Juan Pablo Montoya’s attitude hasn’t changed since he left NASCAR for IndyCar three months ago – he’s just a whole lot happier.
No, he doesn’t yet have the hang of Indy cars, but he knows that will come. And Montoya isn’t concerned with what the pundits think of his performance – as long as he satisfies himself.
“I don’t care what the outside thinks,” Montoya said. “I really don’t. I put enough pressure on myself to perform and do whatever it takes to get it done. I probably put more pressure on myself than anybody else.
“For me, it’s all about winning. You know me; I never really care what people think of me. I care what I think of me. I know when I do a good job and a bad job.”
After rising through the open-wheel ranks of Champ Car to Formula One before heading to stock cars and now back to IndyCar, Montoya believes he’s done a good job getting up to speed with the help of his fellow Team Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves.
But Montoya acknowledges he’s not yet where he wants to be.
“I feel like we’re gaining on it,” Montoya said. “I think I drive the car a little bit different than the other two. I think Helio drives a little bit more like me. Will just got used to driving the car in an awkward way to be quick. We’re just trying to make the car drive a little better.
“You’re always on the limit, but to be more comfortable at the limit. So we’ll see.”
Though the chassis have changed dramatically since Montoya last raced in Champ Car and the tires and brakes are considerably different than during his seven-season stock car experiment, getting seat time at Sebring, Sonoma Raceway, Phoenix International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway has expedited the process.
“It’s funny because a lot of it is, let’s say you run through the day, at the end of the day you look at the data, you look at what Will or Helio are doing, ‘Oh, I got to do that.’ I go out there and just do it,” Montoya said.
“That’s going back to, OK, you could probably run wide open through here, nobody (has) done it. If I tried and get it wrong, then I throw away half a day of testing. I’d rather look at what they’re doing, copy what they’re doing. Then they do something different again. You go, ‘Oh, next time I got to try this.’ It’s just a matter of doing that.”
For Team Penske, adding a full-time third car provides the operation with “more information,” according to Power. Though the drivers received additional data during AJ Allmendinger’s limited run last year, the depth of Montoya’s experience not only will serve Power and Castroneves well, it will likely up their game.
“He’s obviously been very successful in Formula One,” Power said. “His experience in NASCAR, it’s kind of good having him there, for sure. He’s a guy that I looked up to when I was racing Formula Ford and he was in Formula One. Kind of cool to be working with him.
“Juan’s obviously worked on a lot of teams before and understands how the whole thing works. Yeah, it’s worked well. He’s brought a lot of experience to the team and come up with good ideas. He’s already helped to point us in a good direction, along with Helio as well. We all kind of work together.
“At the end of the day, we all understand that we got to race each other on the track. During this testing time, part of the season, we need to work together and try things, find things that are going to help us be at the front.”
Montoya prepared for the task coming in. Since August, the 38-year-old Colombian has dropped about 15 pounds saying, “you really, really need to (be in shape)” in order to compete in IndyCar because the cars are “so physical.”
Though Montoya is entertaining the idea of racing in the Brickyard 400 and possibly a road course race or two in NASCAR, his focus has completely turned to IndyCar – and his son’s racing career. Montoya has been oblivious to Daytona testing. When the pace car caught on fire during the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night, Montoya was already asleep – and nowhere close to the track.
“It’s nice to do what I’m doing right now,” Montoya said. “I feel really happy. I’m really excited to be part of Team Penske. It’s a tough challenge ahead of me. I know that. … It’s completely different. The NASCAR (challenge) was one that it was like, ‘Where the hell am I?’ The cars were very different. There was a lot of movement.
“This is the opposite because in NASCAR the limit of the car is very easy. You can get to the limit of the car very easy. The big thing is you’re driving it too hard. In IndyCar, you can’t drive it hard enough, or at least I can’t yet. I’m leaving a lot on the table. I think that’s the biggest thing. When we had good cars, we did good. When we had bad cars, we did bad. I think as a team we threw a lot of races away.”
For now, Montoya is committed “100 percent” to IndyCar. Although he’s spent the past three decades racing, Montoya jokes that he feels “like a complete rookie” again. And despite a mediocre run in stock cars, Montoya has no regrets. Nor does he harbor any ill will toward Chip Ganassi, his former team owner.
“I actually called to wish him Merry Christmas,” Montoya said. “And I think he was kind of shocked. He was like, ‘Oh, hi.’ But I don’t have anything against Chip. I really don’t. And I don’t think he has anything against me. It is what it is and we’ll move on.”
Still, will Montoya derive pleasure from beating his former team owner on the track?
“Who wouldn’t,” Montoya said. “That’s what we’re here for. But I’m not here to kick Chip’s ass. I’m here for myself and to win with Team Penske. That’s why I’m doing it.”