As hard as it may seem to believe, Juan Pablo Montoya’s last start in an Indy car was in 2017 —63 races ago to be precise—not coincidentally also being his last start in the Indianapolis 500 as well (finished sixth).
While many may have thought they’d never see the now 46-year-old man nicknamed “JPM” in another IndyCar race again, well, guess what: he’s baaaaaack.
Montoya returns to the open-wheel world this weekend in the GMR Grand Prix, a prelude to competing in the 105th Indy 500 two weeks later on May 30.
Yes, the two-time winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing (2000 as a rookie for Chip Ganassi Racing and 2015 for Team Penske) is back this month for a reprise and re-try to become only the 11th driver in history to win the 500 at least three times.
He faces some stiff competition, not only among IndyCar regulars such as defending series champion Scott Dixon, two-time and defending 500 winner Takuma Sato and others, but he also has something to live up to.
Namely, he’s this year’s Fernando Alonso, kind of.
Both Montoya and Alonso have roots in their respective careers with McLaren, most notably Formula One and to a lesser extent, IndyCar. And with Alonso—who finished 21st in last year’s 500 and 24th in the 2017 edition (and failed to qualify for the 2019 race)—unable to compete in this year’s 500 because he’s back racing in F1, all attention goes to Montoya as THE big international name in the May 30 classic.
But there’s one big difference: Montoya has already won the 500 twice, and being part of a very strong Arrow McLaren SP contingent in this year’s race. The fact of the matter is he really does have a good chance at winning Indy once again.
Montoya will pilot the No. 86 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren SP. While some observers may undersell the team’s capability, let’s not forget that Montoya’s 22-year-old teammate, Patricio O’Ward, won the most recent IndyCar race nearly two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway.
O’Ward also has a third-place finish (in the first of the two-race doubleheader at Texas) and a fourth-place showing in the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama in the first four races of the 2021 campaign.
Montoya’s other teammate at Arrow McLaren SP is Felix Rosenqvist. While he’s struggled this season, with a best showing of 12th at St. Petersburg, Rosenqvist has three podium finishes in his three-season IndyCar career, including a win last summer at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Rosenqvist could be a potential sleeper in this Sunday’s race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, as all three of his podium finishes to date have been on road courses (second place in the 2019 races at Mid-Ohio and Portland).
But while Arrow McLaren SP is strong overall, Rosenqvist’s chances at Indy seem a toss-up at best: in 13 oval-track races of his overall 35-race IndyCar career, Rosenqvist has finishes of 28th (2019) and 12th (2020) in the Indy 500, with career-best oval track finishes of seventh and eighth in back-to-back races at Gateway last season. He has no other top-10 finishes on an oval.
Getting back to Montoya, he has started the 500 five times. His afore-mentioned wins in 2000 (he also was Rookie of the Year) and 2015 gives him a unique distinction: he holds the 500 record for longest stretch between wins in the biggest race in motorsports history: 15 years. He also has two other top-10 finishes (fifth in 2014 and sixth in 2017).
Montoya, who turns 47 on September 20th, has a combined 93 starts between CART (40) and the Indy Racing League/IndyCar (53). He has a total of 15 wins, 26 podiums and 15 poles between the two series, as well. Needless to say, it should be VERY interesting to see how Montoya fares in Sunday’s road course race at IMS, as well as next weekend’s qualifying effort for the 500.
While the next two races are slated to be the only IndyCar events for Montoya this season— unless additional opportunities arise—he’s far from idle.
“I’m still racing full time,” Montoya told me. “The main job is WEC (World Endurance Championship) with DragonSpeed (he finished 10th in the season opener in Spain on May 1). I’m running the full WEC championship. I’m also running the third guy on the Acura team with Meyer Shank Racing in IMSA. I’m doing Daytona, Sebring, Petite LeMans at the end of the year and I’m running the Indy 500 with Arrow McLaren SP.
“I’m still busy, but as far as NASCAR busy, no. I mean, NASCAR busy is stupid. Not to disrespect anybody, and I did it for seven years. I loved it. But when you run 30-something weeks a year, you really don’t have a life. I mean, you really miss a lot of things in life that when you’re doing it, you think it’s fine. And then when you stop, you realize, Oh, my God. Why?”
There’s that noted Montoya wit and sarcasm, something that many fans and reporters have come to expect and like, for the most part. Another example is when I asked him about the grey that is creeping into the hair on his head.
“I don’t plan to cover it,” he said when asked if he’d dye his locks. “For that department, you need to call Helio (Castroneves, who reportedly regularly dyes his hair black, much like the late Elvis Presley did).”
Montoya is not only legging out the final years of his own career, he’s also shepherding the budding racing career of his 16-year-old son, Sebastien. So much so that Montoya recently moved his entire family from their home base in Miami for the last 15 years to Monaco to be closer to watch his son’s racing in Formula 4 competition throughout Europe—on weekends when Juan is not racing himself, obviously.
“I think he’s very, very quick, he’s crazy fast,” the elder Montoya said of his son. “I think he is a lot smarter than me in a lot of ways. And I think he can race just as good as me, I think, or even better sometimes. You know, looking from the outside. I think it just needs a little bit of luck for things to go his way a little bit. And once things start clicking, it’ll be like a non-stop thing. But I’m pretty excited. I think this year, he’s got an opportunity to make that happen. And if he takes advantage of this situation, it could be an amazing year for him.”
Montoya’s son has his eyes set on following in his father’s footsteps in F1. But if that doesn’t happen, IndyCar would be his second choice.
“His number one thing is F1, for sure, while probably number two would be like IndyCar,” Juan Pablo said. “But honestly, he wants to race. He wants to race whatever he can race on. And he loves it and he works hard and he trains hard and he does whatever. If you tell him he needs to run 20 miles a day, that is going to make him quicker, he’ll go and run 20 miles a day.
“Last year he was very timid and I think he was a little behind everybody when we started the year, mentally and everything. He’s matured a lot. And you can see it within, you know, in winter we did go-kart races and he’s maturity in the go-kart and the way he handled the races, he takes advantage of the situation sometimes too much and doesn’t read the situations well enough some times.”
Montoya climbed back into an Indy car for the first time in nearly four years early last month when IndyCar had a two-day test session for drivers. There were some obvious changes from the last time he drove a sleek open-wheel ride, including the protective aeroscreen.
“A lot to catch up again, learn, understand again what you need to do, the timing,” he said. “But everything just starts coming back.
“It’s funny, getting up to speed (in his first day of testing) was, ‘Ooh.’ Today you don’t even think about it. … The first few runs with traffic is like, ‘Ooh.’ Then you start relaxing, getting in the flow of things.”
Today’s Indy car is somewhat different from the type of car Montoya last drove in 2017, which has been somewhat of a challenge for him to adapt to.
“They’re a little harder to drive, I think,” he said. “I think the difference between clear air and dirty air is a little bigger. I think the changes from what IndyCar did, from what everybody says, it’s a little harder as before, but not that bad. Put it that way.”
As for the aeroscreen, Montoya replied, “It wasn’t too bad to get used to it. I thought it would be a little more intrusive. It’s definitely a pain in the butt to get in and out of the car, and it’s a lot hotter.
“I mean, it’s kind of weird because, like, you’re really in a little bubble. It feels a little bit once you’re driving like a sports car. … It’s good. It’s fine. I think from the safety point of view, it’s a great thing. It’s a matter of getting used to it more than anything else.”
Might racing this weekend and his return to the 500 spur Montoya to follow Alonso back to a full-time stint in open-wheel racing, be it IndyCar or F1?
“Honestly, I’m at this point in my career where I’m really happy to be driving.”
Montoya is very “honest” in his response.
“Honestly, I’m to the point, I still enjoy racing, I’m still competitive,” Montoya told me. “Honestly, as long as I have a drive to do it. I mean, it’s crazy because some people say with time you lose the drive and this and that.
“Honestly, I’m at this point in my career where I’m really happy to be driving, excited to be competitive. And that’s really what it’s always been for me. I mean, go get in the car, go fast and that’s it.”
Are you excited to see the old guys like Juan Pablo Montoya or Helio Castroneves back at Indianapolis, or is it time to make room for the new guys? Start the discussion in the comments section below.
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