pato o'ward
When Pato O’Ward isn’t lapping in an Indy car, he’s watching video of laps in Indy cars.
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Pato O’Ward is at the top of his game, challenging for an IndyCar title at 22 years old, in just his second full year in the series. Asking a natural like O’Ward for tips on learning a new track is silly—like a novice pianist asking Herbie Hancock how to write “Watermelon Man.” But if you had the chance, wouldn’t you ask exactly that? The Arrow McLaren Schmidt Peterson driver agreed to explain his process.

O’Ward’s prep begins by watching onboard videos. This gives him an idea of where the track goes and what kind of corners to expect. O’Ward has an encyclopedia of corners from tracks around the world in his head, with a detailed understanding of how to navigate each. By studying beforehand, he can formulate the correct line around the circuit. The process also helps O’Ward pick out visual markers to use as braking points, key to building speed.

This story originally appeared in Volume 7 of Road & Track.


“Once you have those references, you can start pushing,” O’Ward says. “We can go deeper here, we need to back it up a little bit here.” He thinks a lot about corner entry, too. “How you approach the corner is what usually dictates how quick you’re going to be through it,” he says.

pato o'ward
The top step of the podium: Maybe you can’t get there, but you can learn from the guy who has.
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Among other things, a professional racer’s job is to click off laps with metronomic precision. There’s an element of improv—reacting to how the car and track change throughout the day and adjusting for anything else that can happen—but consistency is key.

“Trying to nail the references every single time[is] how you get more consistency throughout your runs,” he says. “Then you can really tell, the car’s not letting me do this; I want to do this.”

Of course, setup is a whole science unto itself in IndyCar, and O’Ward and his team have tools and adjustments a Spec Miata driver could only dream of possessing. But the racer’s point stands: consistency first, then improvement.

Ultimately, this sort of thing is second nature to O’Ward and his ilk. “I learn more the very simple, old-school way, without all the gadgets we have,” he says.

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For the average hobby racer, it’s probably a different story. A dedicated competitor like O’Ward can lean on pure talent; the rest of us keep the gadget industry in business. Racing sims, data traces, cock-pit-mounted cameras so we can watch our fastest laps over and over again—they all exist to help us try to achieve what O’Ward does on talent alone.

Enrolling in a racing school will, certainly, help hone one’s skills. With a little luck and a ton of hard work, maybe we can all get a little closer to O’Ward’s level.

pato o'ward
O’Ward insists that simulators can’t help you learn a track like video can.
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