Everyone was caught by surprise with Roger Penske’s announcement on Monday that Juan Pablo Montoya will join his IndyCar team next year in a three-car attack with current drivers Hélio Castroneves and Will Power. Many rumours have circulated about Montoya’s future after he became a free agent a month and half ago, but none of the speculation featured Penske.
‘The Captain’ quietly jumped into the game in recent weeks and has made a deal with Montoya without any sponsorship commitments, although you can be sure Roger will put together a nice package of sponsors for Montoya and his number two Dallara-Chevrolet by the time the 2014 season gets underway.
Team Penske’s president Tim Cindric said the conversation with Montoya started at last month’s Michigan NASCAR race. “There wasn’t a lot of discussion about it because it all came together pretty quick,” Cindric said. “I think Juan and I actually ran into each other on the grid in Michigan and you know, it was as simple as, ‘Hey, I heard you’re not with the #42. What are you up to?’
“He said ‘Not sure.’ And I said, ‘We ought to put you in that IndyCar sometime.’ And he said, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ From then on, it was kind of casual conversation and it turned into the real deal. That’s really how we started and how we ended up here today.”
Montoya says once he started talking to Penske and Cindric he wasn’t interested any of the other deals offered him in NASCAR or IndyCar. “If you really dream of any ideal position for a driver, and you could say you could race for Penske, I think that would be number one,” Juan remarked. “When this opportunity came around, you didn’t even have to think about it. It was something that was a great opportunity. I had a lot of opportunities, not only in NASCAR, but in open‑wheel. But when you look at everything, I said when I first became a free agent, I said, I want a winning car. And they don’t come any better than Penske Racing.
“It came down to wanting to race for Roger. It’s always been one of my dreams to be able to be part of this organisation. And being here, it’s unbelievable. I’m just so excited. I can’t believe it. I’m like a five‑year‑old kid right now.
“Having Helio and Will as team-mates, two great guys – one is leading the championship and the other guy has so much speed and so much potential that between them, I think they can help me a lot get up to speed.
“You have to remember, I’ve been out of open‑wheel cars for a while, so I’m going to have to get up to speed with everything again, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
It’s been a long, strange trip for Montoya from making his mark in CART in 1999 and 2000 and winning the Indy 500 in 2000 to a mercurial career in Formula 1 with Williams and McLaren followed by a surprise move to NASCAR with old friend Chip Ganassi and now an equally surprising move back to what is now known as IndyCar. Juan believes his seven years’ experience in NASCAR will serve him well in his return to open-wheel cars.
“I think having the seven years of NASCAR and then my open‑wheel experience before that, I’m pretty excited about going to the ovals,” JPM said. “The one you want to win, it’s an oval. You want to win the Indy 500. I’m excited about that. I have the opportunity to be in the car at Indy and I think with Penske it is going to be huge.
“I think NASCAR has been a great experience for me. It made me a lot better driver. I learned things that I think if I would have stayed in open‑wheel I would never have learned. You become a lot smarter driver.”
Some people say Montoya is too old (he turns 38 on Friday) and too tubby to beat today’s young IndyCar drivers. Juan says he’s fully aware of what he needs to do and has already stepped up his training in order to tackle his return to open-wheel cars.
“The conditioning is a big part of it and since the moment I became a free agent, I wanted the opportunity in open‑wheel and I’ve been training really hard,” he said. “I know I have a long way to go to where I want to be. I know what it takes to be in the shape that you need to be in to win and be a champion. So I’m working towards that goal, and the good thing is that we’ve got a lot of time until the first race, so I’ve got a lot of time to prepare myself physically and mentally for it.
“I want more success,” Juan added. “I want to win races. I know that it’s going to be an uphill battle mentally, physically, and learning everything again. But I have no doubt in my mind that I can do it.”
Montoya is sure to bring some added spark to Penske’s team next year. He’ll also bring some much-needed interest and excitement to IndyCar. It should be intriguing to watch.