Patricio O'Ward and Al Unser, Jr.

Patricio O’Ward is prepared to lead his home country of Mexico back to relevance in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The 19-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, claimed nine wins on his way to the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship. The achievement comes with a $1 million scholarship award for three races in the 2019 Verizon IndyCar Series season, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

“It’s a big responsibility, but I'm ready to take charge of that and I want to take Indy car (racing) back to Mexico,” said O’Ward, shown above receiving congratulations after the test from Harding Racing driver coach Al Unser Jr.

“There's a lot of people that have started following me now. The following has grown immensely (after he won the Indy Lights championship). It's going to be special. I feel like this can be huge and I feel like it's going to be huge because they're hungry for someone to strive and put the flag on top of the podium and to win championships, to (get) wins in INDYCAR – just like I want to. Hopefully, I can give them that.”

The first step toward that journey began Thursday when O’Ward tested in an Indy car for the first time with Harding Racing at Sonoma Raceway. The second step came Friday, when O’Ward and Indy Lights teammate Colton Herta were confirmed by the team to drive in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series finale, the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 16, in what will be the series debut for both teenagers.

Patricio O'WardO’Ward was pleased with how his test went Thursday on the 2.385-mile permanent road course. The step up in power from the Indy Lights car was a bit surprising.

“It's honestly really, really fast,” O’Ward said of the Harding Group Chevrolet with the universal aero kit. “I'm really satisfied to how we ended the day. Didn't do much running at the beginning because of some mechanical (issues), but in the afternoon we did some proper running. The car feels pretty good.

“First impression is, honestly, the car is an absolute beast. It is so much faster than Indy Lights and it is so heavy. The amount of grip difference of the aero and the Firestone tires is insane compared to the Cooper (tires) in the Lights car.

“It is a lot more and it's a lot to take in. The stopping power of the car is way stronger, obviously, but I think just the amount of speed you can carry into a corner is absolutely insane.”

Brian Barnhart, president of Harding Racing, was pleased with what he saw of O’Ward as well.

“We’re really happy with how Patricio did in the car at Sonoma,” Barnhart said. “Coupling that with the excellent job that Colton did (testing) in Portland earlier in August, Harding Racing is really excited about being able to provide their Verizon IndyCar Series race day debuts next week at Sonoma.”

As charismatic and determined as they come, O’Ward is fully aware of the challenges facing him as the start of his Verizon IndyCar Series career that looms ever closer. He’d like nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of great Mexican driver Adrian Fernandez.

“He was such a big person and character in Mexico,” O’Ward said of the 11-time Indy car race winner. “I really hope I get to be someone like that, that people can relate to and people will want to follow. Because, in the end, that's the people and the fans and everybody that's loyal and support you the whole way that are the ones that make you.

“I'm really grateful for that and hopefully I can make some people smile.”

Herta, who finished runner-up to O’Ward in the Indy Lights points race as teammates with Andretti Autosport, is excited for the opportunity to pair up again as they race together for the first time in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I’m super happy to get my start in INDYCAR next weekend for the Sonoma Grand Prix,” Herta said. “(Team owner) Mike Harding and Brian Barnhart have been very supportive in this effort and I can't think of a better place to get my start in INDYCAR. There are too many people to thank for this opportunity, but I'm very thankful for Harding Racing.”

Practice at Sonoma Raceway begins Friday, Sept. 14, with the afternoon session airing live at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Verizon P1 Award qualifying will stream live at 6 p.m. ET Saturday, Sept. 15 on, with a same-day telecast at 8 p.m. on NBCSN.

Live coverage of the championship-deciding race begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday. Sept. 16 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.