Deal with Carlin puts smile back on O'Ward's face

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A month ago, Patricio O’Ward faced so many unknowns regarding his racing future. Now, he has a clear direction and one that makes him more enthusiastic than normal.

The 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion was confirmed Thursday for a 13-race deal with Carlin that begins with the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas on March 24. In 12 races, he’ll drive the team’s second car alongside Max Chilton. Carlin will expand to a three-car lineup for the 103rd Running Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge to accommodate Chilton, O’Ward and Charlie Kimball.

The 19-year-old Mexican, along with team principal Trevor Carlin, met Saturday with media at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for the first time since the announcement. The smile on O’Ward’s face throughout provided clear evidence of the weight lifted from his shoulders after a planned ride with Harding Steinbrenner Racing fell through in February.

“I think I've landed exactly where I need to be, actually,” O’Ward said. “I'm really, really excited, I'm really happy. It's a team that knows how to win. It's just a matter of time where we start winning, we start getting poles, start getting podiums.

“I know Trevor is a winner. He likes winning, the whole team likes winning, I like winning. I think we're going to mesh quite well.”

Carlin is no stranger to recognizing and developing talent through the team’s many junior open-wheel formula programs around the world. He pointed out that the team has mentored a strong percentage of drivers now competing in the NTT IndyCar Series and Formula One. Carlin saw O’Ward’s potential last year when he battled with Colton Herta – and prevailed – in the battle for Indy Lights supremacy.

O’Ward won nine races to Herta’s four to pull away at the end of the 2018 Indy Lights season. Both drivers made their NTT IndyCar Series debuts in the 2018 finale at Sonoma Raceway, where O’Ward qualified fifth and finished ninth. Herta qualified 19th and finished 20th.

“I saw last year the fantastic battle with Patricio and Colton Herta,” Carlin said. “Colton Herta is an ex-Carlin driver from Europe (in the 2015 MSA Formula Championship). He had a young teammate, a kid called Lando Norris. I saw Colton and Lando Norris fighting tooth and nail. I said in 2015, Lando Norris will become a Formula One driver and Colton Herta will be an Indy car driver. That's happened.

“In the meantime, I've seen Patricio beat Colton. To my mind, it's a really simple analogy. Patricio is as good as Colton and Lando and is going to be a future champion. I'm super excited.”

O’Ward and Carlin both credited the $1.1 million scholarship the driver earned for winning the Indy Lights title with providing a major assist in consummating the deal. The Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, the INDYCAR-sanctioned development ladder, offers the prize that guarantees the Indy Lights champion at least three NTT IndyCar Series races in the succeeding season, including the Indy 500.

“I want to thank Andersen Promotions and Road to Indy because, without this scholarship, I wouldn't have a chance to be in the NTT IndyCar Series,” O’Ward said. “That was definitely something that I look back on after all the circumstances that took place in February and I said, ‘Thank God I won the (Indy Lights) championship.’”

With his global perspective competing in development series around the world, Carlin said the Road to Indy program is unique because it assists in funding champion drivers in all three RTI levels to advance.

“There's nothing like this Road to Indy, there's nothing like this in Europe,” Carlin said. “Even though it doesn't guarantee a full budget for (the NTT IndyCar Series season), the fact they take you through the whole program (to) Indy Lights, INDYCAR, is incredible in itself.

“At the end of the day, we all know motor racing is expensive. It's foolish to expect someone else to pay for it. To get $1 million for a seat is amazing. You can't argue with the amount of drivers that have come through the ladder now. … So the system does work, for sure.”

This season marks Carlin’s second as an entrant in the NTT IndyCar Series. O’Ward believes he can help the team take its next steps in the progression toward the front of the grid.

“Someone that is in this sport to be in the back isn't here for the right reason,” O’Ward said. “I'm really excited to start it off. I just want to drive, man. I haven't been in a car since Sonoma. I can't wait for my first test.”

The NTT IndyCar Series begins Sunday with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Live coverage of the 110-lap race airs on NBCSN (12:30 p.m. ET) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.).

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