Look For Montoya To Win Quickly In New Ride

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 19 2014

Juan Pablo Montoya's racing journey has takent him back to open wheel racing. (Photo by LAT/Michael L. Levitt for Chevy Racing)

Unimpressed. That’s a pretty good way to describe Juan Pablo Montoya as he has made his way through the American auto racing scene. Not really aloof or bored, but unimpressed.

He was that way when he got out of a CART car after logging his first test laps at the dangerously tricky oval at Gateway near back St. Louis in 1999 – yes, the year he won the series championship as a rookie.

He was that way in late May of 2000 as he posed with the Borg Warner Trophy in Victory Circle after winning the Indy 500 just days after his first visit to the Speedway.

He was that way as he sat on a dais at Chicagoland Speedway in 2006 and stunned the world by announcing he was leaving almighty Formula One to race in NASCAR.

He’s again sounding unimpressed these days – during interviews about returning to open-wheel cars to drive in the IndyCar Series for Team Penske in 2014. In fact, he sounded that way on Monday.

The IndyCar Series took to the road course at Barber Motorsports Park this week to hold its final big test before begins on March 30 at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and there was Montoya answering questions about a new racing endeavor and about being second fastest on the day.

Montoya’s got some gray hair going now. And, he’s a tad thicker with a fuller face, even though team owner Roger Penske said a couple weeks ago, “Juan has lost about 25 pounds, so he looks like a track star now.”

But the stoicism remains fixed.

Asked Monday how difficult it has been to adapt to a contemporary Indy car, Montoya rolled out the unimpressed thing.

“Adjusting to the cars, no, I got up to speed pretty easy,” he said. “There are a lot of things still to learn. Sebring (for an earlier test) was easy because I have been there before. I was

Juan Pablo Montoya is done with NASCAR. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Erik J. Perel)

there before in the Champ cars so I knew the track really well. Did a lot of laps back in the day. It hasn’t changed, it’s bumpier than hell, but has always been.”

Montoya, a native Colombian who is now 38 years old, was asked about specific new things he is about to encounter in his first full IndyCar season.  Again, there was no sense of concern in his answer as he went right to the subject of using both soft red and hard black tires during races.

“I think the positive is I did a lot of testing in Formula One with a lot of different tires, hard, soft so you learn to drive them all,” Montoya said. “I think that will play into my hands a little bit. Of course I think the guys that do it every week know what the tires doing they are going to be a little bit ahead of me on that, but we will see. It’s a matter of putting a good lap together.”

Montoya even stayed “whatever” about his less-than-outstanding seven-plus-season foray into NASCAR.

“Not really,” he said when asked if he had any regrets about his Sprint Cup career – a career that produced two victories and 24 top-five finishes in 253 starts. “We did what the team could do and what the car could do. When we had a good car we made the Chase we won races and we competed for wins on oval and stuff. But when you don’t have the car to win it makes it impossible. When the car was competitive and it was good we were good when it was bad it was bad. As a driver you can do so much, but at the end of the day if your equipment is not where it needs to be it makes it impossible.”

While Montoya has maintained his emotional flat line in the months leading up to his full-season debut in IndyCar, others have not. Even always-grounded Penske sounded excited about his new driver’s prospects.

“One thing we know about Juan is he tells it like it is, but he’s done a great job,” Penske said during the NASCAR weekend at Las Vegas two weeks ago. “We had a real good test at Sebring, probably his best run here was probably in this past week. To me, he’s made great progress. Obviously, when we all line up we’ll find out, but he’s a racer. We’ve had a lot of interest and the team sponsors have come to us now. I’d say a good move for him and we think it’s gonna be a great opportunity for the sport as we go forward. It’s been an excellent move for us.”

Believe it: That will become obvious over the coming months.

When it comes to Montoya, the thing has alway been about understanding the attitude. Specifically, not mistaking his lack of being overwhelmed by the challenges for being disinterested in those challenges.

Many in the media and the grandstands and even the infields have misdiagnosed his attitude. And Montoya knows it.

In 2008, as he continuously stirred and sipped a big pot of red pasta sauce – which was not as spicy as one would think – in the walled-off calm of his motorhome at Chicagoland Speedway, he was asked about his seemingly low-key attitude toward the biggest challenges in professional sports.

He shrugged and said that of course he was impressed by the size of his challenges; that he knew the task/risk of driving 900-horse power and high ground effects CART cars at Gateway would be big; what the Month of May and the Indy 500 were about; what was ahead of him when he decided to move from high-tech F1 to low-tech NASCAR.

But what should he do? Panic? Change? Or let his talent and confidence do their thing?

Montoya’s talent and confidence are doing their thing at Barber this week. Those around him know what’s buried beneath the disinterested attitude.

“This series,” Power said Monday, “he could win the first race quite easily. I expect him to definitely drive to the front everywhere, so if you’re at the front knocking on the door, eventually you’re going to get a win.”

Or, even, a championship.

Just don’t expect any backflips or reverse victory laps when he does.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 19 2014
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