Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford came away from attending last weekend’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway convinced that Pato O’Ward can become the next McLaren driver to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Rutherford delivered McLaren “500” victories in 1974 and 1976. The English team left INDYCAR following the 1979 season but not before Rutherford had amassed 18 race victories, including a sweep of the Atlanta Motor Speedway doubleheader in McLaren’s farewell season.
The new generation of McLaren, led by Zak Brown, returned to the “500” in 2017 with Fernando Alonso and has been a full-time participant the past two seasons in what is known as Arrow McLaren SP. Rutherford has served as a team consultant since McLaren’s return.
O’Ward finished a solid sixth for Arrow McLaren SP in last year’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to earn the Rookie of the Year Award. Rutherford believes the winner of last Sunday’s XPEL 375 has all of the tools necessary to win the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge at IMS.
“Natural talent, obviously, and quick hands, good hand-eye coordination, good judgment, and he’s learned how to settle down,” Rutherford said of O’Ward. “He just has to be cautious and take advantage of everything (the race) gives him because … you can’t win the thing in the first 400 miles.
“You’ve got to make sure you try to put yourself in the right position when it comes time for those last 100 miles. When the last 50 miles come, you have to have something to stand on.”
Rutherford has stressed to O’Ward the importance of being patient in long oval-track races, and “Lone Star J.R.” said that’s what the 2018 Indy Lights champion showed at Texas in finishing third in Saturday’s Genesys 300 and winning Sunday’s XPEL 375.
O’Ward easily could have become rattled by the challenge of trying to overtake series champions Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon. But he didn’t, and Rutherford said that type of approach will be necessary at Indy.
“I thought everything went just exactly like they planned it,” Rutherford said of the two strong finishes. “I talked with Pato a little bit and said when you get to Indianapolis it’s a race of patience. He said, ‘Yes, I’ve been told that.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll work on that when we get there.’”
O’Ward’s first order of IMS business is the GMR Grand Prix on the road course Saturday, May 15. Official oval practice begins Tuesday, May 18, with the “500” on Sunday, May 30.
Arrow McLaren SP also fields a car for Felix Rosenqvist, a one-time INDYCAR race winner, and will have two-time “500” winner Juan Pablo Montoya in another car at IMS. Rutherford likes the team’s chances, particularly with O’Ward.
“I’m just so impressed with him,” Rutherford said. “The kid’s got a lot of talent, and he’s just perfect for what (the team) needs to do.”
The GMR Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will air live on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network. The GMR Grand Prix is set for 2:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday, May 15, with the “500” broadcasts beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 30.