Montoya: A faster re-acclimation to Indy 500 than expected


It’s interesting that Juan Pablo Montoya’s return to the Indianapolis 500 hasn’t, yet, been a major story of the first week of practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ marquee race.

His teammates under the Team Penske umbrella have been. Will Power’s been quick, and also offered his thoughts on double points for the 500-mile races and additional points for qualifying. Helio Castroneves is rocking a throwback Pennzoil paint scheme and has also topped the time sheets; at the moment, his 227-plus mph lap from Thursday is the fastest of the week.

Yet Montoya, who is back at IMS going the normal oval direction for the Indianapolis 500 after spending time racing at IMS in either the Brickyard 400, U.S. Grand Prix or GRAND-AM Rolex Series race the last 14 years, was pleased and surprised with how quickly he got back up to speed here on the oval, in an IndyCar.

“I’ll tell you the truth, I was really surprised when I came on Sunday,” Montoya said during a Friday morning press conference. “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.”

Through Thursday’s running, Montoya completed 279 laps and had the 11th best speed of 225.134 mph in the No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet for Penske Motorsports.

He’s already thrilled with how fast the entire Penske organization has got their heads wrapped around the setup on the cars.

“One of the cool things about being with Team Penske, they do such a good job with the cars,” he said. “The experience here is so good. They really know what they’re doing. It makes it so easy for us, it really does.

“I mean, when you’re trying, like yesterday we were starting to trim the car out in case it rained today, okay, I have a little bit of understeer, they change it.  They really know how much to change the car, to adjust the car.  It makes it fun.”

Montoya has a legitimate shot at being in the fastest nine qualifiers on Saturday, to then have a run for the pole on Sunday. But clearly he’s back, as he helps the team in search of Roger Penske’s 16th Indianapolis 500 victory, and first since 2009 (Castroneves).

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”