By Gordon Kirby Juan Montoya's superb victory at Long Beach Sunday completed the sea change of generations that has swept across Champ Car racing in recent years. Two years ago Greg Moore established a new historical standard by scoring his...
By Gordon Kirby
Juan Montoya's superb victory at Long Beach Sunday completed the sea change of generations that has swept across Champ Car racing in recent years. Two years ago Greg Moore established a new historical standard by scoring his first win at the age of 22. Since then Dario Franchitti, 25, Bryan Herta, 28, and Montoya, 23, have joined Moore's ranks.
In the past few years the average age of the CART Champ Car driver has plummeted to 28, almost identical to F1 and 10 years younger than NASCAR. As in other athletic endeavors, youth has become an essential factor in Champ Car racing, particularly on street circuits and road courses, where physical exertion is a given and exhaustion a possiblity.
If you needed any more convincing of the youth revolution, consider Tony Kanaan, 24. He was on the pole for the first time at Long Beach and out front for most of the race's first half. The battle was between Montoya and Kanaan with Franchitti and Herta hanging in there -- all twenty somethings. Montoya qualified and took the lead halfway through the race after out-braking Herta and Franchitti, then pressuring pole man Kanaan into a mistake.
Montoya controlled the second half of the race, pulling out more than six seconds over runner-up Franchitti at one point. He finally beat the Scotsman by 2.8 seconds after a late, full-course yellow resulted in a five-lap sprint to the end.
Montoya achieved his first Champ Car win more quickly than any other driver -- save Nigel Mansell, the F1 World Champion who won his debut race at Surfer's Paradise in 1993. The last rookie to win a Champ Car race was Alex Zanardi, the man Montoya replaced on Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Zanardi won three races in 1996 after his seventh start in a Champ Car.
"I think this is the best win for me so far in my career," said Montoya. The cool, confident Montoya was mighty impressive, showing himself to be a master at late braking and able to carry plenty of throttle across the apexes of the corners. "I had a great car," the Colombian said. "It was quite a tough race. We worked really hard with [engineer] Morris [Nunn] and [teammate] Jimmy [Vasser] all weekend. We didn't have the best car for qualifying, but we did today.
The veteran engineer Nunn, who engineered Zanardi's car the last three years, was extremely impressed with his young charge. "He did a great job all the way -- very cool, no problems. He's like Alex in that he doesn't use up the brakes. He brakes hard, but then he gets off them early and drives the car into the apex on the power." This was the fourth straight Long Beach win for the three-time CART champion Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Vasser won in the California streets in 1996, and Zanardi took the race the last two years. Chip Ganassi's team has won 24 of the last 55 CART races since the start of the 1996 season. Montoya made it clear he wants to duplicate Mansell's performance and win the championship in his rookie year. Keep in mind that Montoya truly is a rookie, unlike the 39-year-old Mansell, a veteran F1 driver trying something new. If Montoya pulls off the seemingly impossible task of winning this year's title, it will mark the completion of Champ Car racing's youth revolution.