(This story is updated with Patricio O'Ward's response to an Autoweek.com story saying Michael Andretti offered O'Ward an eight-race deal at Andretti Autosport.)
AUSTIN, Texas – Where will Patricio O’Ward go?
That is the $1.1 million question after the talented 19-year-old Mexican driver announced Monday that he and Harding Steinbrenner Racing were parting ways a month before the NTT IndyCar Series season opener.
The financial amount represents the Mazda scholarship he earned for winning the 2018 championship in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, which awards O’Ward at least three NTT IndyCar Series races this season, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
So now the race is on for O’Ward to find a new home before the season kicks off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10.
“As of right now, I'm just hustling to find whatever I can, preferably from St. Petersburg to the Indy 500,” O’Ward told IndyCar.com on Tuesday.
“The problem is that it's just so late that a lot of teams don't have the personnel to (add another car). Obviously, gathering all those people up takes time and people want to do a good job. So, from the teams that I guess could maybe be a possibility, I think it's Carlin, Juncos, maybe Rahal (and) I've reached out to Sam Schmidt (co-owner of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports).”
According to Autoweek.com, Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti said he offered O’Ward a ride for eight races this season over the weekend – before O’Ward officially announced his separation from Harding Steinbrenner – but O’Ward declined the offer in hopes of securing a full-season seat. O'Ward clarified the situation with Andretti, the team for which he won the 2018 Indy Lights title, in comments to IndyCar.com on Wednesday.
"I've always been grateful to Michael Andretti and his team," O'Ward said. "Honestly, I never thought we would end up in this situation. I have a lot of respect for him and I'll always be grateful for what he helped me with last year in Indy Lights.
"The truth of the matter is that I can't talk about what happened with me and Harding and my release, and Michael knows the situation that I'm in. I had to sign a confidentiality settlement agreement in order to get released. Michael knows all the facts because we spoke on the phone many times last Friday, and it sucks that I can't talk about it, but we both know the truth.
"There are reasons why (the Andretti ride) wasn't the priority offer to take. I wanted to see what options I had, but I never did. I never said no to Michael's eight-race offer. Unfortunately, this whole thing has left me without a ride, but I won't give up in trying to find something."
O'Ward doesn't want to settle with just having a ride, he desires to be competitive.
“It's important to have a good chance,” O’Ward added. “I just don't want to go and drive. I want to race.”
O’Ward’s abilities were evident last year when he won nine races to take the Indy Lights crown and shined in his NTT IndyCar Series debut in September by qualifying fifth and finishing ninth at Sonoma Raceway.
“I think what's most important is to have a team that really wants you and that is really motivated to have you there,” he said, “because there's nothing like having people behind you that are so motivated to work and to give you the tools that you need in order to succeed. That's a very important factor in what I'm going to go through these next few weeks.”
Trevor Carlin, team principal of Carlin, said the situation was “the only topic of conversation” in the paddock on Tuesday during INDYCAR Spring Training at Circuit of The Americas.
“I would imagine the fact that the deal hasn't moved forward with the Harding thing is because of lack of funding (on top of the scholarship money),” Carlin said. “So that's probably going to hinder us doing anything with him as well now, but he's a super talent. We'd like to talk to him, see if there is any way of putting the deal together.”
Piers Phillips, team president for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, has known of O’Ward’s talent for several years. He said expanding to a full-time three-car effort that includes RLL drivers Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato, along with O’Ward, would be a tough task to handle. RLL is already confirmed to add Jordan King in a third car for the Indianapolis 500.
“This team's grown recently and I think you've got to walk before you run,” Phillips said. “It's important, with Graham and Takuma, we've got to do a job for those guys first and foremost.
“So you've got to have the foundation in place before you start to grow and we're not there yet. We know we would love to do a third car, but you've got to do it properly. You've got to do it so it doesn't detract from your first two and, obviously, if it were somebody like Pato, you've got to give them the team. You've got to give them what they need to do the job that we can win with. You've got to do everybody justice, otherwise it's not worth doing.”
With only one NTT IndyCar Series race confirmed this season for driver Kyle Kaiser, Juncos Racing appears to be a realistic possibility where O’Ward could land. Team owner Ricardo Juncos confirmed that discussions have taken place.
“He brought me up to speed on what was the situation,” Juncos said.
“I know Pato since he raced go-karts, so many, many years ago. We know the family very well. I know better than anybody how much talent he has from over the years. So for me, I would love to run Pato. They know that, everybody knows that. We have the team ready to go. It's not up to me. We'll see.”
Juncos could empathize with O’Ward’s situation.
“It's sad what happened with him because I was a race car driver myself,” the team owner said. “I understand how difficult it is, how good he was doing things. He was doing exactly what he had to do. You can never ask for anybody to do better than he did last year. I think if you take a look back when he debuted at Sonoma, it was probably one of the best debuts that I've seen in many, many years. So what else you can ask for the guy? Nothing.
“Unfortunately, he's in this situation. But you know what, life turns around. I've been in that situation many times, when you feel like destroyed and you want to give up and somehow you get force from somewhere and life turns around.
“If we ended up being together, great. And if not, it's fine. I mean, we are all a racing family, so is he. So it's all good.”
Regardless of what happens, O’Ward is doing his best to draw the positive from a very difficult situation.
“I've always been a very big believer in things happen for a reason,” he said. “This might just be exactly what I needed and it might be a blessing in disguise. Hopefully, that is the case because I sure was not expecting this. But I've gotten things thrown at me that I've never expected before and they usually come out to make me stronger, to make me better.
“I'm not going to win anything by stressing over this, so I'm just going to try and work as hard as I can to find whatever I can. I know I've opened some team owners' eyes. I'm sure there's at least a few that would be interested to have what I can offer to the table. I'm definitely just relying on that because I don't have anything else, you know?
“I have me and my scholarship.”