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Montoya hits Austin once again, expands on Porsche test chance, IndyCar 2016 hopes

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AUSTIN, Texas – For a driver who has no immediate plans to race at Circuit of The Americas, Juan Pablo Montoya has certainly made a habit of visiting the permanent road course in Austin.

Last month, Montoya was in Austin for the FIA World Endurance Championship Six Hours of the Circuit of The Americas, as a guest of Porsche Team.

It’s led to a seat-fitting earlier this week, ahead of a test aboard the team’s Porsche 919 Hybrid next month in Bahrain.

And now this weekend, Montoya is back once more for the United States Grand Prix, spotted in the McLaren garage – his last F1 team.

The reigning Indianapolis 500 champion caught up with NBC’s Will Buxton during the non-driving qualifying show on NBCSN, to discuss a variety of topics.

“She wanted to come visit,” Montoya said of wife Connie, when talking to Buxton. “I’m doing (some) TV for Latin America. It’s a new experience. Yesterday, I was celebrating the end-of-year party with Verizon. The Penske guys were all happy with that.”

The conversation inevitably and invariably turned to Montoya’s upcoming Porsche test.

Montoya downplayed immediate hopes of his racing next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, which has been discussed as a possibility with Nico Hulkenberg likely ruled out due to a date clash with the first European Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“I think it’s exciting. People are making a big deal out of it,” Montoya told Buxton.

“For me it’s just a great opportunity Porsche gave me to drive the car. There’s no compromise. I’m just testing the car. The guys at Penske were really good to me. They said, ‘Go have fun.’ That’s what I’m gonna do.

“At the moment I really enjoy what I do,” he added, when asked about the possibility of racing Le Mans next year. “I enjoy racing right now. I have that spark back. There’s good things at Penske. I really enjoy being at Penske. It would take a lot for me to do about something else.”

Montoya has already had one test in preparation for his next season with Penske, his third in the Verizon IndyCar Series, at Road America.

He laughed off a rare unforced error, when he lost control through Turn 14, the final turn on the 4.048-mile road course.

“Yeah we tested there! First time I’d ever gone off in an IndyCar on a road course,” he noted. “The last corner, there’s a patch, I kept telling myself, ‘Go past the patch.’

“So I tried and it didn’t work. I ran out of talent.”

Montoya is literally the only person on the planet who can say he ran out of talent, because he’s arguably one of the greatest talents of his or any racing generation.

Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500