Pato O’Ward: ‘I want people to enjoy me in IndyCar’ despite still wanting to race in F1

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After testing his “dream” vehicle in the offseason, Pato O’Ward remains highly interested in eventually racing F1 but is also “very committed” to the NTT IndyCar Series for now.

The Arrow McLaren SP driver, who won twice last season (including his first victory at Texas Motor Speedway) while finishing third in the IndyCar points standings, said during a preseason news conference Monday that “right now I have one focus, and that one focus is IndyCar” while answering multiple questions about his racing future.

O’Ward, 22, tested a “ridiculously fast” Formula One car after the 2022 Abu Dhabi season finale for McLaren, which also holds a majority stake in the IndyCar team that fields his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet.

“I want to give these guys their first championship,” O’Ward said. “I’d love to give them their first (Indy 500 victory). This is what my focus is right now.

“Who knows if F1 will be an option or won’t be an option? Obviously, if it comes about, I will 100 percent take it and every single driver in my position would do it because it’s Formula 1. That’s what I grew up watching and that’s what I grew up dreaming of. That same dream that you have as a kid will never go away.

“Right now, I have a challenge here, and I want people to enjoy me in IndyCar. I want them to know what IndyCar has to offer. I want them to enjoy me in IndyCar, the racing. There’s so many cool things about it that so many people (say), ‘Oh, Pato went to Formula 1.’ Well, I will tell you whenever I go to Formula 1, if I ever got to Formula 1, but for now enjoy me in IndyCar.”

The Mexican driver was on an F1 track until 2019 when a relationship ended with Red Bull after he raced in F2 and Super Formula. O’Ward has been open about his desire to race F1 if the opportunity arose again, particularly with McLaren having two seats in the series. Fellow IndyCar star Colton Herta also was linked to a possible move to F1 last year.

STAYING PUT: IndyCar champion Alex Palou has no interest in F1

“Those opportunities, you have to take whenever they come at you,” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey in an interview last October. “It’s not like you can pick and choose (and say), ‘Oh, no, let me win the championship in IndyCar first and then go.’ It’s like, mate, you can’t really choose. So you have to take it as they come. Sometimes it’s very rushed, and sometimes it’s going to play out perfectly in your favor. You never know. Or sometimes the opportunity never arises. So we’re both in a position where we just need to take it as things come to us.”

O’Ward said the F1 team was “very welcoming” during his test last month.

“Man, it was such a cool experience in Abu Dhabi and just all the preparation that I had before then, it was definitely just something very new,” O’Ward said. “But I think it’s just going to make me better in every way, and definitely trying to learn as much as I can from that side and try and bring stuff over here to try and just boost everything up because I feel like the little bits and pieces we can get from here and there are just going to help our performance and make us all better.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, who set up the F1 test after Pato O’Ward fulfilled a bet that he would win in IndyCar last year, has indicated O’Ward is a future candidate for an F1 ride, but the team would like him to become an IndyCar champion first.

O’Ward was in the 2021 title fight through the season finale, leading the points standings with three races remaining before coming up short to series champion Alex Palou. He is hoping to improve his consistency after a season with five podiums and five finishes of 13th or worse but said it’s too early to evaluate his team’s progress without having any offseason testing (there will be one session at Sebring International Raceway before the Feb. 27 season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida).

“It’s going to take all year to keep getting better and better and better,” he said. “I sure hope we can roll off the trucks better than what we had last year at certain tracks. I think that’s the biggest thing. If you roll off well, you’re in a pretty good position to have a good race.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”