Ryan: Juan Pablo Montoya comes full circle at Indianapolis

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INDIANAPOLIS – A mere 15 years after his first swig of milk in the famed Winner’s Circle, Juan Pablo Montoya finally arrived Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 obviously wasn’t the first time Montoya has celebrated a victory in the world’s most famous race.

But it was the first time the swashbuckling fearlessness that has made the Colombian one of the most celebrated drivers of his generation was on full display at the fabled racetrack that has minted heroes for nearly a century.

For the more than 200,000 who annually fill the track in the hopes of cheering bravura and skill, this was the winner they richly had deserved many times before.

With his hands flying around the wheel trying to keep control while his No. 2 Chevrolet danced around the racetrack, Montoya outdueled the defending series champion (Will Power) and a three-time champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner (Scott Dixon).

The performance was boundlessly enthralling compared to the 2000 win in which he led 167 of 200 laps in his first start at the 2.5-mile oval.

“That was an easy race,” he said with a laugh. “But oh my God, this was a lot of work today.”

It carried a lot of significance, too. In setting a record for the longest gap between Indy 500 wins, Montoya also delivered the record-extending 16th win to car owner Roger Penske in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“I think he smiled more today than he did (in 2000),” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “I think he’s come to appreciate it. I think the cool thing was to see his kids celebrating was what really brought the whole thing full circle for him.”

Montoya, now a 39-year-old married father of three, is much grayer, a little chubbier and visibly looser than the occasionally aloof and impetuous kid who ruled Indy long ago.

During his winner’s news conference, he peppered answers with giddy laughs, leaned back for a big hug from his  son, Sebastian, and turned his voice up a few octaves while recalling the realization he would take the checkered flag.

“Ha, ha, ha,” he exclaimed. “I got this! I was screaming I was so happy.”

In many ways, the emotions made it seem as if this was Montoya’s first win at Indy, but they were belied by his unusually introspective answers.

“You’ve got to understand the big picture of what you need to win,” he said. “It’s just experience. You’re older, you’re wiser, you understand where the races are won, where they’re lost. You make less mistakes. The biggest difference is just experience.”

Indianapolis had taught many of those lessons.

Nowhere has the cocksure Montoya had his confidence shaken and his will tested more than here.

In the 15 years since he burst onto the Brickyard by thumping the field, Indy had become the site of endless ignominy for Monday

In 2006, he triggered a seven-car crash on the first lap of the United States Grand Prix with a mistake that capped a Formula One career as the object of scorn and ridicule in his final race.

In the 2009 Brickyard 400 he squandered a surefire chance to claim the checkered flag by speeding during his last pit stop.

The next year, he again led the most laps and was victimized when a faulty strategy left him mired in traffic instead of scoring the oval win that forever eluded him in the Sprint Cup Series.

But Sunday was the opposite narrative of the dominant disappointments that plagued his NASCAR starts at Indy.

Montoya rebounded from a collision under caution with Simona de Silvestro that required a stop for repairs that dropped him to 30th.

After driving through the field, he slid through the pits on his second stop … and impeccably drove his way to the front again.

“I told my guys there’s a hundred ways to throw this away, and there’s only one way of winning it,” he said. “The guy that makes the least mistakes is going to have the best shot at winning it.

“We executed beautifully. We made a couple small mistakes early, but then we got our composure back and came back.”

Composure never has been a problem for Montoya, who sloughs off pressure with a straight-talking nonchalance about the risks of his job.

In a month marked by incessant reminders of the inherent danger from dicing at 200 mph, there was no winner more befitting Sunday.

“I just drive the freaking thing,” he said three days earlier when asked about the airborne crashes that dominated the headlines at Indy. “The danger is there. It’s always been there.”

That brand of verve has defined the career of a star who dismissively slammed wheels with Michael Andretti and publicly feuded with seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.

It also contributed to leaving him on the outs in Formula One and NASCAR. After losing his Cup ride with Chip Ganassi, who also fielded Montoya’s winning entry at Indy in 2000, his prospects seemed uncertain.

Yet along came a return last season to IndyCar (after a 14-year absence) with Penske, whose buttoned-up style of pleated pants and starched shirts seemed an ill fit.

Instead, it’s been the career resurrection Montoya needed. With two wins in the first six starts of the 2015 season, he leads the points standings and is a serious contender to win his first championship since the 1999 CART title.

“I know what it means to Roger and everybody at Team Penske to get this win,” Montoya said. “I thanked him for giving me the opportunity and believing in me that I could get the job done. I’m happy I can prove them right.

“I’m loving racing right now, so it’s great.”

Said Penske: “Just to see Juan race today … If you know him, he’s a fighter.”

Indianapolis rightfully is aware of it now – finally.

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).