How Ward is making mental health a priority at Arrow McLaren

Gavin Ward grew tired of losing a private battle.

Years later, those losses would become a gift to his colleagues at the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team.

On the outside, the Red Bull Formula 1 race engineer was achieving his dreams as part of a winning program with four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. The success continued later in the decade when the Canadian moved from F1 to IndyCar to engineer Josef Newgarden at Team Penske. But on the inside, hidden away from teammates in a sport that celebrates toughness and bravery, Ward was being ravaged by anxiety.

“When I first started going trackside at Red Bull, I thought, ‘This is too stressful.’ This was my dream, but I’m like, ‘I don’t think I can do it. I don’t know if this is something I can keep doing.’ I adapted and I got better at that. And then I came to think I thrived on the pressure for a long time,” said Ward, Arrow McLaren’s team principal.


“It was my first year as a race engineer in IndyCar, it was my first oval race; the Indy 500 in 2019. We were going in second in the championship, you’ve got a championship-caliber driver, and at Team Penske, where you’re expected to fight for the win. And to my surprise, I just couldn’t quite handle that situation. It was the day before we started running at the Open Test, the big pre-month-of-May running for the Indy 500. And I had a panic attack in my hotel room.

“I’d never had one before in my life. And it was terrifying. But I also didn’t feel like I could tell anybody about it. I thought that it would be seen as a weakness and that I couldn’t do the job. And that was a high-pressure year. I was stepping into this big role, but also expecting our firstborn, and we moved over [from England] and because of a visa situation with my wife, she couldn’t work, so I’m the sole breadwinner and you’ve got this relocation… There’s a lot going on.”

Newgarden would finish fourth at Indy, which helped secure his second IndyCar championship. Despite earning four victories and clinching the title in his first season with the team, some of Ward’s strongest memories from the championship run are from the darker days.

“I remember thinking on the plane flying back from Laguna having won the championship, ‘Someday, I’m going to tell people about the journey that this this year has been,’” Ward said. “Nobody would think anything like that was going on, but there was also a positive outcome. The month of May was hard and I was battling panic attacks, going into the bathroom at the Speedway, and trying to work my way through it on my own. But off the back of that, I got some help.

“I got some help with counseling, learned some coping techniques, and actually managed to really get control of that situation. But also, it’s funny, because all this stuff I learned from going through that has made me a better race engineer. When it was later in that year, and we’re dealing with decision making under pressure and situations where you’re a little hypersensitive to it, you’ve been educated on coping strategies.

“I didn’t tell anybody at Penske what I was going through. And maybe that’s just me, maybe I just wasn’t comfortable with it at that point. I wouldn’t say it was because of the environment necessarily, but I certainly didn’t feel like it was something I could bring up.”

In shifting from Penske to Arrow McLaren, Ward was quickly promoted from a senior technical role to leading the entire team at the onset of 2023. With the first Indy 500 looming last May in his new position, Ward decided it was time to share his story with the expansive group of men and women inside the four-car operation and broach the sensitive subject of mental health.

“We brought the whole team together for a huddle before we went into the month of May,” he said. “I decided now’s the time. I shared the story for myself, and my background and then shared the team resources we have; just wanted to encourage people to feel comfortable to talk about it. I’m not a professional in this, it seemed like the right thing to do. Even afterwards, I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. Immediately, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I screwed up here. Maybe people are gonna think less of me.’

“But what was amazing was the number of people, and the people you would never have expected to, that reached out after that; I was absolutely gobsmacked. People you just never would have guessed. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is more common, and it’s a bigger deal than I even thought.’ So that gave me motivation to do more.”

Whatever type of stigma existed within the team beforehand was significantly defused through Ward’s open and raw revelations. The reaction inspired Ward to speak with other leaders within the Indianapolis-based team and McLaren’s home base in the U.K. to add a formal layer of assistance to their IndyCar employees.

Through training offered by the Mental Health First Aid organization, Ward and approximately a dozen others at Arrow McLaren have gone through a course that will help them to “identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders,” according to MHFA.

With the backing of McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, Ward is committed to changing the culture within his team.

“For myself, whether it was some training; learning to deal with your emotions, whether it’s anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, and being in tune with that, and being able to recognize it in others and be able to help others with it, I think is a superpower,” he said.

“And now, it’s a huge part of what I do. This is a people game. We talk about race cars all the time, particularly engineers will talk about all the geekery of it. But when it really comes down to it, it’s a people game. Nothing happens without making people work well together and perform on the day.”

Some of IndyCar’s old guard might scoff at a team placing such a heavy emphasis on the mental and emotional welfare of its mechanics, truck drivers, and other hardy types. Ward hopes such notions give way to the direction his group is following — a focus on deeper support of the individuals — in collective pursuit of its first IndyCar championship.

“It’s been my dream to change the sport for the better by setting the example that other people are inclined to copy,” he said. “Because I think it’s the right way to build a winning race team. But I also don’t want to hide what we’re doing here because we want to be the shining example of what it is to build the best race team and have other people come along and do that in the right way. It’s a positive impact on the whole, so I hope we can keep doing that.

“I love getting to do this job. It’s a hard way to make a living, but at the same time, there are very few days where I’m not thankful. But it’s been a journey.”

Listen to the full conversation with Ward in the podcast below:

Story originally appeared on Racer