The Colombian dominated in 2000, as he led 167 laps and became the first rookie to taste the milk in victory lane since Graham Hill had won 34 years prior.
With a CART Championship and Indianapolis 500 to his name already, Montoya seemed like he would be challenging for wins at Indianapolis for years to come.
Montoya has not made an Indy 500 start since. He spent time in Formula One and NASCAR, accumulating race wins from Monaco to Daytona, Fla., and a number of other places in between.
But now, 14 years after etching his face into Borg-Warner Trophy, Montoya is back in an IndyCar at Indianapolis. He's driving for Team Penske and is ready to defend his perfect record in the Indy 500.
He will begin that quest for a second title in as many tries from 10th position, and, despite being away from IndyCar at Indianapolis for 15 years, Montoya was blunt when describing his displeasure about his qualifying run.
“I think it’s terrible,” Montoya said of his starting spot. “I was too conservative.”
Montoya’s negativity about his place on the grid stems from his self-assurance. Four races into his return to IndyCar, Montoya is already comfortable in his role with Team Penske. His confidence in his team and failure to accept anything short of a win, despite getting reacquainted with open-wheel racing, is what drives him.
He said he hopes it pays dividends in Sunday’s race.
“Coming back to open-wheel is something I already did,” Montoya said. “It was just readjusting to the car, understanding the car and the tools that I had.”
“I’ll tell you the truth, I was really surprised when I came on (the first time back),” he said. “I went out, and I said, ‘I’m going to take my time. Full throttle, lifted on three and four, second lap, third lap, fourth lap. I’m good.’ It was nice.”
But the turnaround for Montoya to transition back into an IndyCar after spending seven years in NASCAR and six years in Formula One before that is not an easy task.
Montoya has struggled at times this season, as he recorded only one top five finish at the Grand Prix of Long Beach and failed to finish in the top 15 the other three races.
The current IndyCar chassis and engine combination is quite different than the one he drove last in 2000. Montoya called it a blend between an IRL and Formula One car when considering the weight to horsepower ratios.
Admittedly, Montoya entered Indianapolis — the first oval of the IndyCar season — slightly defensive. He said he wanted to feel his way into the car before trimming out and running full speed. On his side, however, is the experience he has gained through his time driving cars ranging from NASCAR to Formula One to Grand Am Sports Cars, which he says has helped.
Throughout his time in NASCAR, Montoya was often criticized for his lack of immediate success. The driver used to winning on Formula One’s world stage only had 24 top five finishes in 253 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts.
He said he doesn’t like to talk about the mixed success in NASCAR.
“It is what it is," Montoya says.
But he said his time racing stock cars helped him grow.
“(I have) just a lot more experience,” Montoya said. “Smarter, wiser. But at the same time you’ve got to figure out everything again. I’ve been outside of an open-wheel car for a long time.”
On his pit box is team owner Roger Penske, who considered Montoya a rival throughout his career when Montoya drove for rival Chip Ganassi Racing. But Montoya’s attitude and commitment in competition against Penske in both IndyCar and NASCAR are among the same traits that attracted Penske to hire Montoya when he became a free agent looking for a ride at the end of last year.
“Quite honestly, I’ve known Juan from the very beginning of his career here in the United States,” Penske said. “He’s been a guy that’s fast. Quite honestly, I think (teammates) Will (Power), Helio (Castroneves) and the guys look forward to having him come with us. He’s pushing the guys. That’s just been a great cross-pollination of information getting Juan to where he wants to be.”
Penske added he wasn’t sure he would even field a third car for this season. Former driver AJ Allmendinger left the team to return to NASCAR. When Montoya became available, Penske instantly opened the seat for him.
“When (Montoya) became available, it was a matter of 'Let’s go,'” he said. “We’re very happy to have him on the team.”
Montoya, now 38, returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the length of his remaining career unknown. Three other Colombian drivers—Sebastian Saavedra, Carlos Huertas and Carlos Munoz — are all IndyCar regulars below the age of 23.
“The funny thing is, all these young kids started watching me,” Montoya joked, making fun of his own age. “You know what I mean.”
“Now I just need to win the race.”
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