By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
The third place driver in the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship, Pato O’Ward earned a fifth and a third place finish in St. Petersburg for the opening races of the 2017 season. However, he was uncertain about whether or not his season would continue.
After speaking with Motorsports Tribune, it might be a good idea to pencil in O’Ward as an entrant.
“As everyone knows, it’s a long championship so anything can happen here in a couple of months, but I’m pretty sure you’ll see me at Barber,” O’Ward said. “It’s not official, (but) it’s a bad idea to not be there.”
The 17-year-old Mexican credited believes the performance by he and Team Pelfrey proposed some options moving forward.
“I think the race itself in St. Petersburg is the one that kind of opened the door to keep going,” he continued.
To start off 2017, O’Ward has been very busy. He drove in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, co-driving the winning Prototype Challenge entry there to become one of the youngest winners in the history of the race before going to St. Petersburg.
From St. Petersburg, it’s a nine hour drive to Barber Motorsports Park, unless you take a 12 hour detour in Sebring and also win that endurance race, which he did.
However, looking ahead to Barber, O’Ward is happy to go back to the track where he first swept a weekend in the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires.
“It’s a track that I really like and last year I was pretty much unbeatable there,” said O’Ward.
“Qualifying kind of caught me off guard and I qualified fourth because of the wet but whenever the track was dry I was pretty much the guy to beat and even starting fourth it’s a hard track to pass.
“I won both races by a good margin so I think it gives me confidence going into the weekend because I spent a day there with Sam Schmidt but it’s definitely a positive that I’m going there and it’s a track that I know and that I like and that I’ve proved to be fast at.”
Days before Sam Schmidt shut down the garage door on his Indy Lights team, O’Ward tested their car at Barber to get help get himself acclimated. It was his only time in an Indy Lights car before spring training at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“That test kind of came out at the last minute,” said O’Ward. “It was more of a test to get to know the car and that was before Sam closed his team. So that wasn’t something good to hear, but it was definitely a good chance for me to get to know the car because I hadn’t been in it and it was good for me to try a fast car at Barber since it’s such a high speed track.
“I think it definitely will help for the race weekend coming up because I’ll know the track. I have kind of a feeling of what an Indy Lights car feels like going around there and it’s going to be a lot better than just getting down there and not knowing anything and trying to do all of it in the first practice session which is really hard to do.”
For the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship runner-up, one thing has remained constant since last year and that is a lack of funds for the rest of the season. O’Ward wasn’t signed to drive an Indy Lights car until right before the Homestead test and was only confirmed for St. Petersburg before his results on the streets. He feels the same as he did last year, which might help him get results.
“I feel quite similar to last year, it’s a similar situation, but I kind of have to take it weekend by weekend,” said O’Ward.
“I can’t think of something in the future that might not happen. I just have to take it like last year and it seems to be working when I’m focusing on doing my job in a weekend and not overall in a year. I tend to do better. So yeah, I like to keep it that way.”
What would a pair of podiums or even a win do for O’Ward’s chances of making it through the year, however?
“We’re working on trying to get a whole year deal, but it’s in the talks, it’s not something we haven’t been talking about,” said O’Ward. “But as of right now we’re going race by race. I think if we get a couple of podiums that’s going to boost us up to try and keep going for at least the month of May and then we’ll see how we’re doing.
“If we’re still in the hunt by mid-year we’ll probably push and sign for the whole year.”