Welcome Back, Juan Montoya

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When it was announced last month that Juan Montoya would not be returning to his NASCAR seat at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, speculation swirled as to where the Columbian driver would end up. The amount of guesses were endless.

Some wondered if the 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion would return to Chip Ganassi’s team in the IndyCar Series, while others speculated that there were some ruffled feathers between the two that would prevent that from happening. Then there were serious discussions between Michael Andretti and Montoya to have the talented driver join his team for next season. But the general consensus was that his goal was to return to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series – the only racing series where he wasn’t considered a star.

Then when Montoya notified Michael Andretti last week that he was no longer interested in pursuing a contract with his team, most people – myself included – assumed that he had found a new home in NASCAR. Nowhere in all the hypothesizing about where Montoya would end up, did anyone guess that his ultimate destination would be Team Penske in the IndyCar Series – yet that is exactly what has happened. I’ll admit that I was stunned when I first found out about it on Monday.

I was under the impression that the third Penske car had been targeted for AJ Allmendinger. When ‘Dinger announced he was returning to a full-time NASCAR ride, I figured that Team Penske was content to remain a two-car operation, as they are this year. After all, that’s where they have been historically. Except for the period between 2010 and 2012, it’s rare that Team Penske runs three full-time cars for consecutive seasons. Prior to 2010, the last time Penske ran a three-car program for the full season was in 1994, when Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Al Unser, Jr. all ran for The Captain.

This is an interesting hire, to say the least. To my knowledge, Montoya hasn’t driven an open-wheel car since he left McLaren in Formula One in the middle of the 2006 season; but his open-wheel credentials are outstanding.

Juan Montoya splashed onto the US open-wheel scene in 1999, as the result of a “driver swap” between the Williams team in Formula One and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Tow-time defending CART champion and Ganassi driver Alex Zanardi returned to Formula One for Williams, while Williams test-driver Juan Montoya was sent to replace Zanardi at Ganassi.

As a twenty-four year old rookie, Montoya won seven races and the CART championship. The championship went down to the season finale, the ill-fated race at Fontana in which popular driver Greg Moore lost his life. By the end of the race, which was won by Adrian Fernandez, Montoya and third-year driver Dario Franchitti were tied in points. However, the championship went to Montoya based on the fact that he had seven wins that season compared to Franchitti’s three.

The following season, Montoya struggled in CART. Target Chip Ganassi had moved from the massively successful Reynard/Honda combination to the unproven Lola/Toyota. Lola was on its way back after bankruptcy and was starting to reassert itself on the track. The Toyota engine was still not quite competitive with the dominant Honda and was very unreliable. Montoya failed to finish in eight of twenty races that season and finished a disappointing ninth in points, despite winning three races.

But there was a bright spot that season. After a four-year boycott, Target Chip Ganassi Racing became the first full-time CART team to bring its drivers to run in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. Montoya and teammate Jimmy Vasser came over to run the 500 in G-Force chassis powered by Oldsmobile engines. Montoya had already made a name for himself as a hard-charger and an aggressive young driver. His reputation caused veteran driver Al Unser, Jr., who had moved over to the fledgling IRL to proclaim that if he drives like that at Indianapolis, someone will be leaving the track in a body bag. Hmmm…

Vasser finished seventh, while Montoya completely had his way with the field on his way to a dominant victory. Montoya became the first rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 since Graham Hill won in 1966. As a side note, the car that was Montoya’s back-up car in that Indianapolis 500 is the car that I drove in the Indy Racing Experience, when I did my three laps in 2008 – as a great birthday surprise from my two brothers; for whatever that’s worth.

Montoya moved on to the Williams F1 team for 2001 as teammate to Ralf Schumacher. It was a tough first year, but Montoya did manage to win one race late in the season. He was barely outperformed by Schumacher for the season – Montoya finished sixth, while Schumacher finished fourth. That first year was the only season where Schumacher placed ahead of Montoya in points, during their stay at Williams. The next two seasons saw Montoya finish third each season. Montoya wrapped up his stay at Williams in 2004 with a fifth place finish before moving on to McLaren for 2005. All in all, Montoya scored four Formula One victories for the Williams team.

Montoya found the McLaren to be an ill-handling car and never felt comfortable in it at the beginning of the season. Still, he managed to squeeze three wins out of the car in the latter stages of 2005. At the start of the 2006 season, Montoya learned that McLaren would not be picking up the option year of Montoya’s contract. His unhappiness with the situation at McLaren led him to unspectacular drives. He unexpectedly announced at mid-season that he had signed with Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team for 2007. McLaren eventually let Montoya out of his contract and he returned stateside in the middle of the 2006 season. Montoya finished his F1 career with seven wins in ninety-four starts.

Montoya never fully adapted to the lumbering stock cars. By the time this season is over, he will have spent seven full seasons in NASCAR’s top division. He has won two races – both on road courses. He has come close to an oval win, but for various reasons has not closed the deal. With nine races remaining in this NASCAR season, Montoya currently has two wins in 244 starts, with a best season points finish of eighth in 2009. Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team is not at the level of his IndyCar team, but still – more was expected from Montoya.

Juan Montoya returns to US open-wheel racing that is way different from what he left. The series that he dominated as a rookie is now unified, but mostly a spec series with two engine manufacturers, Honda and Chevy, providing the only differences. The 1999 CART Series had five chassis manufacturers (Lola, Reynard, Penske, Swift & Eagle); four engine manufacturers (Honda, Toyota, Ford & Mercedes) and two tire manufacturers (Firestone & Goodyear). There were a lot of options and combinations for teams to choose. Hit upon the right combination and you would run up front all season. Make the wrong choice and you were doomed to run at the back of the pack, no matter how good your driver was.

Four teams had the winning combination of Reynard/Honda/Firestone – Target Chip Ganassi Racing (seven wins), Team Kool Green (five wins), Walker Racing (one win) and Tony Kanaan’s remnants of Steve Horne’s team that was morphed into Forsythe Racing (one win). With all the different chassis, tire and engine options available to teams in 1999; the Reynard/Honda/Firestone combination won fourteen of the twenty races. If you had that package, chances were – you were going to be successful.

Now Montoya enters an arena that has a much level playing ground. It is now a series where former backmarker teams in CART like AJ Foyt and Dale Coyne; have already won races this season. The DW12 is the only choice for a chassis and everyone runs on Firestone tires. Juan Montoya will be thirty-eight on Friday, is admittedly out of shape and hasn’t driven any type of open wheel car since July of 2006.

This will be an interesting dynamic to watch. Although he brings impressive credentials to his team, his teammates have impressive credentials as well – and they are much more recent. Helio Castroneves has three Indianapolis 500 wins – all for Roger Penske. In less than a month, he may be able to add “IndyCar Series Champion” to his resume. Although he has faltered somewhat this season, Will Power is still considered the dominant driver on street races in a series that is dominated by street races. The only thing that Montoya can hold over them is Formula One experience. Montoya also holds the distinction of being the only driver to race at Indianapolis in the Indianapolis 500, the Formula One US Grand Prix and the Brickyard 400.

I still refer to him as Juan Montoya, because that was the name he raced under in CART and when he won the Indianapolis 500. Sometime later, he added his middle name of Pablo to what he went by. I’m not sure I can get used to that. I’m also not sure I’ll get used to seeing him in Penske colors.

Some speculate that Roger Penske hired Montoya strictly to spite Chip Ganassi. That may have been a small part of it, but I find it highly unlikely that Roger Penske would risk disrupting his team and possibly tainting his reputation as a car owner – just to spite one of his rivals. I think what is much more likely is that Montoya took the Penske ride to stick it to his former employer – in addition to it being one of the top seats in the series. Obviously, Roger Penske and Tim Cindric seem to think that Juan Montoya still has quite a bit left in the tank and that he can bring a lot to their team. Why else would Penske sign him unsponsored? Those two are rarely wrong when it comes to driver talent.

I have no idea how this will all work out, but this much I do know – this is going to be fun to watch all of next season.

George Phillips

Please Note: If the IndyCar Series can take an extended break in the middle of the season, I should be entitled to a short one. Susan and I are going to our one Titans game of the season on Sunday, to watch them take on the San Diego Chargers. Therefore, I will be taking a short break. There will be no post here this Friday Sep 20 nor Monday Sep 23. I will return here on Wednesday Sep 25. – GP

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9 Responses to “Welcome Back, Juan Montoya”

  1. I’m not, and have never been, a JPM fan. When he first came into American open wheel he had a fire to prove himself that seems to have disappeared. His crisp and daring moves all seemed to pay off and it worked for him when he was younger. Be it aging or poor decision making he now seems to have a lot of crashes happen around him (never his fault of course) no matter what type of car he is driving. Aggressive driving looks brilliant when it works and it looks stupid when it doesn’t. I don’t know, maybe that fire will return just to prove he can still make a difference but I see him running 6-8 in the championship. Will that be enough for Penske? I wish Roger would have used that seat to help a deserving young driver step up instead of recycling a “name” driver on the downside of his career.

  2. I like having former winners in the Indianapolis 500 line up and I expect Montoya to represent himself as good as ever. I don’t know much about his or Chip’s situation was in NASCAR, but I think that with Penske in IndyCar he will get up to speed. Game changer? He is going to have his hands full with a lot of the drivers in the field. RHR, Marco, Dixon, Hinch to name a few, as well as the other two Penske drivers.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    George, funny you should mention that you still refer to him as just Juan Montoya. I do that as well, as he was always referred to without the middle name during his two years in CART.
    I did not even know he had a middle name until he was on David Letterman after winning the CART title and Letterman gleefully used the full name while telling viewers Montoya was really Zorro.

    I do not have great expectations for Montoya’s return, even in a Penske car, but I always find it interesting when drivers switch disciplines. I do expect Montoya’s trademark aggressiveness to show up in the street races, perhaps to his advantage.

    I thought I recalled the Goodyear teams in 1999 being Walker, Penske, and AAR.

    • Ha! I remember that Letterman interview. I enjoyed how they came back from a commercial break and had a “Z” graphic all worked up to overlay on Juan’s face. Meanwhile, Juan just chcukled and didn’t quite seem to know what to make of the whole thing.

      I’ve been a Juan fan since his F3000 days (when he was also going by “Juan Pablo Montoya”), so I couldn’t be more titillated to have him back. It’s something I never thought I’d see happen. Will he contend for the 2014 championship? I doubt it. But he’s bound to put in some spectacular drives in the last half of the year once he gets used to the car, and that natural talent (which his runs in GrandAm suggest is definitely still there) combined with Penske’s development budget and strategic skills will serve to land him on the podium multiple times. The idea of Juan squaring off against an already packed IndyCar field…I love it. Bring on 2014.

  4. I agree with Jim Gray. I am not particularly excited about JPM coming back after all these years, but mostly I am puzzled why Penske would not go with a younger, talented driver with sponsorship like HInchcliffe. At Andretti, RHR, Marco are safe, Viso brings money, and Andretti wants to sign Munoz. Again, where does that leave Hinchcliffe? (and TK?)

    More than anything, I think this shows the value of a team like Penske being able to afford a commercial division so that they can hire a driver who doesn’t bring sponsorship money. It is a shame and a persistant problem that most IndyCar drivers have to have a suitcase full of cash to get a ride.

  5. Having another recognizable name in the series is always better than just another ride buyer. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or feel indifferent but JPM is more likely to catch the interest of a casual racing fan than Serge Baguette.

  6. Jacques Villeneuve also has started all three major races at IMS.

  7. My now wife, who is from Charlotte, got me into NASCAR late 2006. I needed a driver to pull for and Montoya was the only name I knew. Montoya became and still is my guy in NASCAR.

    I grew up an IndyCar fan. The split killed it for me. CART was only on cable which we did not have in the house but I still followed it best I could. I went off to college and it faded from memory. I always refused to watch IRL. Watching Cup got me interested in IndyCar again. The series reunified and I grew a liking for Scott Dixon. Dixon was and still is my driver.

    2014 I apparently will be rooting for both drivers. One Penske and one Ganassi. This is going to be conflicting.

  8. I wish I could say that I am thrilled to have JPM back in the IndyCar fold, but I am really not. I would rather see that money go towards funding a younger driver. What about some of the talented drivers in Indy Lights? I am also concerned about Hinch and want him to secure one of the top slots for next year.

    Montoya is a very talented driver and I do not wish him ill. He did make some fantastic drives while in F1 and CART, but he also crashed into quite a few people. It will be an interesting season next year, won’t it!

    OT: Any news on a drive for TK? I am hoping that he will be able to defend his Indy 500 championship win.

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