By Josh Farmer, Contributing Journalist
SONOMA, California – Life just keeps getting better for Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Patricio ‘Pato’ O’ Ward.
Two weeks removed from claiming the 2018 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire championship, O’Ward qualified fifth for his first Verizon IndyCar Series race in tomorrow’s IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The result has the 19-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico surrounded by former series champions, Indianapolis 500 winners and in the middle of a championship fight heading into his first IndyCar race.
“I honestly don’t know what to think about it,” he said. “When I saw that I moved into the Fast Six, I thought Newgarden, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Rossi, such big names, you’ve been looking at them for years and years and years, since I was a kid.
“It’s just something unique. It’s something that you have to start believing that you can be like them, that you can beat them, that you can give them a run for their money. It’s a new feeling.”
The driver of the No. 8 Harding Racing Chevrolet experienced everything in his qualifying session. He first drove off course early in Group 2 while running on the alternate Firestone Reds.
Determined to transfer into the top six, he made a bold move to change to another set of Reds to end the session, which propelled him into the final qualifying group.
“I didn’t really use the maximum out of the red the first time because it came in a little late,” he said. “I said, ‘Put those back on. Get an idea of what the next reds we’re going to put on would be.’ I wanted to transfer to the Fast Six. I didn’t care where I ended in the Fast Six, I just wanted to transfer.”
Having bagged a good result regardless, the 2016 Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tire runner-up turned a conservative lap to qualify fifth for tomorrow’s race.
The result earned him some respect from the three former champions in the in the Fast Six – polesitter Ryan Hunter-Reay, championship hopeful Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden. O’ Ward felt over-the-moon to have earned their respect just one qualifying session into his IndyCar career.
More importantly, he knows that he has to give respect to earn it back.
“That’s something that I’ve always liked to do,” he said. “It’s something that I think I’ve always done in my career. I like to respect everybody. I think at the beginning of the weekend, I said in a press conference that some people did not care, but I thought it was really, really cool when I got to Scott Dixon and Will Power, as well, I saw they said really nice things about me. I thought that was really, really, really cool. I thought – that’s why they’re champions.”
While today’s result has him on cloud nine, O’Ward is well aware of the challenge ahead in tomorrow’s 85-lap race. While he wants to follow up on today’s performance, he understands the need to have a smart race and not get in the middle of the championship race between Dixon and Alexander Rossi.
“I think it’s important to stay calm and relaxed in the beginning,” he said. “It’s a really long race, and a lot of things can happen. I don’t want to get in between Rossi and Dixon. I’m just obviously not going to let him by.”
“I’m in a situation where I can put their race in jeopardy or something, I’m obviously going to give them the priority because I was in a similar situation with Colton. I wouldn’t want someone new to sabotage me or Colton’s race. It’s not fair. Winning this championship is a very, very big accomplishment.”