Passion, not stats, continues to fuel Juan Pablo Montoya

Photo: LAT USA/courtesy Steve Shunck

Statistically and versatility speaking, Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the greatest drivers of his generation.

He’s won two championships (1999 CART, 1998 Formula 3000), 14 total IndyCar races over parts of four seasons including two Indianapolis 500s (received his likeness on Borg-Warner Trophy last week), seven Formula 1 races including Monaco in 2003, two Sprint Cup races, one Xfinity race, and three Rolex 24s at Daytona.

And that’s before you get to all the pole positions (17 in IndyCar, 13 in Formula 1), fastest laps and other accolades over the years.

I bring up all these statistics a., because I’m a self-admitted stat nerd and b., so you know what they are.

Because Juan Pablo Montoya simply does not care about statistics.

He just cares about winning, and his passion for winning fuels him, still, at age 40.

“I don’t do it for that, to say, ‘God, I’m the man,’” Montoya said during Wednesday’s Chevrolet champions celebration event at the GM Heritage Center.

“I like racing, I have the passion for it, I want to beat everyone else, do a better job than everyone else, work harder than everyone else, and that’s it.”

It’s that passion that arguably burned him in the immediate moment of losing this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship – the infamous “Dixon had a s*** season” line in the post-race press conference at Sonoma standing out the most. But, as he showcased the Monday night afterwards, he got over it rather quickly and was even poking a bit of fun at himself.

And it’s the passion of his team boss, Roger Penske, that also continues to push him to do better.

Penske didn’t grow to become the most successful car owner and one of the country’s largest automotive dealers by standing still. He sought to win, at every opportunity, at all opportunities.

He’s the last man in history to have ever assembled now a one-off special for the Indianapolis 500; the pushrod Mercedes-Illmor engine that dominated the 1994 race lives in history 20-plus years later in Jade Gurss’ instant hit, “Beast.”

Adding a driver of Montoya’s caliber, who’s similarly motivated to winning with nothing else mattering, was arguably one of the biggest coups – and greatest additions – in the last two decades of IndyCar.

“You know I am really excited to be a part of this,” Montoya admits. “I never thought that I’d be back in IndyCar.

“But to watch the video (of the Indianapolis 500) is pretty exciting.

“Last year I was good, but it was my first oval back in IndyCar. This year I was a lot more aggressive. The NASCAR helped me to do 500-mile races.”

Considering Montoya’s open-wheel record on 500-mile races though (here we go with stats again) that seems a bit of a reach.

In 11 career open-wheel 500-mile races, Montoya has four wins, 10 top-five finishes, an average finish of 3.2, 2469 of 2500 laps completed, and 440 laps led.

Montoya at GM Heritage Center. Photo by Steve Fecht for Chevrolet
Montoya at GM Heritage Center. Photo by Steve Fecht for Chevrolet

Asked what about Penske inspires Montoya, the Colombian had a simple answer.

“Him,” he said, no hesitation.

“He’s such an amazing person… as a driver to be with him, it’s just unbelievable.”

Montoya isn’t necessarily drawing down his career – even at 40, he was one race away from his second IndyCar championship, some 16 years after his first – but he is fostering his own son, Sebastian, now 10, who has his own burgeoning karting career.

The elder Montoya says it’s his job to stay out of the way and let Sebastian grow on his own.

“I try to keep it really cool for him, you know what I mean?” JPM said. “Especially at his age, he has to enjoy it.

“Part of my success is the passion I have for racing. So he needs to have that.

“When he turns 14, 15 and starts looking at girls, the car needs to be more exciting than a girl. That’s where it’s gonna be. It’s gotta be fun.

“He loves it. He has a lot of passion. I try to keep it really down to earth. I don’t want to put any extra pressure on him that he doesn’t need. He’s done good. Some weeks he struggles, some he does good.”

Proof clearly the passion is in the pipeline from one generation of Montoya to the next.

And so long as Juan Pablo Montoya continues to have the passion for kicking ass and taking names as he continues to drive, whatever field he’s competing in should be very afraid.

Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens later tweeted about the possibility of racing the Indy 500 and said his goal was “always to get back to the top level of motorsport” whether it’s IndyCar or IMSA.

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.