INDYCAR Photo by Stephen King
INDYCAR Photo by Stephen King

Patricio O’Ward vows to ‘put on a show’ in IndyCar

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – When rookie Patricio O’Ward started his first NTT IndyCar Series races of the season two weeks ago in the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas, the 19-year-old from Mexico put on quite a show. He looked more like an aggressive veteran, than a teenage rookie.

Perhaps his youth and inexperience helped him drive with fearless abandon. Whatever it was, it worked, especially in Turn 15 when he drove way off course to set up Graham Rahal for a spectacular pass.

By the time the Texas dust had settled, O’Ward finished eighth after starting eighth but ran as high as fifth late in the race. In many ways, he did not make much advancement in the field, but he sure made a lot of progress in the race.

“It was super fun,” O’Ward told NBC Sports.com. “I had a blast. Honestly, I wanted to get by Graham Rahal, but I wasn’t planning to do it here. It was spur of the moment. I stuffed it into Turn 15 and we were side-by-side. All of a sudden, when we were riding into the carrousel, you couldn’t follow through there. So, I tried a half-car offline to see how it is and the thing just stuck. I was flat. I kept it flat and went around him.

“It worked. It wasn’t really planned, but it turned out to be a great pass.

“It was a blast, man. It was super fair, and it was good. It was fun.”

There are few drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series that can successful pull off such a move without crashing. Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport has proven to be capable of brilliantly bold, yet potentially frightening passes.

O’Ward may have similar ability.

“Last year, I wasn’t really in the position to be aggressive,” O’Ward said. “I have learned to either be aggressive or when I need to be, be conservative. There are times for both. There are times to be smart and conservative and there are times to hammer down and get stuff done.

“I feel there is the racer side in me that didn’t really appear in me last year until Race No. 2. This year now, I’m realizing exactly how to follow people in an IndyCar and how to overtake. Every car is treated differently, overtakes differently and follows differently. I’m learning the ropes about that and COTA was a big eye-opener.”

O’Ward admitted the March 24 INDYCAR Classic at COTA was far different than this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.

Watch the race on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN or at NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports app

Track Limit rules were waived by INDYCAR officials at COTA because of its wide runoff areas that are paved. If a driver found a racing line, he thought was fast that went over the limit of the track, typically defined by a painted white line, he could use it.

“I thought IndyCar made the right decision for racing purposes for sure,” O’Ward said.

Barber Motorsports Park, however, is a road course where a driver has to be precise, or he will pay a consequence. The race course is surrounded by grass, gravel and ARMCO barriers.

“I’ve said this since 2015 for the first time, the nature of the track, the event, everything meshes really well together,” O’Ward said. “I really like fast corners and this track has a lot of fast corners. This track really suits my driving style. I really enjoy driving around this place.”

The driver from Mexico has spent many years in the United States, but he is a very popular in his home country. COTA is located in Austin, Texas and is the closest IndyCar venue to his hometown that he will compete in this year.

“There were about 150 fans and followers of mine that came to that race and I think I gave them a show,” O’Ward said. “I wanted to go out there and for the people to have fun. All in all, the weekend was a blast. It was a cool event and I think it was one of the best IndyCar races ever. I think it was a really good one from that standpoint.”

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series started on March 10 in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. When 2019 began, O’Ward would have been in that race, but his agreement with Harding Steinbrenner Racing had developed problems. On February 10, O’Ward announced he was leaving the team and would have to find a different ride for 2019.

“It was crazy,” O’Ward admitted. “IndyCar is a top category, so I’ve never been in the spotlight as much as I have been now. The problems that happen in the bigger categories, everyone finds out. If it happens in junior categories, no one cares. It was really nice. It was nice to see the support and cool to see everybody who sent me texts, called and direct messages. It was nice to have something to share with them with a new team, a new opportunity.

“We’re continuing to chip away with what we have to learn.”

He struck a deal with Carlin and it was announced the day before the St. Pete race, too late for the team to prepare a car for the rookie driver.

While the other drivers already had one race in competition in 2019, the second race of the season was O’Ward’s first.

But he wasn’t surprised with his performance.

“I know I have the pace,” he said. “I have the pace, just like anybody else. I can race just like anybody else. It’s not easy to compete with Andretti, Penske and Ganassi. They have been in racing for a long time and I’m a rookie and Carlin are in their second year in the series. It’s not easy to go up against the really big names that have really big support systems behind them. I think we did a good showing. There is more to come for sure. We’re enjoying it. We’re having a blast.”

In some ways, the rookie has elevated the level of Carlin, a second-year IndyCar operation that has been successful in other forms of racing around the world, including Indy Lights.

“It’s a very well-respected team in Europe,” O’Ward said. “It’s a very professional and well-organized group of people. I’m very happy to be part of it. I’m in the perfect place for the future of my career. Trevor has seen so many talented drivers on his team, either in junior formulas or Formula One. They are either in IndyCar or Formula One.

“I’m happy I’m here and he can evaluate. If he says I can drive, then I can drive.

“I’m trying to bring as much knowledge as I can to the team, and they are teaching me a lot of new things that I don’t know. We are helping each other, and we are both progressing and trying to progress as fast as we can. I am starting behind the curve; I didn’t get to test at COTA for the two days. And, I didn’t do any offseason testing. I am a little behind everyone else, but that doesn’t mean we can’t race against them. We just have to work a little bit harder.

“It will only be a matter of time before we are both up there.”

By having veteran like Max Chilton, a former F1 driver, as a teammate is also helpful to O’Ward’s development because he can help the rookie with race scenarios. The race presents many more challenges than qualifications, and Chilton can help O’Ward recognize those issues.

“I’m still learning, but it’s nice to have somebody who has been there,” O’Ward said. “If you have any questions, he will tell you what his opinions are and what you can do to be better.”

So, what does the future look like for this 19-year-old rookie?

“I see some opportunities coming up,” he admitted. “The right mentality every weekend is to win. I’m not here to be 10th. I’m not here to be 20th. I’m not here to be seventh. I want to win. I want to get podiums. I want to be fighting for the front.

“It’s tough to compete against the really big teams, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten. On a very good day for us and a very good day for them, we could be right up there with them.

“I think it’s only a matter of time before we really start annoying them.”

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida