News & Media

Five years in, Montoya still enjoying NASCAR ride

August 11, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service,

LONG POND, Pa. -- Juan Montoya couldn't watch it.

Near the end of the movie Senna, Montoya switched off the DVD player, preferring not to see the final chapter in the life of his hero, Ayrton Senna.

"If you tell me I've been here for five years, I would say you're crazy -- but it's true. It's incredible. I've really enjoyed myself. "


"I was huge Senna fan, and I've seen a lot of movies about Senna, so a lot of the footage I'd already seen, but when it got to the Williams part, I just shut it off," Montoya said. "You know what's coming."

What was coming was film of the crash that killed Senna during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, three races into his tenure with the Williams Formula One team.

The association with Williams not only ties Montoya to Senna but also to Montoya's life before stock-car racing. After winning the Indianapolis 500 in his first attempt in 2000, Montoya began his Formula One career in a Williams car in '01, with Ralf Schumacher as his teammate.

Nearly six years later, after seven F1 victories, Montoya made his Cup Series debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in the final event of 2006.

Though he has yet to win a race on an oval, Montoya is still enjoying a NASCAR experience that has surprised and occasionally shocked him.

"We haven't won on an oval, which has been a little disappointing, but we've led a lot of races, and we've been competitive in a lot of races," said Montoya, seated comfortably in his motorhome at Pocono, firesuit unzipped to the waistline in typical Cup-driver-relaxing-before-qualifying fashion.

"I think the thing is that the whole NASCAR experience has been so much better than I expected. From the racing side to the family side, it's been really cool. I don't think people know how good it is. People are so nice. Drivers are nice. If you need help, they're there for you, and that's pretty cool."

That wasn't the case in Formula One, where hauteur was a way of life and sharing was unheard of. Montoya and Ralf Schumacher were teammates for four years. According to Montoya, they exchanged greetings exactly three times.

And though Montoya and world champion Michael Schumacher, Ralf's brother, frequently shared the podium in F1, they never spoke.

"I never said, 'Hi,' to Michael -- never," Montoya said. "I never sat down with him and talked -- never. When you beat him, you were smiling at him. When he beat you, he was smiling at you.

"People don't understand how different it is. There's so much technology and so many things the teams evolve, you don't want to tell anybody -- because that's where the pace is."

Imagine Montoya's surprise when, during his first test at Homestead, Kevin Harvick walked over and began to offer advice. At first, Montoya didn't know how to take it.

"When Kevin Harvick came to me and said, 'Dude, I think you need to work a little more on braking a little later,' I was like, 'Really? Are you helping me?' " Montoya said.

"In Formula One, when somebody young tested a car, at the end of the day, you'd be laughing with the engineers about the kid."

The nexus of talent, brainpower and wealth at any Cup race is the driver/owner/crew chief motorhome lot, where rolling palaces that run into seven figures stand side by side like so many zero-lot-line mobile homes. The proximity is both literal and symbolic.

Where F1 racing meant distance from one competitor to another, Montoya has found a closeness and a comfort in NASCAR racing that he's not about to abandon. Close to signing an extension with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Montoya hasn't tired of driving stock cars, as many thought he might.

Perhaps that's because stock-car racing is still a challenge, and despite his consummate car control, Montoya still has much to learn about the balky machines that, for the most part, drive in circles on Sundays.

"Everything is so different," he said. "Everything that I learned in over 20-something years of racing, the only thing that was here for me was the driving skill. But I didn't have the feel. I remember, in the beginning, it was so hard for me to use the whole race track. It was like, 'Ooh, the wall, the wall.' I was so used to sitting in the middle of the race car, and now I'm sitting on the left -- there's just a lot of race car on the right side of you, and in the beginning, that's pretty hard.

"You're so limited on the amount of grip, and if you want the car to behave in a different way, sometimes you've got to give away grip. It's kind of weird. It's not like, 'Oh, in fast corners we need a little more front downforce,' so you just dial in the front wing. We don't have that. Aero-wise, you're really fixed, and in open wheel, aero is a huge element of the car. In open wheel, when you wiggle in a fast corner, before you catch it, you're off the race track. With this, it wiggles, and if it's not wiggling, you're not going fast enough."

Montoya was just getting the hang of the previous generation of Cup car when NASCAR introduced what was then called the Car of Tomorrow full time in 2008. By mid-2009, EGR had achieved peak performance with the new car, and Montoya qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

"By the time the Chase started, we had really good race cars, and we had a chance for the championship," Montoya said. "Until we wrecked with [Carl] Edwards at Texas, I was [fourth in] points out of the championship."

Juan Montoya

Cup Series results
Lead Lap Fin.882810
Laps Led93838899
Avg. Start17.212.816.4
Avg. Finish19.714.218.8

In 2009, Montoya dominated the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis until a pit-road speeding penalty destroyed his winning chances. In the first Chase race at New Hampshire that year, he elected not to move Mark Martin out of the way to win the race. In 2010, Montoya again had the strongest car at Indianapolis but a late four-tire call buried him in traffic behind cars that had opted for two tires.

Montoya, however, isn't one to second-guess himself. By the time he faced the choice of whether to rub Martin out of the way at New Hampshire, Montoya already had learned some valuable lessons in on-track etiquette in NASCAR racing.

"He [Martin] slowed down and closed the door, but I have a lot of respect for him, and I didn't feel like wrecking him was the way to win the race," Montoya said. "You could say I regret that or regret Indy -- t doesn't matter. You don't regret. You just learn."

Frequent changes to the equipment make learning more difficult, and given that Montoya and teammate Jamie McMurray are EGR's only two Cup drivers, the learning process is a little slower than it is at Hendrick Motorsports, which boasts four drivers and several affiliates.

In early 2010, NASCAR scrapped the unpopular rear wing -- an eyesore to most NASCAR fans -- in favor of a return to a blade spoiler. For the 2011 season, the Cup cars had new noses.

"We made the Chase -- and then they put the spoiler in, and that changed the whole playground," Montoya said. "Then they changed the nose. And I think for us, being a smaller team, it's harder to catch up. This year, I think the new nose caught us a little bit off guard, to be honest with you."

EGR is looking for answers right now. Pace and power aren't what they need to be to compete in the upper echelons of Cup racing. Owner Chip Ganassi recently made a crew chief change on Montoya's No. 42, replacing veteran Brian Pattie with untried Jim Pohlman.

"I think, as a team, we understand where we're missing pace," Montoya said. "I think if Chip is willing to step it up -- and I think he is -- I think we can bring the team to a different level."

As that happens. Montoya will continue to enjoy his life in NASCAR racing and try to add to the Cup wins he collected at the Sonoma and Watkins Glen road courses, the former in 2007, the latter last year.

"It's gone by really fast," Montoya said. "If you tell me I've been here for five years, I would say you're crazy -- but it's true. It's incredible. I've really enjoyed myself.

"It's been a hell of an experience."