Montoya At Indianapolis For The First Time – Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 23 2014

Juan Pablo Montoya is back at Indy, driving a car for Roger Penske. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – In Juan Pablo Montoya’s universe, Indianapolis 500 history dates all the way back to Monday.

The Indy 500 JPM won as a brash rookie in 2000? Might as well have been run on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s original 2.5-mile brick surface with a riding mechanic aboard. As in, ancient history.

“I don’t even think about it that I won it,” an animated Montoya said during Thursday’s Media Day, as the countdown to the 98th Indy 500 on Sunday continued. “I don’t look at it like that. Why? You’ve got to focus on what you got to do today. I’m thinking about what happened Monday (during practice) and I’m thinking about what we’re going to do Friday (Carburetion Day). That’s all what I’m thinking about right now. I’m looking at videos of the race, of how people pass, what worked, what didn’t – and that’s it.”

Pragmatic to the max, Montoya is four races into his return to open-wheel racing with team-owner Roger Penske following an underwhelming seven-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tenure with team-owner Chip Ganassi.

And while his NASCAR tour included annual summertime visits to IMS for the Brickyard 400, it’s the 2000 Indy 500 that in most eyes accelerated The Legend of Juan Pablo. After qualifying second to Texas lead-foot Greg Ray, Montoya paced “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” three times for 167 of 200 laps _ including the final 21. His margin of victory over 1996 Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier, an early Poster Boy for Tony George’s fledgling Indy Racing League, was a massive 7.184-seconds. In doing so, Juan Pablo became the first driver since Englishman Graham Hill (1966) to win the Indy 500 in his first start.

And so it was with great emotion that Montoya strolled through Gasoline Alley at the beginning of the Month of May to compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis road-race,

Juan Pablo Montoya made it look easy as a rookie in the 2000 Indy 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

followed on May 11 by the opening of practice for the Indy 500. Isn’t that right?

“I never get emotional, I really don’t,” said Montoya, a native of Bogota, Colombia, now living quite nicely in Miami. “To tell you the truth, the other day I saw my face on the (Borg-Warner) Trophy and saw my name and started giggling. Like, ‘Oh, it’s me.’ I’ve seen it before but I hadn’t really paid too much attention.”

Tony Kanaan, whose prominent probiscus was added to the Borg-Warner after his first Indy 500 victory last May, said this is “Pablito” as he always has known him.

“Pablito is back. Man, he’s fun,” said Kanaan, who won the Indy 500 in his 12th start. “It’s typical Juan. I mean, the guy just wants to go fast. He doesn’t care about anybody else, he doesn’t care about anything. Whatever you say, he just has his own agenda. I think it’s a plus for us (as a series). We need some different personalities in INDYCAR and he’s definitely one of them.

“And I don’t want to take away any victory from anybody, but the guy was on top of his game (at IMS in 2000). Since he came here in open-wheel, he dominated. He made it look easy every race he raced with us (in CART) when he won with Chip.”

That was the immediate and lasting impression Montoya created post-race in 2000, celebrating with Ganassi and his crew from the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams series in a what’s-the-big-deal-mode that left some guardians of the Speedway’s myriad traditions bent out of shape.

“I never heard that. Do you think somebody thinks that?” JPM asked, rhetorically. “I won Monaco (in Formula One with Williams in 2003) and I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Won the (CART) championship (as a 24-year-old rookie in 1999) and I won the 24 Hours of Daytona (in 2007, 2008 and 2013) and I’ve won a lot of races (10 in CART, seven in F1). Do I need to climb the fence to get people happy? Some people like doing that. I don’t. And I don’t feel that I disrespect anybody, it’s just the way I am. I think I was really happy when I won the race (Indy 500). You look at the pictures, I was smiling as much as you could freaking smile. No?

“I mean, is it a really special race? Yes. Think about this _ the most gorgeous girl you can date and you’ve got to go and talk to her. And if you talk to her like she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world, she ain’t going to talk to you. No? You can’t go and (be shy and stutter). You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.

Juan Pablo Montoya, a past Indy 500 winner, is teamed with Helio Castroneves, a three-time winner of the race. (File photo courtesy of Team Penske)

And that’s always been my approach. You know what you’ve got to do, get it done. We’ve been doing it for two weeks here. We know what the car is like. We know what to expect. We’ve run with a little bit of traffic so we’ve got an idea of what the car is like. And that’s all you can do.

“It’s not that I don’t care, it’s not that I’m not trying hard. It’s just that, in my opinion, the more you simplify things the better they are.”

Montoya qualified 10th, just outside the Fast Nine eligible to run for pole, last weekend at 231.007 mph. Further up the 33-car grid sit teammates Will Power (third) and three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves (fourth), but Montoya declared his confidence level is right there. “Yeah. I think it’s OK,” said Montoya, driver of the No. 2 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet. “I feel that we got decent cars, but I have no idea of what to expect. I mean, it’s so close that everybody complains about the same thing.

“The car’s changed. For me, I have no idea because I didn’t drive the old car. My win, it was even worse. You didn’t have so much traction, you could drive away from people if you had a really good car. Now you can’t. They’re physical. Hell, they’re hard to drive. Power steering would be nice.

“You know, if I right now was thinking I had the best car, I wouldn’t be working on it. If I don’t think I have the best car I’ll work the hell out of it to make sure I do. I want to win it. So to win it, I want to make sure I give myself the best chance. And realizing how close it is, probably that guy who works harder is probably the guy who is going to have one of the best shots at winning it.”

Now 38 and looking thinner than during a NASCAR career that produced just two road-course wins with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, JPM admittedly has found the Dallara chassis powered by Chevrolet’s twin-turbocharged V6 a handful. That especially has been so on Firestone’s soft-compound alternate tires.

“I worked a lot physically, and learning to push the car,” said Montoya, who stunned the motorsports world when he announced he was leaving F1 and McLaren/Mercedes to go NASCAR racing with Ganassi in July 2006. “Getting to the limit of a NASCAR is a lot easier and then it becomes how well the car drives. Here, the limit is a lot further and knowing where the limit is is a lot harder. Because you can push and you can push and you can push and then you put (new) tires on and you’ve got to push again and you’ve got to find more and you’ve got to find more and you’ve got to find more…and that’s where experience pays off.”

Montoya calmly insisted he does not regret making the move to NASCAR after six F1 seasons, trading the glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix for a weekend in the motorcoach lot at, for instance, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Or Bristol Motor Speedway.

“Oh no. I thought it was great,” Montoya said. “I mean I made the Chase, I won some races. When the car was competitive we were really good. But the inconsistency on the team really hurt us. There were a lot of changes and I think they realized they had to be more consistent. This year they’re running better (with rookie Kyle Larson), so it’s good for them.

“But you forget. You kind of get used to…your mind says ‘This is good.’ And then you drive an Indy car and you go, ‘Oh, yeah!’ It’s like, if you have a little car and you put better tires on it and you think it’s great. And then all of a sudden you drive a Ferrari, you go, ‘Oh, OK. I get it. Mine still sucks.’ ”

Teammate Power, INDYCAR’s acknowledged road-race ace, said Penske’s decision to add free-agent Montoya to an already potent lineup made all kinds of sense. “I thought it was pretty cool,” said Power, winner of the season-opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. “He’s a guy I looked up to in Formula One. I’d say he’s an animal behind the wheel, definitely. His days aren’t over. He definitely gets after it.”

And as Kanaan noted, JPM never heard an opinion he couldn’t flat-out diss-and-dismiss. “I tell you, I don’t worry about the garage and people,” said Juan Pablo, whose best finish in 2014 has been fourth on the Streets of Long Beach. “Roger is happy and Roger is committed and I’m committed. And we want to make this work. And as long Roger and Verizon and all the sponsors are happy, I’m happy.

“I know the better results we get the better it’s just going to be. I know there’s going to be weekends where I’m going to show up and I’m going to be better and weekends when I show up and I’m going to suck. I’m OK with that, know what I mean? Just got to understand how to make things better. I’m getting a lot more comfortable, passing people, holding position.

“I’ve still got to get more comfortable running these cars on an oval. In traffic, I’m still going, ‘OK…how close can I get to somebody before this thing gets out of shape?’ The problem with an Indy car when it gets out of shape, you know you’re going to hit something. You don’t want to push that boundary too much.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 23 2014
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