The driver I’ve always referred to as “the good hands man” is returning to the open wheel arena. Juan Pablo Montoya, the sole racer to win the Indianapolis 500, Rolex 24 at Daytona and Formula 1′s Grand Prix of Monaco is going to drive for The Captain, Roger Penske in 2014, in the No. 2 Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone Indy car.
When JPM was in CART, watching in-car video of his exploits was one of the great treats of sitting in the media centers. His hand movements were so swift, so deliberate and the actions that came from them usually left the watcher with a big “O” for a mouth. He’s that good.
The intervening years Colombian Montoya has spent in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series after his stint in F1 may have dulled some of those innate senses but I’m sure, with the fitness program JPM says he’s on, that will all come back quickly. His upcoming teammates, Helio Castroneves and Will Power ought to watch out – they’re in for an education!
The deal between Team Penske and Juan Pablo Montoya caught many by surprise. It was announced earlier this summer that Montoya would leave Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates’ Cup team and the early bets were on an INDYCAR ride with Andretti Autosport or maybe NASCAR’s Furniture Row Racing, which is losing Kurt Busch at the close of this season.
The genesis of this deal came between Penske Racing president Tim Cindric and Montoya during the second Michigan Cup race. They met on the grid and Cindric asked Montoya what his plans were. The driver said he wasn’t sure and Cindric remarked, “We ought to put you in that Indy car sometime.” The response was, “Let’s talk about it.”
From the start of his availability on the open driver market, Montoya has always stated his intention to be in a winning car. “When this opportunity came around, you now, you didn’t even have to think about it. It was something that is was a great opportunity. Having Helio and Will as teammates, two great guys – one is leading the championship and the other has so much speed and so much potential 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 [arena] for a while, so I’m going to have to get up to speed with everything again,” Montoya said, “but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
At this time there is no full-season sponsor lined up for the No. 2 Team Penske car that Montoya will wheel next year. “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 advised. Penske wanted to “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,” Cindric continued, “is his commitment to winning comes before everything else.”
While Montoya did have offers on the table to remain past his current seven years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. “I had a lot of opportunities, not only in NASCAR but in open-wheel, different things. But when you look at everything, I said from my first media availability when I became a free agent, I said, ‘I want a winning car.’ And they don’t come any better than Penske Racing.”
Although Team Penske would love to have Montoya back on the Auto Club Speedway 2-mile oval next month for the IZOD IndyCar Series finale in Fontana, Calif., Cindric doesn’t think his Cup co-owner Chip Ganassi – whom Montoya considers a good friend – would allow that to happen. “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,” Cindric said.
Montoya realizes the conditioning and training requirements for an Indy car are vastly different from those he uses in the Cup racecar. “Since the moment I became a free agent, I’ve wanted the opportunity in open wheel and I’ve been training really hard. I know I have a long way to go to where I want to be; I know what it takes to be in the shape that you need to be in to win and be a champion.
“So I’m working towards that goal,” Montoya stressed, “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.”
There are no regrets for Juan Pablo Montoya after two victories and seven years racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. “I don’t feel like I wasted seven years in NASCAR. 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,” he said. “You become a lot smarter driver.”
Although he didn’t win the 11 races he did in CART or have the success he had in F1 (seven wins and 30 podiums), “While we didn’t have the success we wanted, we did win races; we did make the Chase (for the Sprint Cup). If you look over the Ganassi history, the only driver that’s ever made the Chase for that team, it’s me.”
Does he 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.”