A text message rattled my phone while I was at work last Monday morning. I was pleasantly surprised to see it was from my close personal friend The Speedgeek. I was shocked to see that it contained the surprise bit of information that Juan Pablo Montoya would be returning to Indycar for Team Penske in 2014. In what may be a first, my Twitter feed was almost exclusively positive comments for the better part of a day. What great news: a great driver gets out of an environment I don't think he ever really fit in and back to where he dazzled us.
Montoya, of course, came to our attention in 1999 when he replaced outgoing double champion Alex Zanardi at Chip Ganassi Racing. I found it odd at the time that the press called him "unknown" when he'd been Formula 3000 champion and a Williams F1 test driver, but ok. Montoya is one of the rare drivers who we knew was one of the Greats from the very beginning. He won in his 3rd CART race (at Long Beach), and would go on to take 7 wins and the championship in his rookie season. Some personal memories of the Montoya Era in open-wheel racing:
The first Indy 500 I attended was in 2000. This also happened to be the year Ganassi became the first CART team to cross over and enter the 500, with Montoya and Jimmy Vasser. Montoya dominated the race, leading the vast majority of the laps. The only time his eventual victory was questioned was late in the race when rain seemed imminent. Ganassi's strategy almost guaranteed that one of his cars would win that day, and when the race hit lap 200, Montoya was leading.
Later that summer, I attended the US500 at Michigan International Speedway (Somebody get this track back on the schedule!!!). Montoya battled with Michael Andretti for the lead in the closing laps of this Handford-era race. At least once, they look to nearly have banged wheels at 230+ mph! Montoya crossed the line ahead of Andretti for what would be his penultimate CART win.
Montoya moved back to Europe in 2001 to race in Formula 1 for Williams, but his recent CART tours made him feel like a hometown hero to us. At one point in the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis late that year, he passed Michael Schumacher for the lead of the race. That would have been reason enough to cheer, but the rows in front of us were full of Colombians supporting their actual hometown hero on. The shouts and the high-fives made that one of my top-5 most joyful moments in race-watching.
I'm really, really looking forward to seeing Montoya race competitive open-wheel cars again. I don't know that he'll win any popularity contests or make many friends on the track, but it will be a lot of fun to watch him!
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