The path to his Indy 500 win began on the back course of Sebring in 2013.
It was a chilly, cloudy November afternoon at Sebring International Raceway in 2013, where several Team Penske haulers were sequestered on the back course. Juan Pablo Montoya was getting some laps in Penske teammate Will Power’s number 12 car, a first attempt to knock off the open-wheel rust Montoya may have developed in driving NASCAR stock cars since 2006.
During a break, Montoya was talking about why he left NASCAR to return to IndyCar. What he was saying was not an explanation, nor was it meant to be. It was just part our conversation. But in the end, it was, perhaps, the best explanation of all.
Montoya was recounting a casual talk he had with fellow NASCAR transplant, Marcos Ambrose, who left Australian V8 Supercars, where he consistently dominated, for NASCAR Sprint Cup, where he didn’t.
“We were talking about that day’s race,” Montoya said. They were saying that how, with some luck and maybe strategic pit work, they might be able to crack the top 15, instead of running around back in 20th-something like they usually did.
The irony, Montoya said, was not lost on either of them. They were champions, they were used to driving cars that could win, and now they were relentlessly mid-pack. Yes, the money was good – Montoya won over $38 million, despite just two victories, and Ambrose won over $33 million with his two Sprint Cup wins – but both were factors only on road courses, where talent could partly overcome mediocre equipment.
“I just want to have a car that can win,” Montoya said then. And of all the offers he got, he figured a Penske Chevrolet-powered IndyCar was his best bet. “The rest is up to me. I know that. But I just want a chance.”
Interesting that both Montoya and Ambrose have ended up driving for Roger Penske, with Ambrose back in Australia in V8 Supercars, but that hasn’t worked out like either Ambrose or Penske had hoped.
But Montoya’s story is happier. Even back at that very private little test at Sebring, it was apparent that Montoya was on the right track: Teammate Power was there, team coach Rick Mears was there, Penske team president Tim Cindric was there, and Penske’s third driver, Helio Castroneves, drove up completely unannounced from his home in Miami to support Montoya.
“Why wouldn’t I be here?” Castroneves wondered aloud. “We’re a team.”
Montoya's family was there with him even at that Sebring test. And now he had another family.
His failure to make much of a mark in NASCAR was unfortunate, but not that surprising. Other open-wheel drivers – from Danica Patrick to Sam Hornish to Dario Franchitti to Jacques Villeneuve – have had trouble crossing over.
NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are hard to drive. Formula One cars are hard to drive. IndyCars are hard to drive. Expertise in one does not always translate. I was at Montoya’s first NASCAR race in 2006, the season-ender at Homestead. His presence almost overshadowed the Cup championship. Much of the media there, many of them F1-centric, predicted it was not if he would win races, but how soon, and how many. He finished 34th that day after crashing out.
Montoya never seemed happy in NASCAR. The reports from his handlers were confoundingly conflicting. One said Montoya, no matter how bad the day, made sure he shook hands with every crew member, thanking them for doing their best. Another handler told me about booking expensive TV satellite time for Montoya interviews -- three minutes with this station, three minutes with that station -- and in the middle of it, Montoya got up and walked out, leaving the handlers to explain a difficult situation with the sponsor, the manufacturer, and the stations that were standing by waiting for a live interview.
Of course, in Montoya’s case, the equipment and the team was part of the problem. He was replaced by wunderkind Kyle Larson, regarded as the next NASCAR superstar. In his last full season with Chip Ganassi Racing, 2013, Montoya’s average finish was 19.3.
A third of the way into his second full season, Larson’s average finish is 20.9.
Fast from the start
Montoya was competitive in IndyCar from the season opener in 2014, and has remained so. And his win last Sunday in the Indianapolis 500, a record 15 years after his first win, was inarguably Juan Pablo Montoya’s redeption.
“I had seven years where it was hard because I know I can friggin’ do it,” Montoya said at that Sebring test in 2013. “It got to the point on weekends where we never thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to win this thing,’ apart from two weeks out of the year. Otherwise, if we have a really good day, we might run fifth. Even if you have a car that can win you think, ‘When are we going to screw it up?’ That mentality is tough. And being here changes that.”
And being there, kissing the bricks at the Brickyard, proves it.