Pato O'Ward

Pato O’Ward is still seeking his first victory in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, and his start to this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season hasn’t been the greatest even though he collected a race win when Josef Newgarden was disqualified from the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.

But the bounce in O’Ward’s step this week is as sure as it can be, and it’s not by accident. O’Ward said Wednesday that being at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a chance to compete for the win is enough to clothe him in happiness.

Hence his big smile.

“I want to enjoy the process because this (event) is so cool,” the 25-year-old Mexican driver said. “There’s no race like this. There’s no process like this.

“There is so much stuff that we have to do (as drivers) during the month that the best thing you can do for yourself and for your soul is to, like, actually want to do it, and I do. You know, joke around with your team, and if it’s raining, it’s raining; if it’s not, let’s get some running in.”

It helps that O’Ward is in a good place with Arrow McLaren given the multiyear contract they signed before the season began. They know where they’ve been – to victory lane in five NTT INDYCAR SERIES races – and where they want to be. Yes, there have been bumps in the road, including three consecutive disappointing results this season since the St. Petersburg victory – finishes of 16th, 23rd and 13th -- but the slate started anew this week.

The “500” demands an appropriate approach, and O’Ward seems to have it.

“It’s another shot at the ‘500,’ that’s how I like to see it,” he said. “Obviously, this race is the race, the one everybody prepares for not just weeks in advance but months in advance.

“Qualifying and the race are completely two different beasts, but the important thing here is (having) a good race car. If you have a good race car, you’re going to move forward, and I know what a good race car is here.”

After failing to qualify for the “500” with Carlin as a rookie in 2019, O’Ward rattled off three consecutive top-six finishes, led by chasing Marcus Ericsson to the checkered flag in 2022 as the runner-up. In those three races, O’Ward’s average starting position was 11.3.

Last year, O’Ward led a race-high 39 laps and was in front of the field as late as Lap 191 before things unraveled. Dogging Ericsson on Lap 193, O’Ward lost control of his third-place No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet in Turn 3, spun and hit the wall. Simon Pagenaud and rookie Agustin Canapino were collected behind him.

O’Ward has led 82 laps since 2021. Only Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Alex Palou (118) and Scott Dixon (102) have led more in those three races.

In spite of the strong Indy performances, O’Ward said Arrow McLaren turned up its intensity during the offseason, doing everything it could imagine to improve its cars in a bid to beat Team Penske and CGR, which O’Ward said are the standard on this 2.5-mile oval. Those teams finished first and second in last year’s race and have combined to win 24 “500s” in all.

This generation of Arrow McLaren is winless at IMS, and O’Ward suggests that drove the need to self-examine and invest in improvement.

“I just think it is realizing where reality is as a team,” he said. “Our reality is that we are still the underdogs.

“It's not fair to say that we are up to level with a Penske and a Ganassi. We're not. I think we're going to get there. I signed (a contract) extension because I believe in this group of people that I get to work with day in and day out to make it happen, but we're not there yet."

O’Ward said the bar in this series “just keeps getting higher and higher and harder to reach.” He also acknowledged that sometimes results don’t tell the whole story. Last year’s 24th-place finish in the “500” is an example of that.

“I think just having a good, clear head to realize that a lot of those ‘bad’ weekends … are not bad weekends, they’re freaking good weekends,” he said. “It’s just miserable to leave a weekend with a top-five (finish), like a lot of the (four) second-place finishes last year, weren’t enjoyed.

“So, I’ve had a really clear mind the last couple of weeks, since (the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park on April 28). It’s just really important to enjoy your year and enjoy your results. They don’t have to be wins in order for you to enjoy them.”

Each of the past two years, O’Ward has been in position to win the “500” in the closing laps. That’s all he can do, he said, and he vowed to enjoy them when they occur.

“Ultimately, it’s about putting yourself in a position to win,” he said. “A lot of wins kind of come to you, and a lot of times you’ve got to fight for them. When you fight like that, sometimes there’s risks you have to take, and sometimes they don’t work out.

“So, all we can do is put ourselves in an opportunity again and, you know, take it.”

Again, he smiled.

The 108th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is Sunday, May 26 on NBC, Peacock, Universo, INDYCAR Radio Network.