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.