FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The face of Pato O'Ward can be seen on billboards all around Mexico City, and the young driver so much wants to have an IndyCar race in his native country.
"It doesn't matter where it is," O'Ward said. "The place would be packed."
Nearly a month after O’Ward came oh-so-close to winning the season opener, IndyCar's second race is Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. It's the closest track for the series to Mexico and San Antonio, the Texas city where O'Ward grew up when his parents sought a safer childhood for he and his sister.
Texas Motor Speedway is also where O'Ward earned his first IndyCar victory, two years ago, just a few days shy of his 22nd birthday.
With his energetic presence and unwavering confidence, O'Ward has already become a favorite in his home country. He also is a rising star in the open-wheel series in his fourth season with Arrow McLaren. He has four career wins in 48 races for the team, winning twice in both 2021 and 2022.
"Getting the right opportunity is the hardest thing to do, because you can't blame somebody for not wanting to give you the keys to a program that is worth millions of dollars," O'Ward said. "When you're young and you're coming into it, you need to prove yourself. But in order to prove yourself properly, you need the right opportunity."
Just before last year's Indianapolis 500, the driver who has always wanted to race in Formula One signed a new IndyCar contract with McLaren through the 2025 season.
"The longer that I go, the more I realize this is the right place, right time," O'Ward said. "There's things that you can't control all the time. But I feel very grateful and very lucky that I had that opportunity (with McLaren). They've given me the best opportunity that I could have asked for. And I've definitely delivered in what they've wanted, and probably more."
O'Ward was leading the season opener in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida on March 5 when his No. 5 Chevrolet had a sudden and rare engine hiccup with three laps remaining. A "plenum issue" resulted in a brief loss of power, allowing Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson to pass him for the win.
Instead of dwelling on the near-miss, O'Ward chose to focus on the second-place finish on a street course where he had struggled in previous season openers.
"Pato is an amazing talent, one of the quickest guys I've seen come in the series," reigning IndyCar Series champion Will Power said. "I'm sure he's going to be an Indy 500 champion in the future, which is really good for the series."
O'Ward joined teammate Alexander Rossi and Patrick Dimon, director of an upcoming IndyCar docuseries, on a panel at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas earlier this month that previewed the six-part "100 Days To Indy" that premieres in mid-April.
Like O'Ward, Power believes IndyCar should run a race in Mexico. The two-time IndyCar champ recalls the massive crowds drawn to Champ Car races there before the series merged into the IndyCar Series.
For now, O'Ward, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico and moved to San Antonio with his family at age 11, is doing what he can to help get fans to Texas Motor Speedway. The IndyCar race is on the same day there are events at three other major sporting venues in North Texas.
The NCAA Division I women's national championship game is in Dallas on Sunday afternoon at the home of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. The Texas Rangers that night wrap up a season-opening MLB series at home against National League champion Philadelphia, at the same time Taylor Swift is doing her third concert in as many nights at AT&T Stadium, the home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys across the street in Arlington.
At Texas Motor Speedway, there will be about 200 people who bought packages that include a Pato jersey, a cap signed by the driver, garage access and catered food in one of three luxury suites. There will also be a "Pato Grandstand" for fans who got a race ticket for any single item they bought from the driver's official merchandise site.
O'Ward knows he will see plenty of Mexican flags at TMS, like he does at every track, a reminder of the country that is pulling for him. There are also a lot more people wanting to take photos with him when he's out in public.
So is that a burden on O'Ward?
"Not at all. I love it," he said. "We're in entertainment. … I do it for me because I love it. And I love to see people celebrate and enjoy what I love to do. That's what it's all about."
He likens the attention that he gets to those times when he's watching Supercross races and pulling for his favorite motorcycle riders.
"I mean I get into it when one guy's chasing the other one for the lead," O'Ward said. "I know what it's like for people when they watch me. I know what it feels like. And it's awesome." _ More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports