The Racing Capital
of the World
September 16, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Juan Pablo Montoya is returning to the Indianapolis 500, and he’ll drive for the most successful team owner in Indianapolis 500 history, Roger Penske.
Although the 2014 Indianapolis 500 will be Montoya’s first “500” since 2000, he has competed in a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year since.
Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for team owner Chip Ganassi in his only attempt in 2000 when he dominated that race, leading 167 of the 200 laps and becoming the first rookie to win at Indianapolis since Graham Hill in 1966. Montoya later returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2001 in Formula One with Williams and competed in the United States Grand Prix from 2001-06, after which he left to join Ganassi’s NASCAR Sprint Cup team and raced at the Brickyard 400 from 2007-13. He finished second in the Brickyard 400 his rookie season in NASCAR as he became the first driver ever to compete in all three races at IMS.
At 37, Colombia native Montoya is ready to return to high-speed IndyCar racing as he joins the IZOD IndyCar Series full time for Team Penske in 2014. He will team up with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil and Will Power of Australia.
“If you really dream of any ideal position for a driver, and you could say, you could race for Penske, I think that would be No. 1,” Montoya said Monday. “When I heard and it was announced that I wasn't going to be in the 42 car next year, my No. 1 choice was going to be in a winning car. I really wanted to be in a winning car.
“Having Helio and Will as teammates, two great guys, guys that … one is leading the championship and the other guy has so much speed and so much potential that between them, I think they can help me a lot get up to speed.
“You have to remember, I've been out of the open-wheel for a while, so I'm going to have to get up to speed with everything again, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.”
It’s been a long time since Montoya has been behind the wheel of an open-wheel race car and even longer since he has driven a high-speed Indy car on an oval. He admits that he needs to get back in “race shape” to wrestle an Indy car around the many road and street courses that are on the 2014 schedule but is prepared for the challenge.
And when it comes to oval racing there is one oval that stands above all others. That is the one that Montoya wants to conquer – again.
“To be honest with you, the oval side I'm not too worried about it,” Montoya said. “I think having the seven years of NASCAR and then my open-wheel experience before that, I think I'm pretty excited about going to the ovals. I know we don't go to a lot, but you know, the one you want to win, it's an oval.
“You want to win the Indy 500. I'm excited about that. I have the opportunity to be in the car at Indy, and I think with Penske it is going to be huge.
“And I think the other one is going to be a process. I normally pick up things really quick, all my career I have. As I said before, having Will and Helio as teammates helping me out is going to really help me get up to speed. I'm going to have to learn a lot again, but I'm up to the challenge – that is the No. 1 thing.”
Penske knows what it takes to win the Indianapolis 500. His cars have won that race a record 15 times. The addition of Montoya gives Team Penske three drivers capable of delivering a 16th Indy 500 win in 2014.
“Juan is a proven winner at all levels of motorsport,” team owner Penske said. “He has won a lot of races and championships, and he has an extremely passionate fan base. We look forward to building on his successes together, and we believe he will be a great addition to Team Penske.”
When it was announced earlier this year that Montoya would not be returning to Ganassi’s No. 42 Target Chevrolet in NASCAR, rival IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti explored the possibility of adding Montoya to his impressive team that includes 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, three-time 2013 IndyCar winner James Hinchcliffe, two-time IndyCar race winner Marco Andretti and EJ Viso of Venezuela.
Montoya informed the team last Friday he would not compete for Andretti next season. But few realized the reason why was because a deal with Team Penske was in the works.
It all started with a chance meeting in August at Michigan International Speedway.
“There wasn't a lot of discussion about it because it all came together pretty quick,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said. “I think Juan and I actually ran into each other on the grid in Michigan. It was as simple as, ‘Hey, I heard … obviously you're not with 42 (team), what are you up to?
“He said, ‘Not sure.’
“And I said, ‘We ought to put you in that Indy car sometime.’
“And he said, ‘Let's talk about it.’
“From then on, it was kind of casual conversation. It turned into the real deal. That's really how we started and how we ended up here today.”
Montoya competed in CART from 1999-2000 and joined Nigel Mansell as the only driver to win the CART title in his rookie season. He won 11 races during those two years, including the Indy 500, and set rookie records for wins (seven) and laps led (954) in 1999. He had an incredible 14 poles and 14 podiums in his 41 starts in 1999-2000.
During his time with Williams and McLaren in Formula One, he won seven races, including the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix in 2003. He made the jump to NASCAR in 2007 and scored two Cup wins, at Sonoma in 2007 and Watkins Glen in 2010. He also won the 2007 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Mexico City.
He is also a three-time winner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, including his first attempt in 2007.
Montoya is hoping to recapture the glory with Penske Racing, which has an incredible record of 377 major race wins, 433 pole positions and 24 National Championships.
"Juan has been a winner in everything he's been in,” Cindric said. “We didn't have to drag him along and convince him that Indy was different than NASCAR. This was about him saying: 'I want to drive for you guys, and I want to figure out how to win with you guys.'"
When Andretti was attempting to sign Montoya, his team tried to first build a sponsorship package. As for Penske, they decided to sign the driver then go after the sponsor.
“The approach that we took, because obviously it was a pretty short time frame … once it got to the point where it was something that really looked like we could put it together, it really came down to Roger's commitment to the sport and Roger's commitment to winning,” Cindric said. “The approach that we have taken, really, is let's put the competitive piece in play first, and then hopefully we can sort the rest of it out. And I guess that's one of the advantages we all have working for Roger is his commitment to winning comes before everything else.
“We don't have even one sponsor for one race as we sit here today, but, you know, I'm confident that will change as things go along.”
Both Penske and Ganassi are in Europe. Montoya texted Ganassi to let him know that he will be racing against him in IndyCar next season.
“I feel like he was very excited for me,” Montoya said of Ganassi. “Something that we have with Chip is that we are very good friends. We have a lot of respect for each other.
“As he had to make a decision this year to go a different direction, I had to do the same thing. And I have a great opportunity and a great chance with Team Penske, and you know, we are going to be competitors, and I'm looking forward to the challenge.”
By making yet another career change, Montoya turned down an offer with the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team in NASCAR. While others jumped to the conclusion that is where he would be after turning down Andretti Autosport on Friday, that was far from reality.
“I said from my first media availability when I became a free agent, I said, ‘I want a winning car,’” Montoya said. “And they don't come any better than Penske Racing.
“I feel like in NASCAR, that I'm to the point that if I have the right opportunity … even this year, if the car has the speed, we have shown that we can compete for wins. But it came down to wanting to race for Roger. In a way, it's always been one of my dreams to be able to be part of this organization. And being here, it's unbelievable. I'm just so excited, I can't believe.
“I'm like a 5-year-old kid right now.”
Team Penske would have liked to put Montoya in one of its cars for the final race of the season at Auto Club Speedway next month in Fontana, Calif.
“From my perspective, yeah, I'd love to run him in Fontana, but something tells me Chip's probably not going to let that happen,” Cindric said. “We already talked about the fact that he's got to stay focused and the commitments that he has on the 42 car there. We're certainly not going to get in the way of any of that, and there's a seat for him here as soon as he's able to take it.
“But no, there's no plans for that as we sit here.”
Montoya has been training hard for his return to IndyCar but admits he has a long way to go. He doesn’t plan on returning just to race; he wants to be in the shape it takes to win and be a champion.
“So I'm working toward that goal, and the good thing is that we've got a lot of time until the first race, so I've got a lot of time to prepare myself physically and mentally for it,” he said.
There is no doubt that Montoya, at 37, is still a winning driver, according to Cindric, who compared him to other great driver in the series.
“I look at Helio, I look at Dario (Franchitti); I look at the fact that Juan has been a winner in everything he's been in, and I think that what convinced us was really, you know, his overall dedication to this program,” Cindric said. “We didn't have to drag him along, and we didn't have to beg him. We didn't have to convince him that open-wheel or Indy was anything different than NASCAR or any of those discussions.
“It was for him more about, I want to drive for you guys and I want to try and figure out how to win for you guys, and that's really what we're looking for. The age and all the rest of it, I think you can make arguments both ways. I look and Helio is sitting there leading the points, and he's not a young pup, either. But I think that time will tell for how all that plays out.
“The bottom line for us is that Juan has been a winner.”
And as Montoya prepares to leave NASCAR, he believes it has been a valuable part of his racing career.
“I don't feel like I wasted seven years in NASCAR,” Montoya said. “I think it's been a great experience for me. It made me a lot better driver. I learned things that I think if I would have stayed in open-wheel I would never have learned. You become a lot smarter driver.
“You can’t say that we didn't have the success we wanted, but we did win races; we made the Chase. If you look over the Ganassi history, the only driver that's ever made the Chase for that team, it's me.
“So, do I want more success? Yeah, of course I want it, and the reason we are here today is because I want more success. I want to win races, and I know that it's going to be an uphill battle mentally, physically, and learning everything again.
“But I have no doubt in my mind that I can do it.”