Montoya Should Be In The Indianapolis 500

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After seeing Juan Montoya racing for Team Penske in last weekend’s Rolex 24, it bothered me that we wouldn’t see him in this year’s Indianapolis 500. Although Montoya has raced at IMS many times at other parts of the year; he has only raced in the Indianapolis 500 five times – and he won two of those times.

Montoya drove in the Brickyard 400 seven times, the Formula One US Grand Prix six times and the Indianapolis 500 five times. He won the “500” as a rookie with Chip Ganassi in 2000; then didn’t return again until 2014 while driving for Roger Penske, when he finished fifth. He won again in 2015, giving him two wins in his first three tries. 2016 was his last year to drive in IndyCar fulltime for Team Penske. He crashed out early that year, giving him a disappointing last-place finish.

Josef Newgarden replaced Montoya for 2017, as Montoya was told he would be headed to Penske’s new sports car team. But he drove both races in the Month of May for Penske, earning him a sixth-place finish in last year’s “500”.

Helio Castroneves was given a similar opportunity in Penske’s sports car program for 2018. Helio went quietly, but reluctantly. He could have left Penske and would probably end up with a third tier ride in IndyCar. But Penske made the same offer for Helio for this year that he made for Montoya last year – both races in May.

The problem is, the offer no longer applies to Montoya.

Roger Penske raised eyebrows last fall when he said that Juan Montoya would be free to pursue another ride in the Indianapolis 500, since he was not in Team Penske’s plans for May. Most people scoffed and said there was no way that that was going to happen. As it turns out, they were right.

In Robin Miller’s mailbag at Racer.com this week, Roger Penske is quoted as saying “He’s under contract to Team Penske and he’s not driving for anyone else”. There are no lines to read between there. That’s about as black & white as it gets. Robin Miller summed up his own comments with “It sucks he’s not going to be running, but Penske isn’t going to compete against one of his own drivers…especially one as formidable as (Montoya)”

I don’t really understand that logic; especially when you consider that Graham Rahal is driving some selected races for Penske’s IMSA program – including last weekend at the Rolex 24. Some will say that I’m comparing apples and oranges, but I don’t think so. Rahal is now being exposed first-hand to the Penske way of doing things. Do you not think he may be picking up a few little nuggets to take back to the Rahal Letterman Lanigan shop?

Perhaps Penske doesn’t consider Rahal to be as formidable a driver as Montoya. Whether or not that’s the case, I’d take it as a slap in the face if I were Graham Rahal. He is in his prime, while Montoya is just a little long in the tooth.

Longtime readers of this site know what a life-long fan I am of Team Penske and how much I have always respected Roger Penske. But on this particular topic I think The Captain is wrong.

I think he should let Juan Montoya race for another team if he can’t supply a car for him. It seems that Roger Penske should have enough faith in his own team to not feel threatened by anyone driving for another team. The legendary Bear Bryant is alleged to have said something along the lines of “I can take my players and beat you, or I can take your players and beat you”. Now, that’s confidence.

Who won the Indianapolis 500 in 2015? Was it Juan Montoya, or was it Team Penske? Well, the answer is they both did. This is a team sport. It takes a very well prepared car, a thought-out game plan heading into the race, pit-stops that are executed flawlessly and a driver that can perform in a clutch-situation. Without even just one of those items in place, winning the Indianapolis 500 becomes a very difficult task.

Is Penske afraid that his team cannot beat Montoya? I doubt it. But if that’s not the case, then I think he should let him run for another team. Perhaps he’s afraid that he’ll run for Chip Ganassi, the team he won with as a rookie in 2000, and beat his established team of full-timers and Helio Castroneves. Now, that would be embarrassing It’s not that to lose to Montoya would be a shocker under normal circumstances – but with Montoya as a one-off for Ganassi (Penske’s arch-nemesis) – his chances would not be that good.

One-offs have a tough time winning at Indianapolis. Sure it’s possible – Dan Wheldon did it in 2011, while driving for Bryan Herta. Can you name the last one prior to Wheldon? That would be Al Unser driving for Roger Penske in 1987 (I don’t count Helio in 2001). The thing about one-offs is that not only is the driver a little on the rusty side – so is the crew. For example; if Ed Carpenter decided to run a third car at Indianapolis this year – it’s not as if he has crew guys hanging around the shop. He would have to go hire them. Some might be quite competent, while the others…well, there might be a reason why they are unemployed headed into May.

Even if they are all quite competent, they more than likely never worked together – with the driver or with each other. Chemistry takes time to build. Some teams never find it though a whole season, much less in four practice days in May. So to think anyone, even of Montoya’s caliber, is going to be successful in a one-off – well, they would have their work cut out for them and Roger Penske knows it.

Now if he wanted to hold Montoya to his contract due to the fact that he might get injured, I would buy that. But I think it rings hollow to fans to not allow Montoya to run just because he’s under contract. I remember during the unification days of 2008, when Gerry Forsythe would not allow Paul Tracy to run in the newly united series simply out of spite. Fans were furious that an owner would enforce a contract, when he never intended to run Tracy. He just didn’t want the IndyCar Series to benefit from his former champion’s presence.

Last year, Spencer Pigot was driving the non-ovals for Ed Carpenter Racing. When May rolled around, ECR had already made the decision to run only two cars in the Indianapolis 500 – one for Carpenter and one for JR Hildebrand. Pigot was relegated to the role of cheerleader. But when an opportunity arose at Juncos Racing for Pigot, Ed Carpenter gave Pigot his blessing to drive for a competitor in the Indianapolis 500 before rejoining the team the following weekend at Belle Isle. As far as I know there were no ill-effects from either side, but it was a very nice gesture on Carpenter’s part to not deny Pigot a chance to drive in the “500”.

Fans want to see a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner get a chance to run, while he still has his skills. Montoya will be only three years removed from his last “500” win. The Indianapolis 500 would benefit from his presence and the talent level of the field would be raised. I personally don’t think he could win a one-off, even in a Ganassi car; but it would be nice to get to see him try. It seems like Roger Penske could extend the same courtesy toward Montoya that Ed Carpenter did for Spencer Pigot.

Unfortunately, it looks as if a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion will be on the sidelines this May. I know he’s happy to have full-time employment driving in Team Penske’s IMSA program, but if Juan Montoya has the desire to drive in this year’s Indianapolis 500; he should be allowed to. He’s earned that right.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Montoya Should Be In The Indianapolis 500”

  1. How much does the Indy 500 mean to Roger Penske in 2018? It’s a fair question. You have a driver of Montoya’s caliber and you don’t use him? A 40% winning percentage in the world’s biggest race and left on the sidelines.

    On the positive side from my point of view, one less chance for a Penske car to win. Thanks Roger!

    Now if only the Eagles can beat the Patriots on Sunday…

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    Armchair racing has its positive and negative aspects…. and oftentimes not necessarily based upon knowledgeable/factual information.

    On this topic, it would be interesting to know the full extent of the actual pros & actual cons before speculating why Roger made his decisions re Montoya & the 2018 INDY 500.

    Roger is known and respected for his successful business decisions as well as his successful racing decisions.

    I would toss into the ring for anyone or all to chew upon and tear apart that the decision re Montoya & the 2018 INDY 500 was based upon factors which will not be publicly released by Team Penske.

    Enjoy bench racing………………… on these wintery days as we count down to opening season.

  3. OK, George, this was the primary point of my Danica rant a few weeks ago. Not only are we seeing this happen to Montoya, but is it too far-fetched to see this happening to three-time champion Helio Castroneves next year?

  4. James T Suel Says:

    I do not understand why Penske does not enter a car for Montoya! HE is more than capable of running another car. I belive he could find funding also.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    What makes this a bit curious to me is that Penske has employed sports car drivers before and not stood in their way when they had opportunities to race in the 500.

    Ryan Briscoe first comes to mind. He was driving for Penske’s Porsche ALMS team in 2007 and was allowed to do a one-off at Indy. Granted, that one-off was for a team part-owned by Roger’s son.

    Peter Revson, too, raced at Indy in 1970 for McLaren while contesting the Trans-Am schedule in Penske’s AMC Javelins. This was before Penske fielded McLarens at Indy.

    On the other hand, George Follmer did not show up at Indy during the years Penske employed him in Trans-Am and Can-Am, so maybe there is some precedent for this. In any event, the 500 is poorer for Montoya’s absence, and I am not a Montoya fan.

  6. While I have never met him, I look upon Mr. Penske as a businessman who does not allow emotion to affect his business decisions.

  7. JP from Colorado Springs Says:

    If Andretti can field six, Penske can field five, including one for Montoya. Owes it to Juan, the fans AND the sport!

  8. A very well laid argument and opinion George. Well done.

  9. I have to side with Mr. Penske on this one. Though I agree a team of Penske’s caliber shouldn’t be intimidated by the thought of someone beating them, JPM isn’t just anyone. Montoya is quite special at the Speedway, and certainly a legit threat to Team Penske if he’s out there running a Ganassi car for example. I understand the argument “Why doesn’t Roger just run a 5th car for Juan,” but I’m sure he has his reasons. These things are generally pretty well-thought out when you’re talking about The Captain.

    Montoya wasn’t forced to remain a part of the Penske family. If running the 500 meant more to him than full-time employment in Sports Cars with Team Penske, JPM could have made different choices. He knew Roger wasn’t letting him drive for another owner this May.

  10. Got to spend the whole day as JPM’s guest last year on a practice day at Indianapolis . Got lucky because Roger did not put JPM’s car on the track that day due to high winds . Still got summoned back to the Penske garage about four times that day for spot team meetings. JPM put a few miles on the golf cart that day driving me around . Nice guy . Around noon local time we where back at the motor coach waiting for the second 1 pm meeting and killed time watching Steve Wilko show and joking the guest with BBQ wings off the Grill . JPM is a smartass that is OK so am I ,

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