Instead of petering out the rest of his career in a mid-pack NASCAR ride Juan Pablo Montoya will return to what made him famous – and the echos of his success that still linger there
After seven, mostly disappointing, years in NASCAR Montoya decided that winning was better than racing and joined Team Penske’s dominate IZOD Indycar operation. It’s a bold decision, and one that’s not without risk.
Montoya was magic in CART at the turn of the century. He won seven races and the championship his rookie year. He won the Indy 500 in his first try. While his Formula One stint was punctured by public spats with his team owners, he continued to win races. He won in NASCAR too, but just not enough.
There aren’t a lot of NASCAR rides open, and the best he was expected to do was replacing Kurt Bush at Furniture Row Racing. Furniture Row isn’t a bad gig, but the best he could expect is to sneak win out on occasion. But it would have been safe, not a lot would be expected, and if he managed to win he’d be lauded for doing something Bush never did.
Any NASCAR ride would been a lot safer expectation-wise than returning to the Indy 500. Montoya’s name is mentioned in same breath with Unser, Andretti and Rahal. He’s on the same level with Danny Sullivan, Alex Zanardi, Jacques Villeneuve. Montoya’s a legend — a yardstick others are measured by in open wheel — and rightly so, and it’s hard for legends to come home.
When you compare him to the other rookie who won the CART Championship in the same era – Formula One legend Nigel Mansell — Montoya out-performed him. Mansell won five races his first year. Montoya won seven races, including three of his first five.
So today we made one of the coolest announcements ever!!! Looking forward to working next year with @penskeracing.
— Juan Pablo Montoya (@jpmontoya) September 16, 2013
For Montoya to go back the expectations and pressure are high. He has 750,000 Twitter followers, if only 10 percent follow him to Indycar, and are new to the sport, he could move the dial on the IZOD Indycar Series’ ratings. Even though Indycar’s ratings are a fraction of what NASCAR’s he was never a headliner, and he’ll be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, story of 2014. Still, a USA Today writer was on the call and called Montoya “giddy.”
“When you dream of any ideal position for a driver, I’d say racing for Penske would be No. 1,” he said, according to USA Today. “My No. 1 choice was to be in a winning car. When this opportunity came around, you didn’t have to think about it. Having Helio (Castroneves) and Will (Power) as teammates, I think they can help me get up to speed. I’ve been out of open wheel a while, but I’m looking forward to challenge.”
It seems like Team Penske made the decision to sign Montoya and worry about sponsorship later. I’ve always been too much a fan of the underdogs to root for Penske, but no one has done more for open wheel racing in this country than him. He’s constantly made news, like when he used NASCAR’s award banquet to tempt Tony Stewart with an Indy 500 win, and gave A.J. Allmendinger a second shot through the series. He invested over $1.5 million into saving the Detroit Grand Prix. He built a competitive ride for Will Power and fielded three cars when he only had funding for two. No one has done more to bring Indycar back from “The Split,” and he continues to make deals happen and generate news for the series.
I don’t know if Montoya is capable of regaining his 1999 form, but he’s only 37, he could have another five to years of racing left in him, or more. I am a huge fan of second acts, but in sports they rarely equal the opening scene. Michael Jordan’s return to basketball never equaled his first stint. Michael Schumacher’s return to F-1 is an unimpressive addendum to the greatest racing career ever. Jerry Rice’s time at the Raiders is a footnote to his time as a 49er. Montoya’s got the skill set, experience and team behind to reach his previous glory, and perhaps beyond, but only time will tell, and it’ll be fun watching.