Pato O’Ward headlines generation clash coming to Detroit GP

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 14, 2021

Detroit —  IndyCar racing returns to Belle Isle this June after a COVID-19 gap year, and fans will be treated to an intergenerational war.

Like tennis in the twilight of the Federer-Nadal era, a new group of young guns is hungry to take their place atop a podium that has been dominated by 40-somethings Scott Dixon and Will Power. Eager to spoil the crowning of a new prince are three drivers from NASCAR, Formula One and Australian Supercar who want to put their own mark on their new sport.

IndyCar racer Pato O'Ward is one of a new generation of racers who is taking the fight to veterans Scott Dixon and Will Power while broadening the sport's reach.

Hollywood couldn’t write a better script.

One of the series’ young standouts, 22-year-old Mexican Patricio “Pato” O’Ward, was in town Tuesday previewing the Detroit Grand Prix and the sport’s future.

O’Ward is the total package. Blindingly fast on track, he is a telegenic, bilingual bridge to a broader Hispanic demographic the racing industry covets – both in the U.S. and south of the border where IndyCar could expand its U.S. and Canadian base.

More: Detroit Grand Prix to allow limited attendance in Belle Isle race’s return

Last weekend in Texas he became the first Mexican driver to win an IndyCar race since Adrian Fernandez in 2003. O’Ward’s appearance in Detroit on Tuesday created a buzz across the Hispanic community as the Monterrey, Mexico native held a news conference sponsored by the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and hosted by Taqueria El Nacimiento restaurant in Detroit’s southeast Springwells neighborhood.

IndyCar’s engaging new star then held a Zoom call with students from three area high schools: Casar Chavez Academy, Detroit Cristo Ray and Western International. In the wake of the Detroit GP’s announcement last month of partnership with NXG Youth Motorsports to bring young, minority, urban racers into the sport, O’Ward is an instant role model for a new generation.

He idolized Dixon and Power growing up – the 40 year-olds have amassed 87 wins and six titles (five of them by Dixon) between them over the last two decades. But while O’Ward was thrilled to be racing against his idols, he is not intimidated by them.

“It’s great giving them the headaches they don’t want,” he said.

Along with fellow Gen X phenoms, 21-year old Colton Herta and 24-year old Alex Palou, O’Ward is causing plenty of pain.

Each has a win in the first four races of the season with O’Ward winning at Texas Motor Speedway in his family’s adopted home state. The Arrow McLaren team driver is second in points only to Dixon as the series enters the crucial month of May with two races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the sport’s crown jewel: the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend.

But as the upstarts chase Dixon and Power they are also aware of hungry veterans in their mirrors. NASCAR champ Jimmy Johnson is a rookie in IndyCar this year. As is 35-year old Formula One veteran Roman Grosjean and 27 year-old Australian Super Car champ Scott McLaughlin. All want to add an IndyCar championship to their trophy cases.

IndyCar racer Pato O'Ward speaks at a Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce news conference.

“We have a great mix of young, old, and in-between drivers and it’s as competitive as IndyCar has ever been,” O’Ward said. “The qualifying sessions are so competitive – 26 guys covered by just one second.”

He then adds a third name to the veteran list, Juan Pablo Montoya. The 1999 IndyCar champ (then called the CART series) and Indy 500 winner will join O’Ward’s Arrows McLaren team at the 500 this year (though not in Detroit).

“Montoya is someone who I looked up to. I look forward to learning from him as much as I can,” O’Ward said. “But the goal is still to beat him even though he is a teammate.”

The 22-year old has been racing since he was 6 and has seen a career of ups and downs while driving on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. He has the business outlook of a seasoned entrepreneur.

“If your career didn’t end four or five times on the way up, then it wasn’t hard enough,” he said.

He is bullish on the future of IndyCar, including urging a race in Mexico City where he thinks the series could see its biggest audiences.

“(IndyCar) has got so much potential. We’re nowhere near it,” he said. “So I’m doing my best to speed that process up. Its such a great category, people just have to watch one race and they are hooked.”

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear is June 11-13. Tickets go on sale May 20.

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