Gavin Ward and his Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden put the finishing touches on a strong 2021 season with their run to second place at Long Beach. Their result at the season finale also earned the duo a runner-up position in the championship. It would be their last outing together as the Canadian race engineer decided to leave Penske for Arrow McLaren SP, where he would assume the role of director of trackside engineering.
Held to a long non-compete clause by his former employer, Ward officially started with AMSP at the beginning of July, and from there, his rise from working on pit lane timing stands to leading IndyCar’s fastest-rising program marks one of the swiftest promotions in recent IndyCar history.
The decision was made after Taylor Kiel’s wholly unanticipated exit as team president left the team owned by McLaren Racing, Sam Schmidt, and Ric Peterson with an urgent need to find a new leader for the title-contending organization.
AMSP hired Brian Barnhart, the former Indy Racing League and IndyCar Series president who also led the former Harding Steinbrenner Racing IndyCar team, to serve as AMSP’s new general manager, and with his acquisition, the Chevy-powered organization appeared to have backfilled Kiel’s position.
But that’s where AMSP broke from tradition — at least the traditions found in IndyCar — by placing Ward, with his vast engineering and operational knowledge gained from years spent in Formula 1 with Red Bull and later with Penske, to its highest position. One year and one week after the Long Beach race, Ward was being installed as AMSP’s new team boss.
On paper, a person holding the title of president or general manager would lead one to believe they sat atop a team’s leadership structure, but with the vacancy created by Kiel and a new opportunity to rethink how AMSP goes racing, the somewhat benign title of “racing director” was attached to Ward and elevated to the No. 1 position on AMSP’s organizational chart.
Tasked with all aspects of the team’s performance and technical direction, the infrastructure change strips away the non-competition duties that don’t play a direct role in improving lap times and winning races, and places them in the hands of Barnhart.
The operational streamlining leaves Ward and those reporting directly to him on the technical performance side — Max Neyron, Nick Snyder and Billy Vincent — to focus on the purest aspects of pitting its cars and drivers against their rivals while the day-to-day administrative tasks are looked after by the GM.
At its heart, a racing team exists to win motor races and in most teams, the folks with titles of racing director or performance director operate many levels below the presidents and GMs. In this refreshing infrastructure experiment by the team that has shortened its name to Arrow McLaren for 2023, everything that takes place on the shop floor and at the track has been championed as its first priority.
“In terms of where it all came from, Taylor’s departure wasn’t entirely expected from our side,” Ward told RACER. “From there, we got to have a really good, very productive discussion — a debate — about how this team was working and what we thought worked well, and what didn’t work well. Zak (Brown, McLaren Racing CEO) plugged in and was pretty hands-on and it was very collaborative within the whole group. Out of that, we came up with the new structure, which I think is pretty exciting.
“We felt very clearly that Billy, Max, Nick and myself were a core group that worked really well together in terms of setting the racing team leadership. We needed a clear leader on the team to make final decisions on the cars and be a figurehead, so to speak. And clearly out of that group, we didn’t have the depth of experience on running the business side of things, the more operational side of things, and we were already bringing Brian Barnhart into the fold to add some weight to our leadership team.
“So it’s an interesting mix. I think when it comes to putting an engineer in that racing director position, Zak would probably say we’ve followed an F1 model a little bit.”
The new engineering-driven hierarchy is a great fit for Ward. As one of the warmer and more engaging personalities in the IndyCar paddock, he brings an interesting mix of capabilities to the role. As expected, Ward can wander down the deepest of technical rabbit holes, which is where engineers tend to be most comfortable.
But he’s also blessed with having a common touch which allows for strong interpersonal bonds to be built throughout a team, and that’s not a trait found within most hardcore engineering minds. It’s here where promoting a championship-winning race engineer with no team management experience to lead an IndyCar team is less of a risk than it might sound.
“I started my career being very technical, data-focused, and to be honest, as my career’s gone on, I’ve become much more convinced that people are what really moves the needle,” Ward said. “The people side of the sport, whether it’s the interaction with the drivers, or the interaction between engineers and mechanics, between the commercial side and engineering or competition side, is really crucial.
“(The promotion) wasn’t necessarily something I was looking for at the time, but when the opportunity came up, you know, I looked at my position and thought, ‘You know what, let’s give this a go.’ I felt like I was going that way anyways, so this is a little bit of acceleration. It’s not totally different to other times I’ve been dropped into new situations in my career.
“Back in the Red Bull F1 days, I was an intern and I got made into a race team trackside control engineer six months into my professional racing career, completely dropped into the deep end — a sink-or-swim situation, and I feel like this is just another thing to figure out. Maybe it’s not (all) engineering, it’s more people-focused, but I’m still gonna try and figure it out.”
Ward found immense success in F1 and with Team Penske, but he wanted to grow beyond race engineering. When AMSP offered what he was unable to find elsewhere, this wild journey began that led him to a role that was never expected. His influence, from a personality and technical perspective, could be the thing that brings the team closer to the front of the field as it looks to beat Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport on a regular basis.
“I came here because I’ve got a dream of being a part of building a dominant racing team that is good with people, takes care of people, builds with people, and has a hell of a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a team that embraces individuality, embraces diversity, that sees the big picture. That’s why I came here. I wanted to play my role as director of trackside engineering, and then when this opportunity came up, well, OK, maybe now we can play this as a racing director. That’s really how I’m looking at it.
“What we’re trying to do is pretty big. The last 20 years, IndyCar has been dominated by three teams. We’re firmly trying to put ourselves at the top of that pile and overtake them. It’s not a small task. It’s gonna take a lot of work and it’s not gonna happen overnight. It’s a bit of a detachment from the results. It’s a focus on that process of getting better, embracing the grind and going racing and enjoying it.”
The organizational restructuring comes at a crucial juncture for the company. In the last three seasons, Pato O’Ward brought the team close to title contention with a run to fourth in the 2020 championship, improved to third in 2021, but a slight retreat was experienced in 2022 with a drop to seventh. On the good days, O’Ward and teammate Felix Rosenqvist have been equal to or better than the Penskes, Ganassis, and Andrettis, but there haven’t been enough of those days to overtake IndyCar’s standard bearers.
With Ward being tasked with shaping the culture and focus towards racing and engineering above all else, the goal is to eliminate the on-track inconsistencies — the big swings in performance — that have kept its drivers from winning titles.
It’s another area where Ward’s lessons from working within juggernauts like Red Bull and Penske can infuse Arrow McLaren with a different and potentially more beneficial outlook on the art of racing. But don’t forget about his friendlier side. If everything works out as intended, Ward’s permanent smile will be shared by the rest of his brethren.
“It’s a sport of extreme highs and lows,” he said. “But if we live and die by the highs and lows, it becomes an emotional roller coaster and that’s not sustainable. So for us, it’s about trying to have that level keel, but really enjoying what we’re doing. When we win a race, we celebrate. You can’t discount how hard it is to win in the series.
“But it’s not about being overly worried about results or overly negative about when it doesn’t go your way. It’s a pretty cool thing that we get to do. I think taking it back to, ‘This is awesome, I love being a part of it,’ is important. We get to go racing and work with an exceptional group of people that rally and are fighting for a common goal.”