Pato O'Ward fans at Mid-Ohio

Today begins a month-long celebration of Hispanic Heritage, but Pato O’Ward said he experienced such excitement throughout the recently completed NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.

At each of the 17 races this year, the driver of Arrow McLaren’s No. 5 Chevrolet witnessed and welcomed throngs of supporters, many wearing his shirts (see photograph above from the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid) and displaying flags of his native Mexico.

O’Ward, who was born in Monterrey before his family moved to San Antonio, said the excitement behind his participation is part of what drives him.

“At the end of the day, we’re entertainment,” he said of competitors in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and INDY NXT by Firestone. “We do this to entertain.”

In one respect, O’Ward doesn’t know what makes him such a popular figure in the sport, but he knows his home country is starved for representation in the top open-wheel motorsports category in North America.

Josele Garza and Hector Rebaque were the first Mexican drivers to compete in INDYCAR’s modern era, and they both had early success in the Indianapolis 500. Garza led 13 laps in the 1981 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and became the first driver from his country to win the prestigious Rookie of the Year Award. Rebaque, who brought with him a large fan base following his five years in Formula One, finished 13th at Indy as a rookie in 1982, then won the series’ inaugural race at Road America four months later.

Bernard Jourdain later followed Garza and Rebaque into INDYCAR, but the next Mexican sensation was Adrian Fernandez, who won the first of his 11 races in 1996. The excitement over Fernandez’s participation led to series races staged in Monterrey from 2001 through 2006.

Carlos Guerrero was another Mexican driver to compete in the series, and later arrived Michel Jourdain Jr., who won a pair of races for Bobby Rahal’s team in 2003.

O’Ward is the latest to represent his country, joining Garza and Bernard Jourdain as Indy’s Rookie of the Year winners. He believes the two-decade drought of Mexican drivers in this series is part of what has people so wildly in support of him.

“I think I’m filling a void that was empty for a lot of years,” he said. “Decades ago, multiple Mexican drivers were active, and then there was a long time when there wasn’t anybody here.”

O’Ward, the 2018 INDY NXT by Firestone champion, has won four races in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, finished second in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, and has finished in the top four of the standings three of the past four years. That success helps fuel interest, he said.

“It’s one thing to have a driver from a country running in a series, but it’s another thing when you have somebody representing your country who is winning (races) and is a contender, continuously fighting at the front (of the field),” he said. “That makes a big, big difference, and I feel like that is what I’ve brought back to Mexico.”