CHARLOTTE – Few in the history of driving race cars have stood as successfully at the intersection of the world’s most famous circuits as Juan Pablo Montoya.
The Colombian won his second Indianapolis 500 a record 16 years after his first in his Indianapolis Motor Speedway debut. During the interim, Montoya was a seven-time winner in Formula One and a two-time winner in NASCAR who made the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
During an IndyCar-sponsored media luncheon last week at an upscale restaurant in Uptown Charlotte, Montoya took questions from several reporters about his experiences in all three series, as well as his career rebirth at Team Penske, what didn’t work at Chip Ganassi Racing and his prospects for Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Here’s the transcript of his session:
Q: How did you feel after Monday’s practice session about your race chances?
A: “The problem is speeds in practice are very deceiving because it’s how big of a tow you’ve got. Instead of learning, I did a lot of running by myself because we needed to try some pieces, then we said ‘OK, put it in the back.’ It’s not about, ‘Let’s drop 10 car lengths and time the draft all the way around to post that great lap time.’ Are you going to learn anything by doing that? No, at the end of the day, the race is how close can you run to somebody and how easy can you pass somebody. That’s what we worked on. Did we struggle? Yes. But the last run was really good. I did 15-18 laps in a row, and I didn’t say a word on the radio. For me to do that is pretty good.
“I felt it clicked. I was really happy with the car. The flow was good, and I could pass people. I could follow people. It’s tough because the difference between clean air and dirty air is huge this year. It’s bigger than normal. So when you’re by yourself, you better hang on.”
Q: What was it like hitting the trash bag during your qualifying attempt?
A: “Oooh, that was scary. I didn’t know what it was going to do. You think about it: A trash bag? Really? Is it going to do anything? Yes. It’s crazy because when I left the pits, it was in the grass. I thought, ‘Oh, there’s debris there. Surely they’ve seen it. Maybe a piece of foam laying there. Should be OK.’ Indy normally for anything they throw (a caution for) debris. If it’s that big and they haven’t, they’re pretty comfortable with that there. That was in my mind. So coming to the green, I looked at it, and on the first lap, it was the same, so I just stopped paying attention to it.
“On Lap 3, I turned in, and the bag was in the middle of the groove. It was like, ‘Hit me!’ There’s really one line, especially in qualifying. I hit it flat, honestly thinking it wasn’t going to do anything. (chuckles) I was wrong. I hit it, and it was like somebody picked up the front tires. The steering got light, and it went straight to the wall. Full brakes.
Q: What is it like being the defending winner at Indy?
A: “It hasn’t changed anything. The cool thing is they have one of the coolest tickets in racing, and I’m on it. But apart from that, I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I’m worried more about what we need to do to be good in the race. I felt like at the end of practice, we had a good car. It’s going to be tough, but it’s going to be tough for everybody. Handling is going to be very important. The tires are going to go off, especially if it’s hot, and it’s going to make it hard on everybody. That last run, I was average, just keeping up. After eight laps, it just took off.”
Q: Knowing what you know now about Team Penske, how far off was Chip with NASCAR stuff?
A: “A fair bit. That polite enough?”
Q: Does Kyle Larson seem to have been held back by the Ganassi cars?
A: “Yes and no because Ganassi gave him the opportunity to be in Cup. So it’s all relative. He had a choice, didn’t he? He chose to be there. They have great sponsors. They work hard. My opinion is they keep changing people. Every time they have someone really smart, they get rid of them. You know?”
Q: What does Roger Penske bring that separates his team?
A: “Him. The way he handle business. It’s all about the people. It’s about figuring out what people need to perform at their best. Roger and his team knows how to get the most out of people. It’s outstanding. He gets the most out of us as drivers. He makes us feel comfortable and at home and gives us all the tools to win. Why would you do anything different?”
Q: Have you learned from him?
A: “I wish I could learn everything from him. You look at him at his age (79). He’s got more energy than all of us at this table. It’s unbelievable. He’s so switched on. He knows everybody’s names. He knows what they do, their family, everything. Their background. It’s amazing. It’s fun to be there. You have to perform and do your job, but I’m loving racing right now. Working for him makes it fun and interesting.”
Q: Have you met anyone else like him?
A: “No. I know a lot of people who want to be like him. Anybody close? No.”
Q: What is the different between him and Chip?
A: “Both are very successful. Their approach of how to get the most out of people are completely opposites.”
Q: Has all of the recent success in NASCAR and IndyCar reinvigorated Roger?
A: “His businesses are the same thing. It’s just the way he handles things. Roger is the kind of guy that wakes up Monday morning, gets on a plane and does breakfast in England, lunch in Germany, dinner in Italy and from there goes to the west coast of Australia for a meeting and dinner and then comes back straight to an IndyCar race. That’s him. It’s unbelievable, that guy.”
Q: Could you keep up with him?
A: No. (laughs) He knows what is needed and is really switched on, and it makes it fun. It also makes it really intense. It makes Indy really intense. I spend a lot of time in my bus at Indy because it’s way above me. It really is. I do what I need to do to spend time with engineers and look at the videos. That’s it. Or I spend a lot of time with my guys in the evenings after all is done. They were changing engines Sunday night. I was in the garage talking to them at 9:30 at night just sitting with them while they worked.
“They’re a great group of guys. They’ll go above and beyond for me, and I feel I need to do the same for them. It makes it fun. They know I’ll drive the hell out of the car, and they like that and appreciate that. I try to do the same for them. I see how hard they work on the car, how good they work to make sure we have great pit stops, great strategy, good calls on everything.”
Q: You didn’t feel that at Ganassi?
A: “It’s just different. The Ganassi organization is different. The way they do things is different. It’s just two ways of doing things. I felt when I started at Ganassi in the NASCAR program, I knew they were behind. Chip knew he was behind. We built on it, made the Chase and after we made the Chase, they fired (crew chief) Brian (Pattie). In my opinion, he was the key why we made the Chase. And then they keep firing people and changing people, and it just makes it hard. There’s no continuity.”
Q: Have you thought of running the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 the same day?
A: “Not really. No.”
Q: Would winning Indy this year mean more because of Roger?
A: “You always want to win. It’s not only the 100th, it’s Roger’s 50th. So it’s huge. But you can only do what you can do. I tell people if you’re going to try harder this week, it means you’re not doing your job. If every week, you don’t try this hard, then you shouldn’t be there. I feel I always put everything on the table and give it all. Sometimes I give it all and it’s not good enough, and that’s it.”
Q: Is there more pressure based on what teammate Simon Pagenaud has done this year?
A: “Not really. He’s done a good job, and it’s been great. All the things have gone his way, but it’s OK. It makes us better. It makes us try harder. You have to be happy for him. After last year, he needed something like this.”
Q: Is there a favorite?
A: “I don’t know. Is there?”
Q: Has Honda closed the gap?
A: “Yeah, Honda closed the gap. I’d say in race trim, they looked ahead initially, but we’re right there now. I feel pretty good.”
Q: Will you watch Monaco?
A: “I’ll probably watch a little of it, not all of it, but yeah.”
Q: Will you watch Charlotte?
A: “No. To be honest with you, people don’t realize, NASCAR is a great sport. But you are so many weeks on the road, you don’t realize there is actually a great life outside of racing. And with IndyCar, I have that balance.”
Q: Does the team put forth extra effort at Indy and how do you approach the race on strategy?
A: “If you go out Sunday to try harder, what have you been doing the rest of the year? With a 500-mile race, take your time with the start. Don’t worry about it. See what it brings. It’s a 500-mile race. It’s a long way to go.
“If the opportunity comes, you take it or you don’t. You make a decision in the instant, and sometimes you make the right one, sometimes the wrong one. I think Will waited to the last lap to get really close and didn’t. I felt if he had passed me before, I would have passed him back. This year the draft is bigger when you follow people. It’s going to make it even harder.
“They put the domed skids so the cars are a little higher and have more drag, so they punch a bigger hole. But when you’re leading, you’re not as efficient as last year. To lead is harder. It’s going to be interesting, and having the 100th is going to make it a great 500. Last year was really a Chevy fight. This year it’s whoever has a good car fight.”
Q: Are you impressed by Team Penske’s NASCAR success?
A: No, they like what they do. They love what they do. It’s fun when you have cars that you can go everywhere and win races. If I would have had cars to win every week, I probably would have never made the switch (to IndyCar from NASCAR). I wouldn’t have had a second Indy 500 (win). Everything happens for a reason. There’s always a reason for everything.
Q: Any chances you’ll do another NASCAR race for Penske?
A: “If we do anything with a roof, there’s more challenges going to Australia (with Penske’s V8 Supercars team) than here. Bathurst would be fun to do.
Q: The Sprint All-Star Race was rather confusing, was it for someone who once raced in NASCAR?
A: “NASCAR, they really focus on making sure it’s a good show. They don’t make as (much of) the purity of the racing. For them, it’s making sure it’s a good show that people like what they see. In IndyCar, they try to find that balance as well, but we don’t do it that way. They tried it before with the qualifying races at Iowa. I don’t think people liked it.”
Q: Is there a dichotomy between IndyCar, which seems so worried about the purity of racing, and NASCAR, which seems more inclined to find ways to bunch the field?
A: “Yeah, (IndyCar) feels they don’t want to ruin someone’s race because of a caution. NASCAR, it’s about ruin it to make it interesting. It is. For me it happened a lot of times. A caution for a bottle of water not even in the racetrack. I had that in Indy twice. A bottle of water that was there before the start of the race, they called it with five laps to go or 10 laps to go. It’s like, ‘Really?’ That’s what they look for. They look for excitement. They don’t want someone to dominate and be the guy. I think if you’ve done a good job, and you deserve to win, it should be yours. If you truly get a caution for something.
“I agree with you: IndyCar has gone a little too far this year. There’s been a couple of places they should have thrown cautions for debris, and they haven’t. I agree with you there. But I don’t agree when there’s a debris caution for a water bottle in a parking lot.”
Q: Is there a fine line between entertainment and purity of competition?
A: “Yes, and when you’re in NASCAR, and you’re blowing tires, it’s, ‘Oh, another blown tire,’ and it’s OK to have a blown tire. Where in IndyCar, we had a flat tire with Helio (Castroneves) and myself leading, and it was a big deal. Where (in NASCAR), it’s (in a TV announcer’s voice) ‘Tough luck today! He led 458 laps and only 20 to go, and now he’s three laps down because it’s a 20-second lap and an hour to go down pit road!’ It’s like that. You look at (Matt) Kenseth and how quick he was at Bristol, and ‘Oh, flat tire. It’s OK. All good!’ And the culture is being OK with that.
Q: Were you OK with that while racing NASCAR?
A: “No, but it’s not about whether you’re OK with it or not, it’s what it is.”
Q: How does this year’s Indy 500 compare with other races you’ve done?
A: “It’s probably the biggest event I’ve ever participated. I’ve been lucky enough to be in all the big ones, and Indy, nothing beats it for atmosphere. I’ve been to Monaco and the Daytona 500. Daytona is a great event, but it’s all about the ‘Big One,’ and who can get someone to push you. It’s not about who drives a better car. By yourself, you don’t win. You win with somebody. Here it’s all about you.
“Monaco, driving is cool, but there is nowhere to watch as a spectator unless you’re a sponsor and in a boat. What Monaco had when I was there was the only street course. It was cool because we did one street course a year, and it’s the race. Then they started bringing in more (with) Singapore. It kind of lost what it was.
Q: What’s your take on the shunt in Spain between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg?
A: Hamilton was really optimistic, to be honest. I mean, was he expecting he was going to get some room? After you pull a pass on a start like that, there is no way, even if he was in the wrong position, that Rosberg was going to give him an inch. You have to see it coming. Being a teammate should have been a little more fair, perhaps, but from a pure racing perspective and the way you can race there … really?”
Q: How much longer do you want to do this?
A: “As long as Roger wants me (laughs). I’m in good shape. I’ve been having to push the last couple of races, and I can push all day as hard as I need to; I don’t need to pace myself. I feel in good shape.
“It’s fun to go to the track. You’re not talking about how you’re going to find half a second. That was hard. It beats you down. I knew how well I could drive. I went a year and a half after making the Chase, going to races where you qualify 30th and run 25th all day. It’s not fun, and then they start looking at you like you’re doing something wrong. You’ve got to drive it different. I’m like, ‘Hold on. A year and a half ago, I made the Chase and was driving great and haven’t changed anything. Why now do I need to change?’ This is better.”