INDIANAPOLIS – Juan Pablo Montoya has twice come close to winning the Brickyard 400, only to suffer maladies that kept him from kissing the finish line bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in celebration.
Even though he’s now back racing full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Brickyard jinx has continued to tug at Montoya.
That’s why he’s back for his second Cup race of the season (finished 18th at Michigan in mid-June), and ready to potentially get the payback from IMS that he feels he deserves.
“Yeah, once or twice, and I probably coulda, shoulda and would’ve won the 500 this year as well, but coulda, woulda and shoulda doesn’t count,” Montoya said in a press conference at IMS Friday afternoon. “At least I had a chance and I still think I’ve got a good chance this year.”
Having a chance to gain that elusive Brickyard win — to go along with his win in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 — is both a fortuitous chance and an attempt to break a NASCAR curse for Montoya. When team owner Roger Penske suggested Montoya race in the Brickyard (using Michigan in June as somewhat of a warmup), Montoya had to initially give it some thought.
But the more he rolled the idea around in his mind, the more intriguing it proved to be. Shortly thereafter, Montoya was all-in.
“I think it’s fun,” said Montoya, who will drive the No. 12 Penske Truck Rental Ford Fusion in Sunday’s event. “There’s a lot of history here. I’ve done a lot of racing. I’ve run pretty much everything that’s raced here, even with the bikes, I’ve been in a two-seater bike, so I’ve pretty much done everything here.
“Roger (Penske) gave me the chance to come. They have great cars this year and he gave me the chance to come today with the Penske Truck Rental Ford and see what we can do.”
Even though he ran the most laps of the 46 drivers that took to the track, Montoya had trouble getting speed in Friday’s sole practice session, managing a top speed of just 180.144, good for just 28th on the speed grid and more than 6 mph behind the fastest of the 90-minute run, Matt Kenseth.
“Our race pace, looking to compare with Brad (teammate Brad Keselowski, who was third-fastest at 185.939 mph), looks really, really close so it seems like we’re pretty competitive,” Montoya said.
But he subsequently admitted he had hoped to have a better run.
“I wasn’t that happy with the car to be honest,” Montoya said. “It’s hard because they’re so different and what Brad and Joey (Logano) drive every week and what they look for in the car is a little bit different than what I want out of the car, so we’ve got to try and do a lot in one practice.
“Like today, we went through a lot of stuff and it was good – just short runs – try this, try that just to try to get ready for tomorrow. I think the one thing that is gonna be good for us is we’ve got qualifying tomorrow and not today. Michigan was hard because I ran six laps of practice before qualifying, so at least today we got a lot of running done.”
But Montoya and every other driver may not get to qualify Saturday. The weather forecast is calling for heavy thunderstorms through much of the day, and because IMS does not have lights, Sunday’s starting grid could be set based upon Friday’s practice if Saturday’s final practice session and qualifying are washed out.
If that’s the case, Montoya would start where he practiced Friday: 28th. But regardless of that, he’s confident that perhaps his Brickyard jinx may come to an end.
“I feel like coming here we’ve got a good shot,” said Montoya, whose best efforts in seven starts at the Brickyard have been second in his first start there in 2007, as well as ninth (2013) in his last effort prior to this year’s race.
“I think if we can get the car close we’ll be pretty good. It seems like the race pace is pretty good, I think I’ve been pretty good here and I know what I want out of the car. That makes it a lot easier so we know what we need to work on to be a little better. We’ll see once we put it in qualifying trim what it does.”
Even though NASCAR Sprint Cup is no longer his chosen full-time racing series, Montoya could use a bit of a confidence boost from Indy, given he’s struggled to finishes of 16th, 18th and 19th in his last three IndyCar races after winning at Pocono last month.
When asked if he feels like an insider or outsider at IMS now that he’s an IndyCar regular, Montoya was non-committal.
“Neither, I’m just good to be here,” he said. “I felt maybe like an outsider the first six months I came to NASCAR and then it was like normal.
“It’s good. You know how everything works, so I don’t really feel like an outsider because you know how to do everything. You know how practice works. You know how qualifying works. You know where you need to go to sign in and where to drive around in the garage. It’s fine.”
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?