Patricio O’Ward, 16, arrived on the Mazda Road to Indy scene this season with a poise and realistic outlook not often seen from a driver his age. But, then again, O’Ward, who finished sixth in this year’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, has managed his share of hurdles along the way.
O’Ward moved from karts to cars in 2013, racing in a variety of series on different continents. He made the decision to drive formula cars in Europe last season in order to expand his racing horizons -- an experience that taught him a great deal and led to the realization that his future lay much closer to home, back in the U.S. with the Mazda Road to Indy.
“I was still very young and only two series in Europe would let me race in 2014,” said O’Ward. “Italian F4 and French F4. I chose to go to France because the budget was less and all the cars were the same, so the driver made a bigger difference. It was tough to travel from the U.S. to France every single race weekend, so I looked for something here. I think the Mazda Road to Indy is the best one; it’s the series to be in because it’s the national ladder. You can work your way up, which is what we all want to do. Plus, it’s easier to go to school and race.”
Parents Patricio and Elba Junco O’Ward moved their two children, Pato and his sister Elba, to San Antonio, Texas, from Monterrey, Mexico, when "Pato" was young. O’Ward began karting at the age of 7, winning numerous championships in Mexico and the U.S. including two SKUSA junior titles. But the young racer realized that a move into formula cars could give him the push he wanted to mature as a driver.
“The move into cars was a big step, but with the right tools I learned faster. Karting was second nature and now cars are becoming the same way," he said. "I learn about the car every session I run and I’m getting better and better. That’s very important, because the setup of the car is everything. You can be a very fast driver but if you don’t have the right setup – and if you don’t know how to tell the engineers how the car is supposed to feel – you’re going to be in the back. Starting at a young age helped me with technique and helped me mature. I’m with the ‘big boys’ now and I’ve matured as a person and as a driver.”
O’Ward made the jump to cars in 2013, competing in the Formula LATAM F2000 Series in Mexico, the Formula Renault 1.6 NEC Junior series in Europe and earning a victory in the Pacific F2000 series in the U.S. O’Ward then headed to French Formula 4 and finished seventh despite missing the first two events, winning the penultimate race at Circuit Paul Ricard and earning 10 top-five finishes in 15 races. O’Ward and his father looked around to see where the next move would be, and an opportunity with Team Pelfrey in the Pro Mazda Championship beckoned.
“The team is so important,” said O’Ward. “My dad called Anders Krohn, the Team Pelfrey coach, to see if we could do the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Indy last fall. We were quickest, which gave the team an idea of what I was capable of. I had an awesome teammate in Santi (Urrutia), who won the championship. We really pushed each other and learned a lot from each other. The team was like a second family and I’m grateful for the support they gave me.”
Despite being the youngest driver in the series, O’Ward hit his stride mid-season, taking podium finishes in three straight races (second and third in Toronto and third on the oval at Iowa) and finishing in the top 10 in 14 of 16 races. O’Ward also was the recipient of the series’ “Spirit Award” given to a driver or team that embodies the "heart of a champion" as they aspire to reach their goals.
After spending his summer on the Mazda Road to Indy circuit alongside drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, O’Ward knows that anything can happen as he plots out his future. A sophomore at Texas Military Institute in San Antonio, O’Ward plans to maintain that balance and stay in school as long as he can. While many young men his age might begrudge the discipline required to attend a military school, O’Ward knows that the lessons he’s learning now will only help him in his chosen career.
“I still have a few years to go but I manage it the best I can,” he said. “I prefer to stay in school, especially military school, because it’s very strict. I need to have a Plan B in case my Plan A doesn’t work out, but so far Plan A is going fine.”
And where does he see Plan A taking him? To the Verizon IndyCar Series where he has hopes of being its youngest ever champion. But in the meantime, there’s that pesky age issue.
“I would like to race Indy Lights next season, but my age isn’t in my favor – you have to be 17 years old. I turn 17 next May so maybe I can start the season late. But doing another year of Pro Mazda would be a good idea as well.”