Pato O’Ward Says Nashville IndyCar Vibe Rivals That of the Indy 500

In the movie Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby lamented that finishing “second is the first loser.”

Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar driver Pato O’Ward doesn’t exactly buy into that. Rather, his philosophy every race is there’s no room for finishing anything other than first, period.

Now, following a five-week hiatus for the series, due in part to the Summer Olympics, O’Ward will once again carry that philosophy with him this Saturday in the NTT IndyCar Series Big Machine Music City Grand Prix.

“Man, I’m pumped for Nashville,” O’Ward, driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, told Autoweek.

O’Ward is particularly impressed with the overall vibe of the inaugural event on a temporary street course in downtown Nashville, going so far as to compare it to IndyCar’s annual crown jewel event.

“I feel everything that’s gone into the Nashville event is probably as big or second to the (Indy) 500,” O’Ward said. “There’s a lot of hype going into this weekend. I’m doing a special helmet, we have these really cool designs—Arrow on my car and Vuse on (teammate Felix Rosenqvist’s car), with our same kind of colors of our original liveries for the year but just crazier.”

The designs on both O’Ward’s No. 5 and Rosenqvist’s No. 7 were part of the fan-inspired Vuse Design Challenge, which began at the beginning of this season. The labor of the winning fan/designer, Jack LaPilusa, will be on display this weekend in Music City. What makes the designs so unique?

“It’s kind of inspired by the World War I kind of machine that would go into battle and I feel like it kind of is similar to what we do at the race track,” O’Ward said. “We go, we want to win, we’re battling against some of the best drivers and teams in the world and some best IndyCar teams in the history of IndyCar. I feel like it fits in well with what we’re trying to accomplish in the last six races of the championship: we’re in the fight to win it, so we’re going with everything all-in for Nashville and on (going forward for the five races that remain after Saturday’s event).

The 25-year-old Monterrey, Mexico, native has enjoyed a stellar sophomore season as a full-time IndyCar driver, earning his first two career wins on the circuit, four overall podium finishes in the first 10 races, and also has two poles.

Most important, he’s well within striking distance. He’s in second place in the driver standings, a mere 39-points back of series leader Alex Palou.

With six races left, O’Ward knows everything will ratchet up from here on out, from finishes to overall car performance, from strong qualifying and practice efforts to not letting the building pressure from race to race get to him.

“I think we haven’t done bad teamwork at all,” he said when asked to analyze how the season has gone so far. “I think we’ve really maximized places where we’ve been strong.”

But, he adds, “Whereas we’ve been weak and had a lot of inconsistency in terms of where we aren’t the strongest or haven’t had a shot at the top-five, and we’ve taken really big hits to our points championship in those races.”

Palou’s overall performance has been the best of any driver in the series, with two wins and six podiums.

“Palou hasn’t had any real bad ones or worse than us,” O’Ward said. “So we just need to make sure we really maximize these next few races and score as much as we can and try and stay in the top-five every single race, every single qualifying session and execute every time there’s an opportunity.

“I think we’ve really done well, but we haven’t been perfect. We’ve made our lives a little bit harder for these last six races because we’ve left quite a few points on the table that we shouldn’t have.”

Because this will be the first IndyCar race to be run on a temporary street course in Nashville, the canvas is the same for every driver in the field: blank and with a lot of unknown to expect.

“In terms of car setup, the engineers have to get it right with all the simulations and data they’ve covered from the different surfaces, so if you roll off strong, it’s going to be up to the driver to see if he has it or doesn’t,” O’Ward said. “Either he adapts to it or he’s going to struggle.

“No one’s been to the track, no one’s ever ridden on top of it, no nothing, so it’s up to the driver to adapt.”

And how drivers adapt over the remaining half-dozen races will go a long way toward determining this season’s champion.

“Our biggest competitor is Ganassi because they’ve been strong at every single race weekend,” O’Ward said. “Maybe not all three cars have been strong (in each race), but they always have one car that’s always up there, either (defending series champion Scott) Dixon or Palou.

“And when they do get it right, they have three cars almost always in the top-five or top-six, so that’s basically 50 percent of the top-six. We haven’t had that. Penske has been very strong as well, especially with Josef (Newgarden). They’ve really executed in the last few qualifying (sessions), so I think those guys are going to continue to be strong.

“We need to try and be better, that’s the only thing that’s left now. It isn’t going to be easy, but we’re certainly going to try and outnumber them in the way of championship points.”

O’Ward was asked if he can relate to or even compare some of the pressure he and other drivers will feel in the remaining six races to the mental struggles of gymnast Simone Biles during the current Summer Olympics in Japan.

“I feel like all athletes have a very similar type of pressure feeling in a way, we’re all moving towards one goal, which is to win,” O’Ward said. “Obviously, it’s applied differently depending on what sport you’re in. But all pressures have the same thing in common: to win. That’s just what it is.

“But I don’t feel any more pressure now than I did at the start of the season. It’s been the same pressure and I’m so used to it. There’s been many years where I’ve come down to the racing championship and didn’t know what I was going to be doing the next year. Right now, I’m in the best position ever in my life. I know what I’m doing next year, I’ve been delivering results, the team and I are both happy, so I feel the pressure is probably the least I’ve ever felt.

“I’ll probably feel it at Long Beach because that’s the finale and that’s where everything is going to get decided. But I feel that these next few races, we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing, execute from session to session and we should have a shot at it.”

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.

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