“People get intimidated by me because of what I do on the track, not because of what they say about me.”
Just one year and four days ago, 32 drivers may have gotten intimidated by that one man, Juan Pablo Montoya, as the intensity grew substantially in the final laps of the Indianapolis 500.
In a race dominated by then three-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, along with 2014 champion Will Power, neither would see their faces enshrined on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Instead, when the checkered flag flew, 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion Montoya, who made a return to open-wheel racing in May 2014, was drinking the milk in Victory Lane.
Bringing home another 500 victory for team owner Roger Penske, who took a chance on Montoya after a NASCAR stint that spanned from 2006 until 2013, the win is still an emotional one for a man seldom known for being sentimental. No matter how old or fresh the milk was, nothing could overcome the taste of victory for the Columbia native.
“I think last year was very special,” Montoya said in an exclusive interview with Frontstretch Tuesday. “Being with Penske and the amount of history Roger has at the speedway and being part of that – being part of that Penske history. If you go to Team Penske’s IndyCar shop, they have on the wall all of the winners. On the original wall, there was only one space left. To have that last space filled with my car is pretty cool.”
While Montoya’s actions on the track have earned him a reputation as one of the fiercest competitors in all of auto racing, his attitude off the track has never changed. Refusing to think about how he’ll be remembered, the focus for him remains on the present.
Now is when Montoya wants to win. Now is when he needs to win, the driver says on the eve of the sport’s 100th Indy 500. Most importantly, he is living in the moment, content in a way that successful drivers have often failed to achieve away from the racetrack.
“I don’t really think about my legacy,” Montoya said succinctly. “I just drive the car, do the best that I can and I’ll worry about my legacy when I’m like 80 years old. We’re winning. I want to keep winning more races and more championships. I love racing.
“I love racing for Roger. We have great partners. We have great teammates, and we have great camaraderie. We all help each other head in the same direction and we all make it fun.”
With the same passion Montoya has always had for racing, the last week of May has been one full of adversity for his No. 2 Team Penske operation. Failing to make it to the Fast 9 on Saturday afternoon, Montoya was attempting to put his Chevrolet in the 10th position on the starting grid. However, while he felt like he had the speed to do so, the unexpected happened: a trash bag interrupted his lap.
“Qualifying 17th, we just had the problem with the bag,” Montoya said with a chuckle. “Our front wing was damaged when we went out for that run. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. I’m OK with having all the wrong stuff before the race.”
The bag that Montoya is talking about was indeed one that belongs in a garbage pail. As our Aaron Bearden said, Montoya “gave new meaning to the phrase, ‘this car is garbage.’”
The incident caused the car to slow dramatically during the third and fourth laps of Sunday’s qualifying run. While IndyCar officials opted to give Montoya another shot, angering some folks in the paddock, he clocked in a speed good enough to start 17th. That’s two positions worse than Montoya started last year.
“I saw the bag on the grass, and I wasn’t sure what it was because it was just laying on the grass,” he explained. “In my opinion, I thought ‘oh.’ I went by and saw it and I said ‘oo, there’s something in the grass.’ IndyCar is very conscious about debris because we are going so fast. When I was coming to the green, I went through there and it was in the same place. I thought maybe it was a piece of foam or something, and I was OK with that.
“On the third lap, I turned in [to the corner]. At Indy, there aren’t really two grooves, especially in qualifying trim. I went in, the bag was there and I just hit it right in the middle of the car so I wouldn’t get it in the wings. That didn’t work. We ended up damaging the front wing. IndyCar was nice to give me another run, but we didn’t realize the front wing was damaged. The next time I went out, we had no front end on the car.”
After the chaos settled, Montoya regrouped. He clocked in a time that put him 20th on the speed charts during Monday’s final practice before Friday’s Carb Day. While the single-lap speed didn’t materialize as expected, the two-time Indy 500 champion is confident he will be a factor come Sunday’s race.
It’s clear the team is making gains down the stretch. Improving to 13th come Carb Day, Montoya’s No. 2 car appears geared up for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“Our Verizon Chevy – at the beginning of practice – struggled a little bit,” Montoya said. “We made some really good changes, and at the end of practice, we were really happy with the car. I felt like I had a lot of potential. I was able to pass people and I was pretty competitive. I think we’re in the window where we need to be for the race. It is going to be a tough race, especially if it is hot, it is going to make things really tough. I feel pretty confident that we are going to be up there.”
With conditions expected to be slick on Sunday due to temperatures in the mid-80s, Montoya and his peers believe anything can happen. Weather could be a concern come Sunday, with a 60 percent change of thunderstorms in the afternoon.
As Montoya looks to win his second straight and third overall Indianapolis 500, the pressure is no greater than any other race weekend.
From open-wheel cars to stock cars and back to the IndyCar Series, Montoya has been a winner in every division. His legacy is irrelevant in his mind. The passion and determination are still present, as is the capability to be competitive at age 40.
When the field takes the green flag Sunday afternoon, Montoya will look to charge through the field, just like he did one year ago on a course that ended in Victory Lane.
“To me, it’s like any other race,” he said. “You take it as it comes, and you hope to have very good results. Yes, it’s the Indy 500 and it’s the biggest race of the year, but this one is worth just as much as last year. We’ll do whatever we can to win it.”