September 20, 2017

Interview With Colombian Racing Champion Juan Pablo Montoya

Watkins Glen, NY – Juan Pablo Montoya is one of many South American racing greats who have made their presence known in South America, Europe, Asia and in the USA.  Like many of his peers, including many of his Formula 1 adversaries, JPM, as he is well known, began at a very young age in karting.  Montoya was encouraged to try karting by his Dad and in his native land of Colombia and Montoya demonstrated his skills by winning several championships in karting. Climbing through the ranks of open-wheel racing, Montoya continued to make progress, including success with Formula Renault, Formula 3000 and then was invited to test with the Formula 1 team of Williams in Europe. During his five years with F1, JPM started 94 races, he took 13 pole positions, won seven races with 30 podium finishes and 30 fastest laps.

In recent years, Montoya keeps reminding everyone that he’s a force to be dealt with. In Indy cars as he has had 11 podium finishes, 3 pole positions and 5 wins – including the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt. Montoya currently competes for the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2016.  He is racing the No. 2 Verizon/PPG/Hawk Chevrolet for Team Penske.

Quoting from Team Penske’s website: “Few drivers in motorsports history can match the credentials of Montoya. He is the only driver to win a CART Series title, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona – all in his first attempt. He is also a former winner of one of the most prestigious races in the world – the Monaco Grand Prix. Legendary racers Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney are the only other drivers besides Montoya that can boast wins in Formula 1 (F1), CART/INDYCAR and NASCAR.

From my perspective, the most memorable quote from JPM was when he was asked, on the eve of his first try at the Indianapolis 500, what he thought he would need to do to succeed in that famous race.  He said: “It’s only four corners, and they are exactly alike.”  He then went on to lead for 160 of the 200 laps and won the Indy 500 on his first try.

Juan Pablo Montoya - Verizon IndyCar Series 2016

My phone interview with JPM follows:

LM: When you were growing up, who was your idol?

JPM: “My idol was Ayrton Senna.  I just admired how quick he was, how aggressive.  He was my favorite when I got my start in racing.”

LM: When you were young, had you heard of five-time world champion in Formula 1, Juan Manual Fangio, from Argentina?  Did you ever see him?

JPM: “No, I mean, Fangio was from a different era.  He was more of my father’s time.”

LM: As your early career progressed, when did you realize you had world class potential?  When did you reach that tipping point?

JPM: “For me, racing was always a passion. I worked hard. I won here and there, but I didn’t have any illusions. But when I won the Grand Prix at Long Beach in ‘99 that’s when I realized – ‘Wow, I can make a living racing!’”

[Juan Pablo won that race, 1999 Toyota Grand Prix at Long Beach in the FedEX Championship Series/CART, and was Rookie of the Year for CART, and won the Championship, too.]

LM: You’ve won in so many types of racing cars and venues, it’s like interviewing 6 people at once: you’ve won in Formula 3000, CART Championship, Formula 1, Daytona, Indianapolis and NASCAR.  How do you describe open wheel racing, compared to sports cars and NASCAR?

JPM: “I’ve been lucky! Some of these rides are really good. But Indy cars have great power, awesome power and the downforce is incredible!”

[Indy cars and other open wheel racing vehicles are aerodynamically designed to stay very pressed to the ground at high speeds, so with downforce they can go through turns much faster than conventional vehicles.]

LM: Here at Watkins Glen, you have won driving a NASCAR racing car.  What’s the secret sauce you’re going to use to attack this course in a highly aerodynamic Indy car?

JPM: “Well, with Indy cars, they have massive downforce, so we take advantage of that.  For example, going through the Bus Stop [a chicane at the end of the back straight in Watkins Glen Raceway] in a NASCAR racer, we go through using second gear and bumping around on the curbing.  But with Indy cars, they’re very low, so we don’t hit the curbing. We fly through there in 4th or 5th gear.  And braking for the Bus Stop with NASCAR, we brake at 600 ft. [approaching the Bus Stop], but with Indy cars we come in at 185mph and brake at 150 ft. [before entering the Bus Stop].

LM: At the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in 2007, I was there to watch the race: I chatted with you in Spanish and you signed my hat. Then you and your teammates Scott Pruett and Salvador Duran went on to win overall. Plus you won 2 more times the Rolex 24! How well do you like those types of races, those enduros that last for so many hours?

JPM: “It’s hard, actually, because it’s not only you but your co-drivers involved [the Rolex 24 at Daytona is a continuous 24-hour race that requires at least 3 drivers taking turns]. So if I make a mistake, it impacts the success of my co-drivers, so it’s not about me, it’s also about the others on the team.  So a mistake is very embarrassing in a race like that. It affects the others.”

LM: You’ve driven in so many tracks around the world.  What do you call your ‘home track’?  And what track do you hope you don’t have to drive again?

JPM: “Well, I don’t really have one, a home track.  The closest one to me in Miami is Homestead [Homestead-Miami Speedway].  But I can’t say that’s my home track, so I guess I don’t really have one.  And as far as tracks I don’t like, you’re going to have to stop writing!  Haha!”

LM: Have you heard from or seen your former adversary Michael Schumacher since his skiing accident in 2013?

JPM: “No, actually, I haven’t. I have not been in contact with them.”

LM: Do you have any regrets, professionally, meaning did an opportunity escape you, or should you have signed with a different team, or driven in a different style?

JPM: “Nope, no regrets. As I look back, I can’t say I should have done this or that.  I’ve been happy with my decisions.”

LM: What’s left to do for Juan Pablo?  What do you want to accomplish for the balance of your career as a driver?

JPM: “Win races!  Win championships.  Win at the Indy 500 again! I always try.” [Juan Pablo won the Indianapolis 500 on his first try, in 2000]

LM: For all the aspiring drivers out there (myself included!), what is your number one tip in driving, to finish – and to finish first?

JPM: “Don’t drive over your head!  Don’t drive like crazy, out of control.  People don’t realize how controlled our driving is in our sport.  It’s so mentally programmed, it’s so predictable.”

LM: And what advice do you have for all the young Latino men and women who look up to you, both in the USA and in Latin America and Europe? 

JPM: “You want something for yourself? You work hard at it.  You can do it, but you’ve got to work at it.”

Photos: Kelly T. Mullaney