One of the things that separate Juan Pablo Montoya from other race drivers is his cocky attitude. The driver from Colombia just doesn’t care what other people think about him; he only cares what his team thinks.
“Tony Stewart is the American version of me,” Montoya admitted. “We don’t take anything off anyone. We have mutual respect.
“I just drive the fricking car.”
And boy, did he ever drive that car in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 when the 1999 CART champion blistered the field of Indy Racing League regulars, leading 167 of 200 laps to become the first rookie winner of the Indy 500 since Graham Hill in 1966.
At the end of that season, Montoya left for Formula 1, where he challenged for World Championships and irritated the F1 establishment because of his supreme confidence and arrogance. By 2006, he had enough of the political backstabbing of F1 and joined team owner Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR Sprint Cup team beginning in 2007.
Midway through last season, Ganassi informed Montoya that he would not be back in 2014. And that created an opportunity for Montoya to return to IndyCar racing, joining the most successful team owner in Indianapolis 500 history in Roger Penske.
Montoya starts Sunday’s 98th Indianapolis 500 on the inside of Row 4 after recording the second-fastest time in last Sunday’s qualifications with a four-lap average of 231.007 miles per hour in a Dallara/Chevrolet. The only reason he did not start in the middle of Row 1 is Montoya did not make the “Fast Nine” group of drivers that battled it out for the top three rows during the first day of qualifications.
So as Montoya prepares for his first Indianapolis 500 in 14 years he’s the same old Montoya – unimpressed with what is going on.
“And you’ve noticed that?” Montoya quipped. “When you do that you are psyching yourself out. You hear everyone talk about qualifying but we went out there and did the best we can and what we have is great. This team has done this long enough. One thing I never had to do before was run an engine out of miles so we could change it so that was pounding around the track in practice. I didn’t mind because I got a ton of extra laps and that is good. It started clicking and getting better.
“I feel normal; it doesn’t feel weird. The biggest thing for me is to come back here and have everything click and everything is right. And it has been. It’s been exciting.
“The only thing that is hard is it’s a 500-mile race but the first oval race is here. Everybody gets all psyched out about it all.”
By Montoya’s standards he has gotten off to a slow start in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season. He was 15th at St. Petersburg, 21st at Barber Motorsports Park and 16th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He did finish fourth in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, however.
Montoya is confident of a breakout performance in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.
“The performance and speed is there,” Montoya said. “If you look at my pace in the race I had the fastest car here for the GP. It’s a shame we didn’t get a better start. My pace was better than Helio’s and Will’s. I had enough in the car and when it was time to go it was time to go.
“I take it day by day. I want to make sure the car works in traffic and by itself. It’s finding a good car in traffic here. It is fun to drive.”
Montoya is currently 15th in Verizon IndyCar Series points, t 79 behind leader and teammate Will Power. The Indianapolis 500 pays double points, though, as well as the two other 500-mile races on the schedule at Pocono International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
A win in the Indy 500 could help Montoya in the standings, but that’s not important to Montoya at the moment.
“I’m not thinking about points right now,” Montoya said. “When things are clicking the points will come. It’s clicking right now and starting to be fun.”
Much has changed over the years since Montoya last competed in the Indianapolis 500. He was the young superstar back then with a bright future ahead of him. And while he has achieved an impressive list of accomplishments, the biggest of all remains his 2000 Indy 500 victory.
“Buddy Lazier came late in that race and he had a really good car at the end but I felt so good in traffic and that is how I made a big difference,” Montoya recalled. “Buddy Lazier is back again this year and it has to be hard for him because he is on a small team. But I’m not a history guy and I don’t even think about it.
“Once I’m done racing I’ll look back at what I did and say, ‘Wow, I won a lot.’ Right now, I want to win a lot.”
And that means another trip to Victory Lane in the Indianapolis 500. It’s the one trophy that gets the most attention of all the hardware the Colombian has collected over the years.
“To tell you the truth I have a Baby Borg and when you look at the way people react to the Baby Borg, they are like ‘Oh, my God,’” Montoya said. “If I had grown up here and looked at it all the time it would be a big deal. But big events don’t faze me. It’s the same thing with the Monaco Grand Prix. That is a hell of a race.”
Montoya may have left the Indy 500 in 2000 but he never left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He competed in the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis from 2001-2006 and the Brickyard 400 from 2007 through last year.
“If you think about it I have driven a Cup car, Formula 1 car, GRAND-AM, a two-seater bike – anything that has run at Indy I’ve been on,” Montoya said.
Montoya will be back in the Brickyard 400 this year driving a third entry for Team Penske. It’s part of a two-race NASCAR deal that also includes the June race at Michigan International Speedway.
“The way that team is running right now is exciting,” Montoya said, referring to NASCAR drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. “I did a test for them and it was really, really good. The car was easy to drive and it was fun and it had the speed so I was happy with that. Michigan is fun because it drives a little bit like an IndyCar. At the Brickyard I’ve always done really well here. If we can click at Michigan I think we can do well here.
“And I could care less about any of the Ganassi cars,” said Montoya, firing a shot at his former team owner.
“To run three big races this year at Indy I’m going to be in, nobody else can say that.
“Even in NASCAR you wake up and watch the Indy 500. You are always looking for what is going to happen here.”
Montoya is hopeful he’ll be one of the drivers his former NASCAR buddies are talking about on Sunday. He has a plan to get to the front and from that point he will attempt to be within striking distance of the leader in the closing stages.
“My confidence is OK,” he said. “We have decent cars. I don’t know what to expect. Things are so close. People are complaining about the same thing. Whoever does the best job on race day will take the trophy home. I’m looking at videos of the race, how people pass, how they got passed, what worked and what didn’t. If I thought I had the best car, I wouldn’t be working on it. And if I don’t have the best car, I’ll work the hell out of it to make sure I do. I want to win it, and to do that I have to give myself the best chance.
“The first half of the race will be to learn a little bit. I’ve tried to put myself in the worst situation possible in practice to get the worst air to see what the car does. That way I have a better understanding of the car in traffic.
“With the ovals you only get one chance at going too far and then you hit the wall. I think we have a good chance. I think my NASCAR experience will help a bit but you have to be yourself in the right situation, when the group starts where you want to be. It’s more people making mistakes than other people passing them. If you get off the gas by the time you recover you will have a freight train go by.
“It’s all about learning how to handle certain situations. If passing is going to be hard then you have to go to a different strategy whether it is fuel or going full rich. There are so many different situations.”
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time. Sunday’s guests include three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and front row starter James Hinchcliffe. Show host Rob D’amico and Martin will preview Sunday’s 98th Indianapolis 500.Indy 500, IndyCar, Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske Racing