Pato O’Ward never wanted to drive for anyone else, never wanted to win for anyone else. The young, electric Mexican racing star didn’t want to lift Borg-Warner trophies or clinch Astor Cups for anyone other than Arrow McLaren SP.
But there came a time early this year when O’Ward felt as if he was being forced to look elsewhere to land a contract he felt was deserving of a two-time IndyCar winner and four-time polesitter racing for a team he readily admits isn’t yet “at the level of a Penske, a Ganassi or an Andretti.”
The contentious, and at times public, fight for a new contract with IndyCar boss and McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown went on for months. O’Ward had a unique clause in his current deal that would force AMSP to match any offer he received from an outside team at 75% in order to hold onto him through 2024 and an offer came through – depending on whom you speak to.
Series sources told IndyStar that O’Ward received an offer from Chip Ganassi Racing around when the driver went public in St. Pete about his contractual future, telling IndyStar, “It’s still a question of where I’ll be next year.” When asked about the offer last week, CGR managing director Mike Hull told IndyStar that he had undergone an initial discussion with O’Ward’s father, who manages much of his son’s contractual dealings, but that no paperwork was ever printed that would have, in his eyes, constituted a formal offer. “We wouldn’t have had room for him in 2023 anyways,” Hull told IndyStar.
That O’Ward and his father had to go as far as fielding calls from other teams to push conversations around O’Ward’s contract — which resembled his rookie deal from 2019 — cut the young driver deep.
“Man, don’t make me go and get other teams to give me an offer to get what I deserve here,” O’Ward told IndyStar in an expansive interview days ago, of his emotions from weeks back. “It’s like your girlfriend telling you to go flirt with other girls to see what else you can get. I don’t want to do that, and we shouldn’t have to be doing that. We should just come to an agreement that both parties are happy with and move on and start winning.
“But it wasn’t getting there, and I guess I had no choice.”
Through the hard talks, hurt feelings and series of on-track bobbles that have characterized the start of O’Ward’s 2022 IndyCar season, he and Brown say the two sides have found common ground that leaves them in the final stages of signing a contract extension that builds upon his compensation and runway with AMSP. Already signed through the end of 2024 before the start of this season, O’Ward will now be locked down through at least 2025. Though IndyStar understands the driver’s contract still holds the same (or a similar) clause that would theoretically make O’Ward a “restricted free agent” in mainstream American professional sports terms, there’s no reason to believe he’ll continue to entertain the idea of driving elsewhere.
“If I’m winning for someone, I want to win for this team,” O’Ward told IndyStar. “It just feels like home to me. Just like when you have a girlfriend or a wife, you’re going to fight. Those times will come, and they’re not very enjoyable, but everything is fixable. And when you put your heart and soul into something, it’s hard for your emotions not to get in the way for both parties.
“It’s very hard to not take things personal sometimes, and everything I do is always at 150%. It’s draining, man, and sometimes, there’s no other way but to take things personal because there’s so much passion in it.”
And should another team come knocking again, Brown’s committed to holding onto his championship-contending driver.
More on O’Ward’s contract battle:
“While it’s not done yet, we are going to give (Pato) the contract that he deserves, because he’s proven himself. I think we always intended to do that, if you look at our track record,” Brown told IndyStar in an exclusive interview. “Typically, you want to have those talks later in the year to let folks focus on racing, and I think with other teams approaching him, that pulled forward the conversation we were prepared to have – just not at the start of the season.
“Now, he can take his rookie stripes off and be viewed as a young gun that can fight for the championship at any time. That’s not consistent with a rookie contract.”
‘I’ve paid my dues’
Through the start of his still very young racing career, O’Ward had never had to think twice about contracts and compensation. He spent a large part of 2015-18 in the Road to Indy ladder system, taking the Indy Lights title in 2018. After a full-time IndyCar ride with Harding Steinbrenner fell through last-minute in early 2019, he drove part-time for Carlin before jumping to Red Bull’s junior program mid-year. When it was ruled his Lights title wouldn’t count for Super License points, severely complicating his short-term plans to reach F1, he was released and found a home with AMSP, which had added McLaren as a major partner that offseason.
“I basically accepted whatever they offered me because I didn’t have a ride,” O’Ward said of his first deal with his current team. “When I signed it, I told myself, ‘I’m sure if I do a good job, I’ll be compensated,’ and I over-delivered for two years.
“I felt it was a very fair ask to get compensated for that, or to at least let me get to where I think I deserve and let me earn it. That was my biggest thing. We all know this career can be 20 years, like Scott Dixon, or 2-3 years. You don’t know when bad things can happen.”
Sometime this past offseason, while preparing for the F1 test he landed by winning his first IndyCar race in 2021 at Texas, via a playful bet with Brown, O’Ward’s camp approach AMSP leadership looking for a step-up in his deal. Through two seasons with the team, he’d finished 4th and 3rd in the championship. Though Lights rival Colton Herta had four more wins and three more poles (albeit with 40 starts to O’Ward’s 30) by the end of 2021, O’Ward had amassed more points overall (903 vs. 876) in the two seasons they both ran full-time.
And early in 2021, Herta received a contract extension with Andretti Autosport believed to have given the young American driver a substantial bump in his earning potential.
“I wasn’t in a position anymore to be stepped on or taken advantage of in a one-sided agreement,” O’Ward said. “No, I was done with those agreements because I performed. You gave me my chance, but now I’ve paid my dues, and I’m not asking for a massive contract – just something fair for both parties, and I’m going to continue to over-deliver.”
To Brown’s credit, he does hold a history – and a recent one, at that – of giving young drivers their launch pad, letting them prove themselves and rewarding them both in compensation and contractual runway when those on-track goals are met and surpassed. With his young F1 star Lando Norris, who made his debut in the series at 19 years old in 2019, the McLaren Racing CEO signed the British driver to an extension midway through his rookie season, followed by another last May. In February, Norris signed a third extension, this lasting through 2025, that at the time gave him and McLaren the longest-standing team-driver relationship for the future.
“When you sign a young driver, the contracts are very beneficial to the racing team, but every time (Lando’s) proven himself, we’ve stepped forward, because he deserved something more than a rookie contract,” Brown said. “What all this noise (with Pato) has done is it brought forward a conversation, which is totally cool because we intended to have that conversation, and he’ll be rewarded accordingly and get the compensation he’s earned.”
Shutting out the noise
But the road to get there wasn’t nearly so cut-and-dried. As often occurs in contractual negotiations in any sport, there were some significant disagreements as to what both sides believed constituted a fair deal. Though most of the specifics of those back-and-forth conversations remain unclear, Brown revealed that O’Ward was originally offered a role in McLaren’s F1 testing program to work alongside Herta.
Brown sent both drivers F1 paperwork to be signed to greenlight their testing roles and have terms already in place if they were to be tabbed for a future full-time role with the U.K.-based team. Herta returned the contract almost immediately with no reservations, and his deal was announced only days after O’Ward first hinted to IndyStar of frustrations about his racing future. O’Ward appears to have held out while hoping for better terms in IndyCar, until Brown – at least temporarily – took that opportunity off the table.
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“I think because our agreement in IndyCar was out of sync, what we want to do now is, we had a bit of a rough start to the year and want to be laser-focused in IndyCar,” Brown said. “I think all the opportunities remain on the table. It was never our intention to just test one driver (in F1). The team is going to do some testing later in the year, and we’ll pick up those conversations (with Pato) again.
“I think what’s most important is that he’s laser-focused on IndyCar.”
O’Ward freely admits, too, that along with his offseason dalliance with F1 preparation for his Abu Dhabi rookie test, the multitude of voices in his ear that extended past his uber-passionate father distracted him from his end goal in these contract discussions. At different stages, some friends, family and associates would tell him to take what was on the table, while others told him to hold out.
The ever-friendly, family-oriented O’Ward, who basks in the adoration and massive fanbase he’s accumulated in such a short stint in IndyCar, says he didn’t know whom to believe.
“Some people you trusted your whole career, and then you start questioning which one is right, because no one’s on the same page,” he said. “I’m asking for opinions to see what has the majority of votes, and none of them did.”
Conversations with, and offers from, other teams only muddied the waters.
“I think people jumped on the opportunity to solicit him driving for them, which is totally understandable and to be expected, and I think that put a lot of pressure on (Pato),” Brown said. “Of course you’re going to take a phone call when you get one from a championship-caliber team that’s interested in you driving for them, but these weren’t things he sought. They sought him, so he had no choice but to deal with this inbound interest.
“Whether some of that was deliberate by some teams to cause a little mayhem, whether the timing of the bid was intended to be so early in the year, I think it put a lot of things on his mind. He was very transparent with us, and we know exactly who made offers and what those offers were. I’m a believer in this world that rival teams don’t steal sponsors or steal drivers. You lose drivers and lose sponsors, and if one ever leaves your team, you need to look in the mirror.”