In two seasons in CART in 1999 and 2000, Juan Pablo Montoya was near worth the price of admission on his own.
Sublime car control and a ridiculous ability to extract the maximum out of what was already a near-1000 hp rocketship made Montoya a thrill to watch in his two seasons with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
But much has changed since that time of Montoya’s last CART start, October 29, 2000 in Fontana. Bill Clinton was President; gas was $1.54 per gallon and Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over Baby (All I Want is You)” was the number one song in the nation.
And of course Montoya’s been through a career transformation, with six “nearly” seasons in Formula One and seven less-than-successful seasons primarily turning left in NASCAR, driving with Ganassi.
Fourteen years later, as Montoya makes his return to North American open-wheel and now with Team Penske, it’s worth wondering whether his glory days will come back.
As Montoya has said throughout this winter, and through a high volume of test days, it will take time.
“I mean, I feel like I’m not where I want to be yet with the car,” Montoya said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I feel we have come a long way.
“It’s weird. Sometimes we’re really good, some we’re average. The first Sebring test was horrible. I feel like Sonoma was pretty good. I was really happy.
“It’s hard because the new tires are different than the ones I’ve been used to the last three years. I’m starting to get it, but the problem is I don’t get to put it all together.”
Through various trips to Sebring, Sonoma, Phoenix, Fontana and Barber, Montoya has racked up hundreds of laps this winter in preparation for his return.
He might not be on pace immediately, but he wouldn’t have made the decision to come back if he didn’t think he’d have the best possible equipment, or if it wasn’t going to be a challenge.
“In NASCAR the limit of the car is very easy,” Montoya explained. “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.”
The biggest change from the CART champ cars Montoya raced in 1999 and 2000 to the Dallara DW12-Chevrolet he’ll be racing in 2014 is the braking. The old cars also had substantially more horsepower, but for Montoya, that adjustment hasn’t been as tough to handle as the braking.
“The biggest thing is braking. The braking is unbelievable,” he said. “We used to have a lot more power. But the initial acceleration is very similar. It’s when you go through the gears… the braking in the corners, it’s unbelievable. The grip level of these cars, it’s like an eye-opening, to be honest.”
Already though, Montoya is meshing with teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Castroneves was a then-unheralded, then-surname hyphenated series sophomore (Castro-Neves), driving for the late Carl Hogan’s team, when Montoya made his CART debut in 1999.
“I feel like I got to do a job, push myself,” Montoya said. “It’s good to have a guy like Will on the team that’s really quick and gets the job done. Helio has a lot of experience.
“If I have my experience plus what they do, I think it’s pretty good. I felt like I brought a few things to the team already to make the cars better. We’ve gotten a little bit better, so I’m pretty happy.”
Heading into St. Petersburg, the street course, Montoya anticipates a struggle. But by the end of the year, he wants to be in race-winning and potentially title-challenging form.
“That’s one of the hardest challenges, the first time on a street course, St. Petersburg,” Montoya said. “I think it’s going to be eye-opening. I think it’s going to be a slow-building weekend, getting comfortable in the car.
“(But) winning the Indy 500 and fighting for the championship, you would say that would be a good season.”
Lastly, there is the timing element of this. At 38, Montoya’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and felt it imperative to give himself one more chance to come back to the series where he initially made his name.
“If I look back at everything I’ve done, the most fun and best racing I’ve done in my career, it’s been in IndyCar,” he said. “This was the perfect time to do it. I felt like two years from now, wouldn’t be able to do it. Timing-wise, it was ideal. So we’ll see.”