Meet the Contenders: Pato O’Ward
 August 23, 2016| 
  • Series News
Pato O’Ward is second in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title chase as the series heads to its tripleheader season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on September 9-11.

PALMETTO, Fla. – Watching Patricio “Pato” O’Ward dominate the first half of the season, with victories in six of the first seven races, it would be easy to forget that he is only 17 years old. With maturity beyond his years, the young Mexican driver set an early pace that seemed to indicate the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title chase could be over by August.

But when Team Pelfrey partner Aaron Telitz turned the tables on O’Ward and set off on a second-half winning streak of his own, O’Ward found himself going from title leader to title chaser, 14 points behind Telitz as the series heads to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the Soul Red Finale next month.

O’Ward re-signed with Team Pelfrey barely a week before the season began, with only the promise of the St. Petersburg opener. When O’Ward won that first race, he earned a shot at the next weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, which he swept. By the time O’Ward also won both races at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, it might have been clear to observers that he would continue but the pressure on the youngster was enormous. 

“It was hard,” O’Ward remembers. “I knew I had just one shot and tried to make the most of it. I was really happy with how things went at St. Pete and I left there thinking that I would have to make the next race weekend just that much better. Up to the race at Lucas Oil Raceway, I pretty much did. I won almost every race but the transition to the second half of the year has been difficult for both me and the team.”

As the 2016 Mazda Road to Indy rounds the final bend, three races at Mazda Raceway stand between the drivers and the Pro Mazda crown. Fresh in O’Ward’s mind is the memory of teammate Santiago “Santi” Urrutia winning the Pro Mazda title at Mazda Raceway one year ago. They have remained good friends, with O’Ward doing an impressive imitation of Urrutia’s signature leap from his car in victory lane.

“Santi and I got along really well and we helped each other in everything we could. What I took from him was consistency. That’s key to winning a championship, even though there are so many factors outside of your control. We still talk a lot; he comes by my transporter and we hang out. I’m so excited that he’s leading Indy Lights. He’s probably the most talented guy I’ve ever been up against. If we win Mazda scholarships on the same day, we’re definitely going out to celebrate!”

O’Ward hopes to duplicate his friend’s effort and earn the Mazda scholarship that would vault him toward the final rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – only one step away from his ultimate goal, the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I need to win the championship. There’s no other option for me, so whether I’m leading or trailing, the pressure will be the same and my approach will be the same. If the car is like it was in the first half of the year, I know I can close out the championship. My mindset going into Mazda Raceway is to repeat what I’ve done all year – take it session by session, race by race. If I do my best, I know the championship will come to me.”

The Pro Mazda title chase has come down to a battle between teammates. While the two drivers work together, sharing data and helping each other, O’Ward knows that ends when they hit the racetrack.

“Aaron and I are good friends; we always share data and learn from each other. But I found that looking at the graphics too much can mess up your driving style sometimes. I just go out and race hard. When it comes to the last race, I won’t change my style for my teammate – and I expect that from him as well.”

In an effort to balance a life that basically consists of racing, training and trying to finish high school, O’Ward left Texas Military Institute near his home in San Antonio, Texas, and is now homeschooled. As he detailed in his Pro Mazda “My MRTI” feature, O’Ward appreciated the discipline but his current travel schedule made it difficult to keep up with the school’s standards. Of course, he misses more than just school…

“I really enjoy learning stuff and I miss seeing all my friends – I miss hanging out with the guys and talking to girls. Homeschooling isn’t easy at all but it’s about balancing everything out, not focusing too much on school and not focusing too much on racing. I also need to focus on my training, especially with three races at Mazda Raceway.

“My training is really intense,” O’Ward continues. “I’m training with Enrique Neira, who is a boxer, three times a day: one hour of boxing or CrossFit midday and running in the morning and the evening, three miles or so each time. He’s like a brother to me and I can talk to him about anything. It’s a big motivator for me, to train toward something that I’m passionate about. It’s something that I’ve wanted for so long and I’m trying to do it better than anyone else.”

As O’Ward gets ready for the last race weekend of the year, he can’t help but think about the possibilities to be able to follow the road his friend Urrutia is on now. Being a Mazda scholarship driver is an honor he is more than ready for. 

“It would be a big accomplishment – it would feel so good to win the scholarship because I’ve worked so hard this year. It’s something that I really want to win, more than anything I’ve ever wanted. The chance to win the scholarship and move up to Indy Lights is a big motivator. The ultimate goal has always been the Verizon IndyCar Series and it would put that goal within reach. And to represent Mazda, which is such a big name, would be really, really cool.”
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