At Indy 500, Pato O’Ward heartbroken after coming up short again

INDIANAPOLIS — Pato O’Ward’s tears flowed freely, much like the sheets of rain that fell on this venerable racetrack earlier in the day.

Pick a word to describe O’Ward sobbing after finishing second in the Indianapolis 500: heartbroken, crushed, devastated — they all fit. Even for a driver with ninja hands, capable of corralling a mean car and stopping it from crashing, it took him a while to pull himself together.

At first, O’Ward couldn’t even take off his helmet. Too humid inside, he said. When he finally did, there were long hugs, his face buried in the team members’ chests and shoulders.

Only two turns are missing, he said. Two short corners.

O’Ward thought he had it. He timed his move perfectly, it seems, waiting to make a pass on Josef Newgarden until the white flag was waved Sunday at the 108th running of the Indy 500.

“I really thought I did everything in my power to achieve this,” O’Ward said.

But it was too early. Newgarden still had too much time and made a daring pass on the outside of O’Ward into Turn 3 on the final lap. There have only been four last-lap passes in the history of the Indy 500; Newgarden now has two consecutive years.

“He could have easily won the race himself,” Newgarden said. “He led me perfectly. I’m very grateful for him and the way he drove.

The way O’Ward drove against Newgarden? Own. There was a trust between the two men to race that way. They both placed their cars in risky positions, with bold moves, but knowing that the other would race with respect; It’s just that only one could win.

That O’Ward managed to reach the front was an achievement. He led all drivers with 43 on-track passes throughout the race (teammate Alexander Rossi was second with 40), and his fearless moves on Rossi and Scott Dixon put him in position to challenge Newgarden.

His car appeared to be stuck, which meant there must be additional risk in making the necessary movements.

“On both fronts, on Scott and Alex, (there was) a higher probability of maneuvering the car than coming back in one piece,” O’Ward said.

At the end of the recent Indy 500, the battle for victory was fought by two drivers. They race each other, trade leads and bet on when to make the final pass. So O’Ward knew he had to get to second place, but he needed a checkers or wreckers mentality to get there.

“I put this car in some places where I didn’t know if I was going to come out the other side and in one piece,” O’Ward said, “because I just want to win this race, so damn .”

As O’Ward spoke, he watched the screens at the Indianapolis media center. On the screens there was a loop of Newgarden’s highlights – the final passage, jumping out of his car and running towards the stands, drinking the traditional milk. It was hard to look away.

Damn, much of this month has been difficult for O’Ward. He recently came down with a bad case of the flu and had a fever for five nights in a row. He didn’t sleep well in the days leading up to the race.

But on Sunday, he said, he felt well enough to “almost do the job.”

Effort and hardship help explain tears. All he had to show for it was another second place in the 500m, and as Scott Dixon said afterwards: “You’d rather finish last there and be out of the race sooner” than second.

“It’s just when you’re that close and you just can’t get it right,” O’Ward said. “It’s a lot of emotion.”

Newgarden understood. After all, this breed teased and toyed with him for over a decade until he finally broke through. He has now won two in a row.

This old place is funny like that, and like O’Ward said, it doesn’t owe any driver anything. But it seems there is a way to ultimately reward some of those who have suffered enough.

“When you don’t win, it hurts,” Newgarden said. “I’ve left here 11 times before with a broken heart. I know that feeling.”

(Pato O’Ward photo: Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

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