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Flat Spot On: A Different Take on the Indy Double

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 28 2014

Kurt Busch did more than just drive in two big races in one short day; he proved his worthiness to expand his resume even further. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

CONCORD, N.C. – When Kurt Busch emerged from his helicopter ride on the front straight of the Charlotte Motor Speedway prior to the start of the Coca-Cola 600, he walked with a heroic yet humble stride reminiscent of Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Having just finished in sixth place in his first Indy 500, Busch was sauntering with casual bravery toward another scheduled 600 miles in Charlotte.

So what is it that makes a race car driver an instant hero if he can succeed in more than one major league discipline? In the case of Busch, there’s the wow factor of racing two of America’s biggest races on the same day. Crucially missing from the formula, of course, is that few if any expected him to win one of the races and nobody expected him to win both.

What intrigues me is the possibility that Busch has more or less nominated himself as a possible driver for team owner Gene Haas’s new Formula One project. If he can adapt to an Indy car so quickly, why not give him a chance, at least as a test driver, in the Formula 1 car?

In my mind, it’s a situation that brings up what many regard as the truest test of racing greatness: the ability to adapt to different types of cars and racing – such as ovals and road racing. If the starting point is the Indy 500 and the end point international success, the legendary names come to mind easily: Andretti, Foyt, Clark, Hill, Fittipaldi and Villeneuve are classic examples of those who won at Indy and big races in other major disciplines, including the ancestral home of road racing in Europe.

Another guy who belongs on that list is Juan Pablo Montoya, a guy who I quite frankly miss in Charlotte now that he’s moved from the Sprint Cup back to Indy cars. By just walking though the garage, the

Juan Pablo Montoya is a little older but still looking fit.

Colombian represented that unique heroic status of a guy who has won the Indy 500, in a Formula 1 car at Monaco – another staple of May greatness – in the Sprint Cup and in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. If Busch is indeed a candidate to drive Haas’s F1 car, that would make him the only driver on the horizon likely to put together something similar to Montoya’s resume any time soon.

On this weekend, Montoya was in Indy and apparently content to be driving for Roger Penske in an open-wheel machine. What happened for Montoya to be dropped by longtime team owner and friend Chip Ganassi is hard to figure – although a lack of victory on ovals certainly was at the core of the problem, plus Kyle Lawson waiting in the wings. It’s a reminder that even great drivers are subject to fate, politics and just plain ol’ errors.

One can’t help but think the unraveling at Ganassi began when Montoya had the Brickyard 400 locked up until he got nailed for speeding entering the pit road for his last stop after leading 116 laps. If that one fell at the feet of the driver, it was hardly JPM’s fault when he crashed into the kerosene tank of the jet dryer at the Daytona 500 in 2012. The Ganassi team had sent the driver back onto the track in a car that was not race worthy – albeit under a yellow flag. The car broke and nearly cost the driver serious injury and subsequently made him the butt of quite a few bonfire jokes.

Somewhere along the line and after five crew chiefs at Ganassi, the belief in one another began to falter, although it must be said in Montoya’s defense that his results were often comparable to those of teammate Jamie McMurray – except that McMurray could close the deal on ovals, including at the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.

For those who might think he’s inconsistent, Montoya’s accomplishments include a CART championship. On the other hand, there are those lapses that make one wonder at times – such as in his first Indy 500 for Penske. The driver took himself out of contention by speeding on the pit road – shades of that infamous Brickyard 400 – and then had to battle back to finish fifth, one position ahead of Indy rookie Busch.

The first time I witnessed Montoya’s incomparable car control was during his rookie season in CART at the Gateway oval across the river from St. Louis. A communication error with the Ganassi team had taken the driver out of the lead. He went one lap too far before pitting and ran out of fuel. After returning, Montoya tried valiantly to pass P.J. Jones in the narrow confines of Turns 1 and 2 on the outside. Predictably, he failed, but then tried the same hair-raising move again on the next lap and made the

Kurt Busch slides into the cockpit of his Indy car. It was a good fit.

outside move stick. That battle was for 12th place and one championship point.

A year later, Montoya won the Indy 500 in 2000 the day after he raced the CART event at Nazareth. Those who think the IRL field was, say, understaffed at the time have a point. But on this day when rules still mired the leader among lapped cars on re-starts, Montoya dashed through traffic with steely verve, holding off a field that included Robby Gordon, Jimmy Vasser, Al Unser Jr. and his principle adversary Buddy Lazier.

In the course of research for a book on the HANS Device, I recently uncovered another interesting commentary on Montoya’s early days in Indy cars. In the effort to get drivers more familiar with the unusual new safety device at a time when CART was about to become the first to mandate its use, Montoya met with HANS inventor Bob Hubbard during pre-season testing at Sebring.

Montoya later told team owner Ganassi that he was concerned that that HANS might enable him to survive an accident but leave him with enough injuries to prevent him from racing again. Ergo, the Columbian would have preferred a fatal accident to having to muddle through a life without competing behind the wheel.

There are times at present when one might wonder if Montoya is more intent on racing and collecting money instead of winning. (His estimated income in NASCAR was $10 million per year, including endorsements.) Certainly the fiery determination he displayed at Gateway didn’t seem to manifest itself nearly as often in stock cars, especially whenever the No. 42 Chevy was mired in traffic.

In a year when he will turn 39, Montoya has lost considerable weight and re-invented himself once again. He has moved to a team well known for its organization and motivation. Perhaps he’ll do better with a shorter schedule.

Montoya is scheduled to drive for Penske in the Sprint Cup events at the Michigan Speedway in June and will then make an encore appearance at the Brickyard 400. Each race is a chance for Montoya to finally add the oval victory in a stock car that never quite arrived in the seven seasons at Ganassi, where his two victories were confined to the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

JPM could be a difficult guy to work with as a journalist, sometimes prickly and aloof. In many respects, that is typical behavior from the open-wheel, open cockpit racers at Indy and, say, Monaco. The type of racing where car-to-car contact can be so hazardous seems to bring out an arrogant, “closed cockpit” macho attitude in drivers. With JPM, there’s just a Latin slant on it.

Despite the lottery aspect to working with Montoya, who can be funny and engaging, I still miss that unusual status he brought to NASCAR and the regular watch to see if he would add an oval victory in a stock car to a resume that’s already extraordinary.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 28 2014
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