INDIANAPOLIS – Nextel Cup practice was rained out Friday, so Juan Pablo Montoya will have to wait at least until Saturday morning to a drive a stock car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Well, technically, that’s not true. At least not entirely. In June 2003, Montoya drove Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet here as part of a “demontstration” in which Gordon also climbed into the Formula One car that Montoya was then driving.
“They actually wanted me to run the oval,” Montoya recalled. “I hadn’t run the oval in three years. I was like, ‘No, this place is fast enough. I would rather do the road course. I know the road course well. ...So they brought the road course car and it was a lot of fun. I was pretty comfortable in the car.”
Montoya said that publicity stunt, aimed at stirring interest in the U.S. Grand Prix at America’s most historic auto racing facility, helped plant a seed that has him in position to make Indy history here this weekend.
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Practice was rescheduled for Saturday and qualifying pushed back. Then, on Sunday, Montoya will drive the No. 42 Dodge owned by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.
When he takes the green flag for the 14th annual running of Nextel Cup’s race on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval, Montoya will become the only driver to have competed in the track’s NASCAR and F1 races as well as its showcase event, the Indianapolis 500.
“I think that is one of the reasons that when we talked to Chip about doing it I thought, ‘You know, I was pretty comfortable in that car there,’ ” Montoya said of the car swap with Gordon. “I need to learn the ovals and learn everything, but it wasn’t like this is out of my league. That was probably a good thing that we did that.”
Ganassi clearly thinks so now, but at first he wasn’t sure. He had a seat coming open for one of his three NASCAR teams in 2007, but when Montoya first expressed interest in leaving F1 to fill it Ganassi thought the native of Colombia was joking. Even after deciding to give it a try, Ganassi wasn’t sure it was going to work out.
“That was a big roll of the dice,” Ganassi said. “I can tell you that I was sweating pretty hard there figuring out when we were going to get him into a car to test and then drive. ...But I knew that he could do it. You don’t just want to have somebody have a bad experience early on. That could change his whole perspective.
“Juan hasn’t been in 50 oval track races yet. Most of these guys have run 50 oval track races before they were 14. We are still coming along and by no means are we there yet. But I couldn’t be happier with where we are.”
Montoya got his first Nextel Cup victory at Infineon Raceway, on a road course, in June, allowing him to join Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney as the only drivers with victories in NASCAR, American open-wheel racing and F1.
“Winning the Indy 500 was a huge deal for me,” Montoya said. “I think until race day I didn’t realize how big it was. You spend about three or four weeks going around with nobody here. Then all of the sudden you come out on race day and it is completely packed and you go, ‘Wow, what happened?’ ...People get a lot of myths in their heads of like, ‘Oh you know a track with all the people narrows down.’ It’s still the same race track when there are people there.”
And, oh by the way, Montoya’s Indianapolis 500 victory came in 2000 when he was a rookie in that race – like he in a stock car this weekend.
“I cannot come into a place thinking we’re going to win this and this is awesome and I’m the only driver to run three races here,” Montoya said.
“I think when I’m 50 that’s going to be a remarkable thing to remember. But today it’s getting the job done.”