INDIANAPOLIS — Mike O'Gara has won races all over the world. From the Daytona 500 to the Le Mans 24-hour race in France, but never the Indianapolis 500. Until this year.
"Winning one here, especially the Indy 500 is super special, it's still soaking in," O'Gara said.
It's perhaps the sweetest win for the Indianapolis native. O'Gara helped coach Marcus Ericsson to the pinnacle, an Indy 500 victory.
"It's still sinking in," O'Gara said. "Happy for him [Marcus] because he's worked so hard for this. Happy for the whole team, they're my family away from home. Just happy for myself. [I've] worked hard for this but, it's not just me it's Stacy and the kids. They give up a lot for me to do this, sorry, and pursue my dream. And finally, we make it happen."
O'Gara is the director of operations for Chip Ganassi Racing and the strategist for the number 8 car, driven by Ericsson.
Racing is a team sport, one O'Gara says takes valiant effort from every moving part. O'Gara acts as the middle man of sorts between Ericsson and the engineers.
Strategizing to get the win, is a job that isn't easy, and O'Gara says it got tricky with the flag thrown in the last few laps of the 500.
"I remained calm on the radio talking to Marcus and ensured him we had the speed and we had been training for this and we were going to get it done," he said.
O'Gara said he was nervous the car wouldn't start back up.
"To figure out the best time to pit or to stay out when to save fuel, when to push and maybe burn more fuel," O'Gara said.
O'Gara was born and raised in Indianapolis, where he developed a love for racing at a young age. That would take him to Purdue where he would study mechanical engineering.
Then he would take his skills to Honda where he worked on passenger cars for a couple of years before joining the racing side of things, where he has been for about 25 years.
"I have been passionate about the speedway ever since I can remember. We used to listen to the race on the radio," O'Gara said.
He remembered his early years falling in love with racing, specifically the Indy 500.
"I would come home every day from school during May and watch what was called Happy Hour, which was the last hour of practice. It was televised by every news channel," he said.
O'Gara grew up at the Speedway, his dad and uncle worked for a small race team that only raced in Indy. He said he remembers driving to Arizona every May to pick up the race car and drive it to Indy.
There were strict rules at the track, no one under 18 was permitted to be in the garage area, O'Gara said his family found a way around that.
He would sneak into the track and hide out in the garage. Painting the floors, cleaning and tidying up the garage.
"A stack of tires without wheels on it, they're pretty big wheels and I could stand inside the stack of tires and they're driving the golf cart into the track," he said.
Racing is a demanding sport to be a part of. Weekends and long periods of time away can put a strain on a family. But O'Gara's family is more than happy to support their loved one who is chasing his dreams.
"I made a commitment a long time ago to support him and you just do. He's the best person the can be when he's happy. I'm the best person I can be when I'm happy. So we each contribute to each other's happiness," his wife Stacy said. "Whatever we can do, whatever that mission is, you have to stand behind it. it is a commitment and it's not for everyone.
She said seeing her husband win the Indy 500 was one of the best memories of his racing career she has.
"This is the biggest one. He's fought for this for a long time. This was the one check, this was the last one," she said. "This was the last big one, he's won Daytona, he's won Le Mans, but the Indy 500 was always the one he was always after and I'm glad he was able to get it done, and now he's probably not retiring. Not yet anyway."
O'Gara's entire family was in the stands watching him coach the driver to the finish line.
"In order to win the 500, everything must be perfect, everything must happen perfectly, and it was nothing sort of a perfect day," his daughter Reagan said. "There are no words."
She has been going to the race her entire life, patiently waiting for a day like Sunday. She's traveled to other places of the world to watch him race and see him win, but nothing is as sweet as seeing him win at home.
"I couldn't sleep the night before," Reagan said. "Yesterday something was more exciting. I don't know if it was all their success all the rest of May or what."
His family just had a funny feeling the weekend of the race.
"We were going to bed Saturday night and something felt different," Stacy said. "I told the kids on the way to the track the one thing that your dad is good at is when he's not pegged to be the front runner he always has a strategy, he always gets it done. I think he's going to do it."
And he did. It's still sinking in for their family.
"I just wanted it so bad for my dad. He's waited. It's his turn. I kept telling him all year that, it's your turn, it's your turn," Reagan said.
Mike is a proud father of two, to Austin and Reagan, and a loving husband to Stacy. They are all proud beyond words of him.
"It was a good day for sure," O'Gara's son Austin said. "It was pretty cool to see the Ganassi team pretty dominate all day."
It was Austin's birthday.
"I was crying right away. That's pretty normal for the men in our family to start crying. But pretty special for my dad. He's won a lot of big races, he's won races all over the world but winning one in Indy I think that's pretty special for him," he said.
Austin is following in his father's footsteps. He is a vehicle dynamics engineer for Ford. He was there to celebrate with his family before having to rush off to catch a place to be with his race team.
O'Gara is as humble as they come.
"I am just so proud of him. He's won so many races and I know behind the scenes he works so hard. I am just so happy for him. He is a good, fun-loving family guy. Loves to be a bit of a character with all his dad jokes, he's always got one cued up," Austin said. "Most important thing, he's always loving and caring despite all his travel, he's always trying to carve out time to spend time with his family and friends."
His daughter described him as the funniest person she knows. "He is the hardest worker but he won't let you know that. He's a great role model. He's just the humblest normal guy who does cool things at the race track," she said.
His wife said if you spend any amount of time with O'Gara you know who he is.
"He's such a family-focused person," she said. "Maybe one of the things that get me through when he's gone is he's always there. He does whatever he can to support us and to make life easier for us he knows that we're making sacrifices and he doesn't take it for granted."
O'Gara's wife remembered the final moments of the race.
"I was just in tears I had my hands, I was sitting," she said. "The lady behind me was like you have to watch and I'm like I can't."
O'Gara's family likes to blend into the crowd.
"We like to blend in so we sit between turns one and two. Everyone always asks, do you sit in the suits? We're like no we just sit in the seats," Stacy said.
Something missing at the race was the presence of O'Gara's father-in-law. Jerry Cooper. He passed away in December 2021.
"My dad was my ride or die. He went to so many races with me. Even when he wasn't healthy enough to make the walks, or healthy enough to be there. He was on the phone texting me."
Cooper would always send texts of what the analysts were saying about the drivers because their families didn't listen to the radio during the race.
"My dad was always the one saying Scott is getting a penalty, or they're saying Marcus is going to end up in the lead. So, I missed that input yesterday," Stacy said.
Stacy grew up at the track too. Her dad also used to sneak her into the track. Cooper was a police officer.
Racing was one of Cooper's favorite things. Especially the Indy 500. This was the first 500 he's missed since O'Gara's career began.
But family tells WRTV, he was there. They say they felt his presence there and even reserved a seat for him.
"Christmas time just after my dad died my nephew gave us a poem about always having a chair for me because I'm always there," Stacy said. "So, yesterday there were 5 of us we had 6 tickets and he was right there with us."
O'Gara got emotional talking about his father-in-law. "Poppy [Cooper] was one of my biggest fans," he said.
Cooper was a loving dad and proud grandpa.
"I think that was a lot of the emotion yesterday too," O'Gara said. "He was there with us."
A race win, perhaps in honor of Cooper and achievement of a lifelong goal for O'Gara.
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