Pato O’Ward exploring IndyCar free agency, but McLaren holds options on his future

IndyCar Pato free agency
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A year after his first career NTT IndyCar Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway earned him a Formula One test with McLaren, Pato O’Ward is testing the market of free agency.

Now as he returns to his de facto home track for Sunday’s race, O’Ward’s bright future has suddenly become very cloudy. He’s got a contract with Arrow McLaren SP that runs through the 2024, but the young Mexican driver admitted he is actively scouring the job market — essentially as a restricted free agent who can solicit offers from other teams but that McLaren holds the rights to match.

“To be fairly honest with you, I’m fully focused in what I’m doing right now, which is driving and trying to do the best season that I can,” O’Ward, 22, told The Associated Press when asked Wednesday about his future. “My group of people is just scouting out what my future is going to look like. Yeah, that’s pretty much as much as I’ve got right now for you.”

The rising IndyCar star was vague when asked what had changed in the love affair with McLaren – “that’s a great question,” he said – but his sudden interest in the free-agent market seems odd. The race at Texas on Sunday is just the second in a 17-race season in which O’Ward is expected to be a championship contender (though he finished a disappointing 12th in the Feb. 27 season opener at St. Petersburg).

He’s been with McLaren since the team snagged him late in 2020 after Red Bull Racing released O’Ward from its junior driver program. The hiring was a steal for McLaren boss Zak Brown, who dumped popular veteran James Hinchcliffe to give O’Ward a seat with its IndyCar team.

In two full seasons, O’Ward has helped Arrow McLaren SP elevate its program to compete with IndyCar’s elite teams. O’Ward, who splits his time between Monterrey, Mexico, and San Antonio, last year won a pair of races and finished third in the championship standings.

But O’Ward openly covets an F1 ride, and McLaren ultimately can get him into motorsports’ top series. Yet the team last weekend signed American driver Colton Herta to its testing program.

Herta and O’Ward are friends, former teammates and current rivals for the IndyCar championship. And maybe now rivals for F1 seat time with McLaren.

Is that what has soured O’Ward on his current deal?

“I think we’re all going to have to wait and see what that answer is, to be honest with you. I don’t want to lie to you,” he said. “I don’t want to lie to everybody and say, `No, no, no,’ or, `Yes, yes, yes.’ We’ll see how things shape out. I think it’s too early in the season to truly see what’s happening.”

The signing of Herta did not move him ahead of O’Ward in McLaren’s testing program, and Brown said at the season-opening IndyCar race last month that he wants to evaluate several young drivers, potentially trying O’Ward in Formula One practices in 2022 and allowing him to test the older cars as Herta will do. He also said he would not use O’Ward in F1 at the detriment to the IndyCar program.

“What we won’t do is compromise the IndyCar team at all,” Brown said at St. Pete. “I would never take Pato out of IndyCar into F1 without having a great solution because IndyCar is as important as is Extreme as is Formula One. This is not a training ground for Formula One.”

Brown had promised O’Ward an F1 test when he won his first IndyCar race, and the Texas victory last May earned him a day in the car in Abu Dhabi last December. O’Ward doesn’t have a contract to do anything more with the F1 team, and McLaren has the right to match any offer O’Ward might receive from another team.

But there are no current IndyCar teams that offer a path to F1 and only a handful that consistently race for wins and championships. O’Ward said Wednesday he is unsure where he fits in the puzzle.

“I think anything could be a possibility. As of now, I’m not aware that I’m part of that,” he said of the McLaren test program. “I am currently under contract with McLaren. Just like anything, there are scenarios that I could stay where I’m at, or there could be scenarios where I could be in a different place.”

O’Ward can theoretically move to another team as early as next season should McLaren choose not to match any potential offers. But McLaren also could hold him through his 2024 existing deal, and the team wants to extend his current contract.

Either way, O’Ward’s current posturing and unhappiness can’t be great for a potential run at the IndyCar title.

Taylor Kiel, president of the IndyCar team and O’Ward’s race day strategist, said Wednesday they will work through the conflict.

“Look, it’s a blip on the radar, in my opinion,” Kiel said. “We’ve already addressed any of the rumors or otherwise with the team internally. The external noise, everything that surrounds situations like this, it is what it is. It’s part of the sport. It’s on us to make sure we have our house in order, when news needs to come out, it comes out from us and we go from there.”

Roger Penske vows new downtown Detroit GP will be bigger than the Super Bowl for city

Roger Penske Detroit
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DETROIT – He helped spearhead bringing the town a Super Bowl 17 years ago, but Roger Penske believes the reimagined Chevrolet Detroit GP is his greatest gift to the Motor City.

“It’s bigger than the Super Bowl from an impact within the city,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Maybe not with the sponsors and TV, but for the city of Detroit, it’s bigger than the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got to give back individually and collectively, and I think we as a company in Michigan and in Detroit, it’s something we know how to do. It shows we’re committed. Someone needs to take that flag and run it down through town. And that’s what we’re trying to do as a company. We’re trying to give back to the city.”

After 30 years of being run on Belle Isle, the race course has been moved to a new nine-turn, 1.7-mile downtown layout that will be the centerpiece of an event weekend that is designed to promote a festival and community atmosphere.

There will be concerts in the adjacent Hart Plaza. Local businesses from Detroit’s seven districts have been invited to hawk their wares to new clientele. Boys and Girls Clubs from the city have designed murals that will line the track’s walls with images of diversity, inclusion and what Detroit means through the eyes of youth.

And in the biggest show of altruism, more than half the circuit will be open for free admission. The track is building 4-foot viewing platforms that can hold 150 people for watching the long Jefferson Avenue straightaway and other sections of the track.

Detroit GP chairman Bud Denker, a longtime key lieutenant across Penske’s various companies, has overseen more than $20 million invested in infrastructure.

The race is essentially Penske’s love letter to the city where he made much of his fame as one of Detroit’s most famous automotive icons, both as a captain of industry with a global dealership network and as a racing magnate (who just won his record 19th Indy 500 with Josef Newgarden breaking through for his first victory on the Brickyard oval).

During six decades in racing, Penske, 86, also has run many racetracks (most notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also speedways in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania), and much of that expertise has been applied in Detroit.

“And then the ability for us to reach out to our sponsor base, and then the business community, which Bud is tied in with the key executives in the city of Detroit, bringing them all together,” Penske said. “It makes a big difference.

“The Super Bowl is really about the people that fly in for the Super Bowl. It’s a big corporate event, and the tickets are expensive. And the TV is obviously the best in the world. What we’ve done is taken that same playbook but made it important to everyone in Detroit. Anyone that wants to can come to the race for free, can stand on a platform or they can buy a ticket and sit in the grandstands or be in a suite. It’s really multiple choice, but it is giving it to the city of Detroit. I think it’s important when you think of these big cities across the country today that are having a lot of these issues.”

Denker said the Detroit Grand Prix is hoping for “an amazingly attended event” but is unsure of crowd estimates with much of the track offering free viewing. The race easily could handle a crowd of at least 50,000 daily (which is what the Movement Music Festival draws in Hart Plaza) and probably tens of thousands more in a sprawling track footprint along the city’s riverwalk.

Penske is hoping for a larger crowd than Belle Isle, which was limited to about 30,000 fans daily because of off-site parking and restricted fan access at a track that was located in a public park.

The downtown course will have some unique features, including a “split” pit lane on an all-new concrete (part of $15 million spent on resurfaced roads, new barriers and catchfencing … as well as 252 manhole covers that were welded down).

A $5 million, 80,000-square-foot hospitality chalet will be located adjacent to the paddock and pit area. The two-story structure, which was imported from the 16th hole of the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, will offer 70 chalets (up from 23 suites at Belle Isle last year). It was built by InProduction, the same company that installed the popular HyVee-branded grandstands and suites at Iowa Speedway last year.

Penske said the state, city, county and General Motors each owned parts of the track, and their cooperation was needed to move streetlights and in changing apexes of corners. Denker has spent the past 18 months meeting with city council members who represent Detroit’s seven districts, along with Mayor Mike Duggan. Penske said the local support could include an appearance by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer.

Denker and Detroit GP  president Michael Montri were inspired to move the Detroit course downtown after attending the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We saw what an impact it made on that city in August of 2021 and we came back from there and said boy could it ever work to bring it downtown in Detroit again,” Denker said. “We’ve really involved the whole community of Detroit, and the idea of bringing our city together is what the mayor and city council and our governor are so excited about. The dream we have is now coming to fruition.

“When you see the infrastructure downtown and the bridges over the roads we’ve built and the graphics, and everything is centered around the Renaissance Center as your backdrop, it’s just amazing.”