NASCAR manager knows what makes Gordon, Montoya tick. INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, June 10, 2003 -- Who in the world has lived in three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon's home in the small community of Pittsboro, Ind., and hung out in...
NASCAR manager knows what makes Gordon, Montoya tick.
INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, June 10, 2003 -- Who in the world has lived in three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon's home in the small community of Pittsboro, Ind., and hung out in Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya's ritzy apartment in Monte Carlo?
Well, that unusual and fortunate person is Andy Graves.
Graves, 33, is team manager for Target Chip Ganassi Racing's NASCAR team. He's a native of Syracuse, N.Y., and probably has the best insight about two of the world's greatest race drivers of anyone anywhere. Graves worked with Gordon during Gordon's USAC short-track days in the late 1980s and early 1990s and worked with Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports in the mid- to late 90s. Then he was the team manager for Montoya's victorious assault on the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
On Wednesday, June 11, Gordon and Montoya will be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway each driving the other's car at around the 2.606-mile road course. Montoya, winner of the most recent Monte Carlo Grand Prix, will turn over his Formula One Williams-BMW FW24 machine to Gordon and, in turn, will climb behind the wheel of Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports DuPont Chevrolet NASCAR Winston Cup stock car. Gordon is a four-time Winston Cup champion who finished second on the Monster Mile at Dover, Del., on the same Sunday Montoya won on the seaside streets of Monaco.
Graves hopes to be at Indianapolis for the exhibition event but said NASCAR's hectic schedule may keep him away. But this didn't prevent him from presenting his thoughts about the two drivers with whom he has enjoyed such close relationships.
Montoya, in his mind, is in a class of his own as a driver.
"He's got more natural ability, more natural talent than any person that I've ever seen," Graves said. "He's phenomenal."
Better than Gordon?
"In my opinion, yes," Graves said. "I think Jeff is a very smart race driver. He makes really good, smart decisions on the racetrack, and I think that's his strength. But for just all-out natural abilities, without a question at all, Juan is tops on the list."
Graves said Montoya and Gordon easily could become stars in each other's respective forms of racing.
"Absolutely," he said. "I try to twist (Juan's) arm every chance I get to talk to him to come back here and mess around (in a stock car). He told me to save a seat for him here in about 10 years when he's done with his Formula One career. I'll have one whenever he wants."
About Gordon, Graves said:
"I remember there in 1990 (with USAC) when we had a phenomenal year running the midget, the sprint car and probably won about 75 percent of the races we entered. He had several opportunities to do different things. He had a couple of test drives offered on the open wheel side, and he chose to go stock car racing.
"I think if he had chosen to do the open-wheel side of things, he would have succeeded at that, as well."
Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, won again in 1998 and 2001 and returns to the Speedway for the 10th edition of the race Aug. 3 seeking to become the first four-time champion. Montoya has revisited the Speedway to drive in the United States Grand Prix, finishing 18th after a mechanical failure in 2001 and fourth in 2002. He seeks to become the first driver to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis when the F1 cars and drivers return Sept. 28.
Wednesday's appearance will be more for pleasure than anything else for the two drivers.
"I think it's pretty neat to see them switch like that, and I hope they both have fun," Graves said.
Graves made his first connection with Gordon toward the end of 1988. He worked in his father's speed shop in Syracuse building supermodifieds and had a good working arrangement with Hoosier Tire. At the time, USAC Sprint Cars appeared on the weekly "Thursday Night Thunder" show on ESPN and were due to race for the first time at a track in Sandusky, Ohio. Since the supermods had run there regularly, Hoosier brought along Graves for the race to help with its team and assigned him to Gordon's car.
Gordon set fast time, won the dash and lapped the field in the feature. He and Graves quickly bonded a friendship. After the race, Graves was asked whether he'd be interested in moving to Indianapolis and working with Gordon and his stepfather, John Bickford, for the 1989 USAC season. He mulled it over, and six months later made the move.
"Jeff and myself, we lived together for about seven years," Graves said, "between two years together in Pittsboro and then another five in Charlotte. I had a chance to work and live with him, and I think quite a bit about him.
"Jeff's really laid back. He likes to have fun and hang out with his friends. We used to go to the gym and work out, go miniature golfing or go play video games. It seemed like it was always something. He was always pretty active and enjoyed doing a variety of things."
In December 1999, Graves received a call from Chip Ganassi offering him a job as team manager for the Indy 500 project in 2000. Ganassi didn't want to disrupt his regular CART operation for Montoya and teammate Jimmy Vasser. During the early part of the 2000 season, Graves attended CART races and became acquainted and then close friends with the two drivers.
At Indy, Montoya led 167 laps on the way to victory. Vasser pedaled home seventh, one lap down.
"And that was the highlight of my career, to be team manager for Juan's team that won the Indy 500," Graves said.
Graves still talks to both drivers regularly. He describes Montoya as shy.
"Juan won't give you very much until he gets to know you," Graves said. "He's extremely confident in himself and in his abilities. And that tends to rub off on other people that he's awful cocky. But he's just extremely confident.
"When you get to know Juan and he decides to take up your friendship and let you into his life, he'd do anything in the world for you. He's a great guy."
Last January, Montoya invited Graves to a Williams-BMW test at Valencia, Spain. After three days there, he flew with Montoya to Monte Carlo, where they "hung out together" for two days in his apartment. Then they spent a couple days attending the Monte Carlo Rally, the most prestigious round of the World Rally Championship.
"He hasn't changed much," Graves said. "He still loves to have fun. Like I said, he doesn't let a lot of people into his life, but for those that he does, he's a class act.
"I talked to him (June 3) and congratulated him (on his win at Monaco). He was thrilled. He said to be able to win Indy and win Monte Carlo, it was two of the highlights of his career."