Pato O’Ward refocused after 2022 IndyCar season that started ‘with so much noise’

Pato McLaren
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As 32 engines crank up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week, the 2022 NTT IndyCar season somehow has gotten quieter for Pato O’Ward and his Arrow McLaren SP team.

O’Ward will enter this week’s Indy 500 test coming off a fifth-place finish in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach after a 2022 season that started with two disappointing finishes and a plethora of potential distractions.

Slightly over a month ago, O’Ward went public with news that he was testing the IndyCar free agent market. The revelation came just days after McLaren announced a Formula One testing contract with Colton Herta. O’Ward, who shares the same F1 aspirations as his Rolex 24-winning teammate, initially seemed miffed by the news.

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But he put that all aside at Long Beach, overcoming mediocre practice and qualifying sessions for an inspired drive in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet after starting 11th on the street course difficult for passing.

“I definitely had as a goal in Long Beach to try to turn around our championship,” O’Ward told NBC Sports in an interview last Friday. “We started just rough, and things were going wrong, and there was so much noise, and I said, ‘You know what? We will turn it around in Long Beach, and we will start our claw back into the championship hunt because there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in the championship hunt this year.’

“We were last year (finishing third in points), and I think we can do it again this year. Right after Long Beach, I was very satisfied. Obviously, we’re there to win and for more, but in terms of where we were, you can’t just want to swallow the world in one bite. You’ve got to go step by step. I think that was a very good step in the right direction. I think it’s just going to build a great foundation on what we can achieve these next few races.”

The Mexican driver entered the 2022 season as a rising IndyCar star who seemed on the cusp of taking Arrow McLaren SP to the next level of challenging Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport as a 22-year-old championship contender.

But things seemed amiss for O’Ward in the Feb. 27 season opener at St. Petersburg (finishing 12th) and the March 20 race at Texas Motor Speedway (where he placed 15th after a pit miscue). Meanwhile, he faced questions about his contract and his feelings about Herta’s deal.

Team president Taylor Kiel referred to it as “external noise,” and it was notable that O’Ward used a similar term in describing his 2022 start and rededication to keeping the team on point and unified.

So has that “noise” settled down?

“Yeah,” O’Ward said. “I just really want to focus on doing a great season for these guys. Because they deserve it and put so much time and energy into trying to build better and faster and more predicable race cars for us. The best way we can repay them is give them wins. Give them results. So that’s the focus right now.

“Everything else will take its course. It’ll take its time, but I’m so happy with the group of guys I get to work with, and it’s very important to be all-in when you’re doing something, and I’m the type of person that you go 110 percent in anything that you’re doing. And if you’re not, then you’re a 20th in the series. That’s how competitive IndyCar is. If your head isn’t in the game 100 percent, if you’re not 100 percent focused on what is next — that next practice, qualifying, race — you’re not going to extract everything out of what you’ve got.”

The positivity continued to build during Indy 500 testing as a happy O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider that he had a contract offer that he intended to sign

With O’Ward locked into McLaren through at least the 2024 season (and the Associated Press recently reporting the team intends to continue building its future around him), the focus has shifted to improving its race-day performances.

McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist won the pole position at Texas and made the final round of qualifying at Long Beach. But the Swedish driver told NBC Sports that he was hampered by poor first stints in both races with tire degradation being a concern.

“That’s a combination of setup and driving, obviously,” said Rosenqvist, who eventually was sidelined by a mechanical failure at Texas. “It’s something we’re working very hard to capitalize on good starting positions. Because you can’t really afford to start fourth or fifth or first and not finish in the top 10. You should be able to bring it back at least where you started if you finish the race. So yeah, that’s been on our minds, and hopefully with a couple of good races, we’ll get a good flow going.”

The next two races are on road courses (Barber Motorsports Park on May 1, Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 14) before the attention turns to the biggest race of the season on May 29.

Even though he will spend the next two days making laps on the 2.5-mile oval at IMS, O’Ward hopes the Indy 500 test will keep building the team’s momentum.

“I think Long Beach was a great weekend, maybe we didn’t start the best way, but we significantly turned it around, and I think that’s huge,” O’Ward said. “In terms of road courses, we haven’t rolled off the trucks perfectly, but we have found things quickly and efficiently that have turned our weekend around, and I think that’s what we showed in Long Beach.

“So it’ll take time. Not everything is going to be perfect, but we’re definitely on the right track. And I’m excited of continuing to push with the guys and just getting some solid results under our belt and building on our championship to try and win it at the end. Because that’s why we do this, right?”

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”