Juan Pablo Montoya is unequivocal in his rationale to – after 13 years and at age 38 – return to Indy car racing.
“I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve won in everything I’ve driven. I want to win,” he says. “If you’re not in a winning car, there’s no point. At this point in my career, I cannot waste my time.”
Montoya has something to prove if only to himself and the IndyCar Series’ schedule diversity and depth of competition offers that validation. The 110-lap Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the physically and technically challenging 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit is the first test of man and the Chevrolet-powered No. 2 Team Penske machine.
“For me, it’s a great opportunity,” Montoya says of the agreement forged after a few phone calls with team owner Roger Penske. “When I decided to do something different I always said I need to be in a winning car. They don’t come any better than Team Penske. It’s an easy deal when both parties want the same thing.
“I’m just as driven as Roger Penske, Frank Williams and Chip Ganassi. I’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. I’m excited about the challenge ahead.”
Click it: Get tickets to see Montoya and other stars in Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
One of the most accomplished race car drivers of the past quarter century, Montoya’s career highlights include victories in Formula One, NASCAR, CART, the IndyCar Series and Grand-Am. He is the only driver with wins in the Indianapolis 500, the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Monaco Grand Prix.
Montoya earned 11 wins over two seasons as he captured the CART title in his rookie season of 1999. He followed the next year with a victory as a rookie in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, qualifying second and leading 167 of 200 laps. He was the first rookie to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since Graham Hill in 1966.
Though Montoya has a wealth of Indy car racing experience, he last raced in open-wheel cars in 2006 with McLaren in Formula One. He moved to stock cars for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams from 2007-13. So he’s starting anew, in many ways.
“When I left North America and went to Formula One, I had to really step up my game,” says Montoya, a native of Colombia and Miami resident. “I felt good here and was dominating, but when I went to Formula One it was a different pace. It took me a couple of months to figure everything out, but once I did I won there and ran for championships.
“The NASCAR one was one that it was like, ‘Where the hell am I?’ The cars were very different. There was a lot of movement. You can get to the limit of the car very easy. The big thing is you're driving it too hard. In IndyCar, you can't drive it hard enough, or at least I can't yet.
“The experience I have with everything I’ve driven changes how you look at the corners, changes how you look at the race car. I’ve driven cars for the past seven years that don’t drive that well that you can never get to drive right. When you have that, you’re learning and get a different perspective on how to drive the corners and manage the tires.
“In many ways I do feel like a rookie again, and it’s funny because people don’t realize that. I knew the cars were good and had a ton of power, but the braking and the handling of the car is amazing. I probably had the most fun of any of the series I’ve been in was here and the challenge is exciting. Your mind says this is good but this is a bigger jump. When you get out of the gas in a stock car it doesn’t slow it down much; at half throttle in this car you’re a lot slower.
“Things are still happening too fast, to be honest, and that’s what I got to work on, to get things to slow down a little bit.”
Three-time St. Petersburg race winner Helio Castroneves and Will Power, the pole sitter for the race last March, are Montoya’s teammates and on-track competitors.
“In just looking within the team you have Helio, who nearly won the championship last year, and you have Will, who has a lot of natural speed,” Montoya says. “I feel like I’m a very good component to the team, and I think if we can work together we can bring Team Penske to victory lane quite often.
“Helio is really strong on ovals and Will is good on road and street courses. I think Roger deserves the (series) championship. The last three or four years they were close in the championship but just couldn’t close it, so with the addition of myself we can work together really well. I think we’re going to push each other and raise our levels.
“If the biggest problem we have at the end of the year is who is going to win the championship, it’s a good problem to have.”
For Montoya, this latest iteration of his racing career promises to be one of the most fulfilling.
“I felt comfortable with what I was doing and everything,” he says. “But if I look back at everything I've done, the most fun and best racing I've done in my career it's been in IndyCar. This was the perfect time to do it. I felt like two years from now, wouldn't be able to do it.
“I think it’s great for me and the series. I think the lineup of drivers is good and will bring great racing. I have my hands full, but I believe I can get the job done.”