The native of Bogota, Colombia, made history in his one and only Indy 500 start, leading 167 of 200 laps in the 2000 race to become only the eighth driver to win the 500 in his first attempt. Montoya was the first Indy rookie since Graham Hill in 1966 to win the Memorial Day classic.
The backdrop to Montoya’s triumph made his achievement even more significant. Target Ganassi Racing was the first full-time entrant from the CART-sanctioned Indy car series to race in the Indianapolis 500 since the event became part of the Indy Racing League championship in 1996. The politics of the conflict between CART and the IRL overshadowed the achievement of Montoya, who was just 24 years old when he won the 500.
Montoya and his teammate Jimmy Vasser had a total of three days of testing in the IRL-spec G-Force/Aurora that their competitors had been using for three years, and Juan had never driven a lap of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until April. They also missed the first two days of Indy practice because they were competing in a CART-sanctioned race in Japan.
Montoya qualified second at Indianapolis, beaten only by defending IRL series champion Greg Ray. Pole man Ray led from the start, but Montoya passed him for the top spot in traffic on the 27th lap and was virtually unbeatable for the rest of the afternoon.
Montoya’s only worry was a strong challenge from eventual runner-up Buddy Lazier after a restart with 40 laps to go. Lazier took a run at Montoya into Turn 1 on lap 162, but the Colombian held him off and proceeded to pull away over the next ten laps.
“When Lazier got close to me, we were OK because we knew we had something in our bag,” Montoya said. “But when we started to push, I said, ‘Uh-oh.’ One time, he had a run on me, so I went really deep into Turn 1. After leading as many laps as we did, I wasn’t going to give in then.”
Running a different fuel strategy, Vasser led laps 175-179. But Montoya executed a clean pass on his teammate to regain the top spot on Lap 180, and he controlled the pace to the finish, crossing the line 7.184 seconds ahead of Lazier.
Montoya’s pit crew consistently got their man in and out of the pits three to five seconds faster than the competition. Juan was also visibly faster than anyone else as he made his approach to the pits and left his braking to the last second before slowing to the 75 mph pit lane speed limit.
“The car was perfect. We didn’t have to risk anything,” said Montoya. “I was happy to cross the finish line. It’s so exciting, I can’t believe it. I think it will take time to realize what I just won.”
Montoya later reflected on his initial experience at IMS.
“I think what makes this place special is the people,” he said. “It’s a fun race track, a huge race track. It’s amazing how big it is. It’s a challenging race track, but what makes it special is not just the race track – it’s the people who come to it and enjoy everything. I think the fans are awesome here.”
Ganassi’s triumph in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 was followed up a year later by the return of Penske Racing. By 2005, almost every CART team again participated in the ‘500.’
Montoya got to experience Hoosier hospitality again a little more than a year after his Indianapolis 500 victory. He returned in September 2001 as a member of the BMW-Williams Formula 1 team to compete in the United States Grand Prix on the IMS road course. Montoya drove in the USGP between 2001 and ’06 with fourth place in 2002 as his best result. In fact, the last F1 start of Montoya’s career occurred at Indianapolis; shortly after the 2006 USGP Montoya fell out with the McLaren F1 team and announced his intention to enter NASCAR competition with Ganassi Racing.
Ironically, Montoya’s first taste of stock car racing came at IMS in 2003 when he and Jeff Gordon performed an informal car swap. Gordon drove Montoya’s Williams-BMW F1 car while Montoya sampled Gordon’s Hendrick Racing Chevrolet, and the experience clearly resonated with the Colombian because he chose to pursue a NASCAR career rather than return to Indy car racing.
Montoya finished second in the 2007 Brickyard 400 at IMS, and two years later, he was leading the Indianapolis NASCAR race in a manner as dominant as he showed during the Indy 500 nine years earlier. However, Montoya was clocked 0.06 mph over the 60-mph pit lane speed limit during his final pit stop and the subsequent drive-through penalty dropped him to 11th place at the checkered flag. Montoya led 86 laps of the 2010 Brickyard but later crashed after a 4-tire pit stop put him back in the pack.
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