everybody else does it, with testing before and during (the season), just everything. I’ve never had a chance to do that, so I’m basically giving it my all.
“Going everywhere, trying to test as much as I can for all the testing that the team has scheduled and trying to learn as much as I can because, honestly, I’m still a rookie. I only had two (Indy Lights) races, whereas everybody else (on the team) has at least a year under their belt. I’m trying to catch up as much as I can and learn as much as I can, so that when I start I can try to be at the same level housing knowledge of the car as everyone else and then just beat them.”
O’Ward’s goal is to build on this opportunity with Andretti Autosport for years to come, using it as a pathway to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“It’s the first year that I’m under the eyes of such a big name, such a big team also in INDYCAR,” said O’Ward. “It’s a powerhouse team in INDYCAR, so I really want to do a good job and show them what I can do and what I’m capable of doing. Just let them know every single side of me so they can evaluate me.
“I hope to be in their liking and do a really good job this year and then make the move up to INDYCAR with them.”