Juan Pablo Montoya’s exciting drive through the field to victory at Indianapolis this year was a great boost for IndyCar and motor racing as a whole. As we all know, the sport these days is rife with argument, wrangling and whining over money, governance, technical rules and philosophy. So it was a pleasure to watch a pure motor race turned into gold by an inspired performance from Montoya, who came through to score one of the most memorable wins in the long history of the Indy 500.
Nor was there any doubting Juan’s personal pleasure as he yelped for victory in turn three on the last lap and engaged in an energetic fist pump as he crossed the line. At next year’s 100th running of the great race Montoya’s Victory Lane photo will feature on the tickets for the historic event.
After eight of 16 races he’s also leading this year’s championship, chased by Penske team-mates Will Power and Hélio Castroneves in fourth. At this stage Chip Ganassi’s third-placed team leader Scott Dixon looks like Montoya and Penske’s only serious championship opponent.
At 39, 17 years after arriving in America and becoming rookie CART champion, Montoya is at the height of an entirely unique career that’s taken him from Indycars to Formula 1, then to NASCAR and now back to Indycars with Roger Penske’s all-powerful team. And along this meandering path he’s emerged as the sport’s most versatile driver with victories in all of those categories, plus three Daytona 24 Hours wins in 2007, ’08 and ’13. None of today’s other top drivers have achieved anything like it.
That’s because most of the modern era’s stars are firmly rooted commercially and culturally in their own narrow worlds, whether it’s F1, NASCAR, IndyCar or sports car racing. But Montoya is a maverick with an adventurous personality.
During his time in F1 with McLaren – as ill a fit as you can imagine – Juan became disenchanted with both the culture at McLaren and the ever-increasing technical nature of the cars. Montoya talked to his old friend and former Indycar employer Chip Ganassi and decided to make the leap to NASCAR. When he told Ron Dennis about his decision he didn’t mince his words.
“Why do you pay me millions of dollars to drive your car when a monkey could drive it?” Juan said to a startled Dennis. You can only imagine RD’s total shock and disbelief when JPM then told him he was off to NASCAR, of all places.
Many F1 fans have ridiculed Montoya for his largely unsuccessful seven years in NASCAR with Ganassi’s team. In 2007 he won his first Cup race at Sonoma and was rookie of the year, finishing seventh in points. He won again at Watkins Glen in 2010 and came close to winning the Brickyard 400 but for a controversial pitlane speeding violation. But Montoya never won on an oval in NASCAR and two years ago JPM and Ganassi agreed to go their separate ways, opening the door for Montoya’s move back to Indycars with no less a team than Penske.
For his part, Juan says he enjoyed his years in NASCAR where he believes he became a much more complete driver. “I think in NASCAR you learn so many things about the cars that you would never understand or believe or see,” he remarked. “There are a lot of more basic things about the setup in NASCAR that you ignore in open-wheel. You learn to understand more about suspension geometry and how the tyres work.
“Tyre management in NASCAR is so much more noticeable. It’s huge. In open-wheel you do a little bit of that, but the more you understand it I think the more that’s going to pay off. There are a lot of plusses from being in NASCAR for seven years. I don’t think they were wasted years. I think I learned a lot.”
Montoya’s greatest NASCAR race, beating Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen in 2010
Montoya emphasised that NASCAR is the world’s most competitive form of big-time motor racing. “You don’t understand how competitive it is until you get out there,” Juan observed. “You don’t have 20 cars in NASCAR. You have 43 and most of the drivers and teams are bloody good. You have Hendrick and Stewart-Haas with four cars, Gibbs with three cars, Roush with three, Childress with three and Penske with two. By the time you count all the top teams you have 25 cars.
“People don’t appreciate how deep the field is. It’s very close, but a better car is still a better car. Everybody works hard on their cars but the window that you can work on is a lot smaller in NASCAR. In Formula 1, the window you can work on the cars is a lot bigger, so if you find something it can make a difference.”
In NASCAR, without the use of any cockpit controls, the driver must adapt his line and technique to the changing track and tyre conditions that inevitably occur over a 500-mile oval race. “In Formula 1 you can change the front wing and make a lot of changes from the cockpit that the fans don’t see,” Montoya pointed out. “It’s not like when we come into the pits in NASCAR and they move the track bar or change the wedge in the car. In Formula 1 you’ve got a lot of tools to work to help balance the car. You don’t have anything like that in NASCAR. The driver has to adapt to the car and the track and the tyres.”
During his years in NASCAR Montoya earned the unfailing respect of multiple champions Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Now that he’s back in Indycars he’s re-established himself as an Indy 500 winner and championship contender.
The gap between Indy wins in 2000 and 2015 is the longest in history
Montoya is unrivaled as IndyCar’s biggest star, enjoying a global reputation from his years in F1. There’s also added value in his broad smile and good-humoured, joking manner as he matures –somewhat surprisingly – into an elder statesman of the sport.
One day at Indianapolis last month I was in Team Penske’s garage inside Gasoline Alley when the track was down because of one of the many long yellows for track inspection that occur through the week of practice. Simon Pagenaud was a little exasperated by the delay and anxious to get back on the track and I was amused to see Montoya play the role of team elder.
“You’ve got to roll with the punches here,” Juan counseled his younger team-mate. “It’s just the way it is at Indianapolis. You can’t let it get in your way or bother you. You’ve just got to go with the flow and be ready when the time comes.”
Pagenaud is a smart fellow and he immediately agreed and grinned. The three of us chuckled and I couldn’t resist quietly laying a hand on Juan’s shoulder.
“It’s pretty amazing,” I remarked. “Here’s the guy we used to call ‘The Punk’ and now you’ve got grey flecks in your hair and you’re advising Simon about being patient. You’ve come a long way over the past 15 years.”
Juan flashed his famous grin: “Yeah, I guess it is pretty funny isn’t it? But don’t start calling me an old man!”
Indeed, I wouldn’t. The fire in JPM’s belly burns as hot as ever but as he approaches his forties he’s grown into more of a thinker as well as a complete team player and a man who’s shown us he can drive and win in anything.
Montoya’s enthusiasm for racing Indycars is immense and in this environment he’s likely to continue in action for quite a few years to come. More power to him, and to the sport which benefits greatly from his versatility and energy, as well as the unbridled pleasure he takes from his racing.