INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2001 - The last official lap Juan Pablo Montoya took around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was his cool-down circuit before hundreds of thousands of cheering fans after winning the 2000 Indianapolis 500. The...
INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2001 - The last official lap Juan Pablo Montoya took around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was his cool-down circuit before hundreds of thousands of cheering fans after winning the 2000 Indianapolis 500.
The first unofficial lap he took around the Speedway was on a cold February afternoon two years ago as a solitary passenger in a track tour bus driven by Ken Rhea.
On Wednesday, the race driver and bus driver were reunited in front of the Hall of Fame Museum as Montoya posed for pictures in front of the famed Borg-Warner Trophy. Montoya has returned to race at the Speedway, but this time he will try to take the checkered flag in the second Formula One SAP United States Grand Prix on Sunday.
A victory would make him the first driver in the 92-year-history of the Speedway to win races on both the oval and road circuit. Rhea has become Montoya's unofficial cheerleader and said Montoya will pull off the feat.
"I predict he will win the race here and the (F1 championship) next year," Rhea said.
Montoya comes to the Speedway this time as a world-renowned driver, earning his first F1 victory in the Italian Grand Prix in Monza two weeks ago, as a follow-up to capturing the 1999 CART championship and the 2000 Indianapolis 500. He knows the aura of the facility well. It was quite a contrast from his first visit on a cold, wet February day. He was in total awe.
"I was here in Indy (at car owner Chip Ganassi's nearby shop), and I didn't have anything to do," he said. "I was told (by the crew) I should go and see the Speedway. They told me it was amazing.
"So I came out and looked around the museum and then went around in a little bus.
"This is a holy place for motor racing, basically, and people admire it that way. And that's why I think Formula One is going to be successful in America, because it's at the Speedway."
Rhea remembers it was about closing time when he asked Montoya, whom he didn't know, if he wanted a ride. Montoya climbed into the bus and sat down on the housing for the bus' diesel engine and chatted with Rhea.
"I asked him where he was from and he said Colombia, South America," Rhea said. "I told him I knew Roberto Guerrero (two-time Indianapolis 500 runner-up from the same country) and he said, 'He's a friend of mine.'
"I showed him the Formula One track and asked him if he would be there. He said in a couple of years."
Montoya was impressed by his brief tour at 35 mph.
"You come out of (turn) No. 2 and then look down at the end of the straightaway, and you don't even see the other end," he said. "You go, 'Gee whiz. Suddenly you realize what it (appeal) is."
At the end of that first ride, Montoya autographed a tour card for Rhea, and the bus driver told him, "I'll watch for you in the paper. If you are a friend of Roberto, you're a friend of mine."
On Wednesday, Rhea had Montoya autograph a picture of the tour bus he rode in.
"When he won the 500, I said it was because I showed him around," Rhea said. "That's a joke."
Rhea, 78, grew up on a farm near Amo, Ind., west of Indianapolis. During World War II, he served in the Army loading munitions in Guadacanal and the Philippines and was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the war ended.
He worked for True Value Hardware for many years. When he retired, True Value executive Dan Cotter, sponsor of Tom Sneva's 1983 Indy-winning car, helped Rhea get a job on the Speedway Safety Patrol. Rhea worked four years in the pits and then took on the less demanding job of driving a tour bus.
"When I turned 75, I thought it was better to get out of (the pits)," he said. "I tell people I've got more laps around the Speedway than any 500 driver ... but not at their speed."
Did he ever drive a race car?
"No, sir!" he said. "I don't have ice water in my veins."