The evergreen and versatile Juan Pablo Montoya is driven by sheer passion but blends it with experience and wisdom.
The “Whatever,” shrug hasn’t changed. The “Meh…whatever,” utterance is the same as when erstwhile teammate Jimmy Vasser first mimicked him more than a decade and a half ago. But most importantly, the fire within Juan Pablo Montoya is as fierce as it ever was.
And that alone will ensure Montoya remains a front-runner to the end of his racing career. In his return to Indy car racing in 2014, he came on ever stronger through the year and finished fourth in the title race. Then last year, he stepped it up again, heading the points table until the championship was famously snatched from his grasp at the last gasp… and on a tie-break.
Sixteen years earlier, JPM won the CART IndyCar title on a tie-break by edging Dario Franchitti on race victories, 7-3. At that time, it was a case of Mr. Colombombastic defeating the canny Scot.
These days, Montoya v2.0 is a more mellow fellow, and at the age of 40, brings as much ice as fire to his game. Despite the clear frustration he felt in defeat at Sonoma Raceway last August, for example, by evening he was out partying with teammate Will Power.
“It’s the same way I don’t get that excited when I win,” he explains of his rapid recovery that day. “I got frustrated at the moment, and then I moved on. If you always expect greatness, you’re going to get disappointed a lot of times.
“You’ve just got to really focus on your job, do what you’ve gotta do, and hope that is good enough.”
Not chasing milestones
Needless to say, what Montoya does generally is good enough, and for those who watched him with awe in his junior formula days, that is perhaps no surprise, even if his longevity is quite remarkable.
But he insists he’s not even slightly interested in any record book, despite proving one of the most versatile drivers of the past quarter-century, winning races in every single category he’s turned his hand to.
“I’ve never been about statistics,” he says. “You can tell me better than I can tell you how many IndyCar wins I have , how many poles , how many Formula 1 wins  and poles … You know what I mean? I just don’t do it for that…or to say to myself, ‘Oh God, I am The Man!' "
He admits one stat has not passed him by, however.
“Yeah, I know I’ve won Indy 500 twice!” he says with a grin, “and I think it’s cool to have another face on the Borg-Warner Trophy. It’s going to be really cool in May when the kids come to Indy, to be able to show them the face.
“But I don’t do it for that. I do it because I like racing, I have the passion for it, I wanna beat everyone else, do a better job than anybody else, work harder at it than anybody else. And that’s it."
The work side of his job is why Montoya has been so good for so long and will remain so. No racing fan has to think very hard for very long in order to come up with a list of drivers – past and present – whose natural talent far exceed their work ethic.
Those are the drivers who either shine bright for just a season or two before burning out like shooting stars, or ones who look unbeatable every now and again in their career, but can never mount a sustained championship challenge.
Montoya, by contrast, has always sought ways to bend a car’s development in his direction or, should that fail, wring the car dry. He has very set ideas of what he wants from its handling, but he listens to engineers as well as feedback from teammates Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, and uses fully the vast Team Penske resources at his disposal. As a result, the progress he and Penske race engineer Brian Campe have made in the past two seasons is undeniable.
“Adapting back to IndyCar wasn’t too bad on the ovals,” recalls Montoya of his 2014 return after seven years of NASCAR racing. “But road courses were harder because driving NASCARs around a road course in comparison with IndyCar is like driving the Pace Car!
"They accelerate quick but overall lap time is really slow. At Sonoma, NASCAR run the short track compared with IndyCar and the lap time is the same!
“But I felt in 2015 I was adapting to the [soft] red tires better. I’m not there yet; I still feel like I’ve got room for improvement and I need to do a better job in qualifying. But once you’re through to the Fast Six, at that point it doesn’t matter; you know you’re going to have a good starting position.”
That’s certainly a point that carries some validity, as Montoya’s sustained pace on race day has always been one of his highest cards, in any formula and on any type of circuit. That is also what has made him such a devastating endurance racer, a cornerstone to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Rolex 24 at Daytona victories in 2007, ’08 and ’13.
However, what intrigued many of us during the off-season was the prospect of JPM racing a true topline sports prototype – namely, the Porsche 919 Hybrid he tested at Bahrain last November. The idea of Montoya competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year, and potentially joining Graham Hill in the Triple Crown club by adding Le Mans to the Indy 500 and Monaco GP wins, was a mouthwatering prospect.
In the Weissach Wunderwagen, he certainly showed a pace that suggested he wouldn’t need to be ‘carried’ by his co-drivers, Porsche’s full-time racers. Inevitably, he plays this down.
“I knew I could probably do it pretty well,” he shrugs. “You can do it or you can’t. A racecar is a racecar and the Porsche didn’t take long to learn, to be honest.
"[The test] was more for the Europeans to know I could still do it, so if the chance came along… Well, the timing would have to be right, the dates and everything.
“And I would have to ask permission first…”
Ask full-time employer Roger Penske, that is. Yet it’s hard to imagine a diehard racer like The Captain saying no to one of his star drivers moonlighting. And the glint in Montoya’s eye as he talks about the Porsche suggests he would indeed jump at a competitive opportunity at Le Mans.
It’s that enthusiasm, combined with his abundant talent, which guarantees Juan starts the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series as a championship contender. We’ve all seen the cruise-and-collect drivers who do just enough to keep their rides each year, but in a frontline environment such as the one in which he finds himself at Team Penske, it’s simply unthinkable that Montoya would ever become that kind of guy.
Part of his extreme determination evolves from pride, the rest comes from passion, just like he said, and when he knows he’s no longer a contender, he’ll surely quit. Until then, he’ll be a potential winner on every track.
“People keep saying [of a Porsche Le Mans drive], ‘It would be a good opportunity,’” he muses. “But I say to them, ‘I have that already. I run for Roger Penske. I love what I do. Team Penske appreciate what I do. What else do you need?’ ”