Whether dining or driving, Montoya and Cameron fast friends at Penske

Leave a comment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’

“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”

Actually, it’s gone really well.

VIEWER’S GUIDE: Five things to watch in the 2020 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.

But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.

Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.

Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.

Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.

“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.

“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”

Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.

But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or gaining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.

“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure

“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”

Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.

Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.

The No. 6 Acura in testing for the Rolex 24. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud will share the car this weekend at Daytona (courtesy of IMSA).

“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.

“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”

Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.

The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.

“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”

Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”

Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”

Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.

“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.

“He’s just the right guy.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (left) and Dane Cameron celebrated after winning at Laguna Seca last year (courtesy of IMSA).

F1 aggressive on COVID-19 testing, social distancing enforcement

F1 COVID-19 testing
Mario Renzi - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
Leave a comment

With big hugs and wide smiles, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown exuberantly celebrated the first podium finish of Lando Norris’ Formula One career. His exuberance earned a warning from Formula One and FIA officials during the era of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and subsequent F1 testing.

“Obviously I got excited with Lando on the podium and embraced him after the race,” Brown said with a laugh during a news conference Friday. “You get caught up in the emotion and excitement of the event, but it was suggested maybe I don’t do that again if we get a podium anytime soon.”

MASK WARNING: NASCAR tells teams to avoid ‘complacency’

Now in its second race weekend of 2020, F1 has taken an aggressive approach to maintain a paddock free of COVID-19. Before teams hit the track last week for the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix, F1 and FIA officials said more than 4,000 tests were conducted over a week with no positive tests.

In order to enter the track, any F1 personnel (which includes drivers and team members) must have a negative COVID-19 test. Private testing was used ahead of those traveling to Austria. After entering the track, personnel are tested every five days with private medical teams at events along with extra screening.

The results of F1 COVID-19 testing also will be made public every seven days. More than 8,000 tests were conducted through Saturday.

It’s a much different tack from NASCAR and IndyCar, neither of which is conducting COVID-19 testing (and with NASCAR recently distributing that warned teams of “complacency with protocols).

Though Brown, who also oversees Arrow McLaren SP Motorsports in IndyCar, demurred when asked whether the U.S.-based series should be taking a cue, he praised F1 COVID-19 testing for being a best-in-class example.

“I don’t know exactly what every other racing series is doing, so it would be difficult for me to say they’re doing it right or wrong,” Brown said from Austria. “All I can really do is speak to what Formula One is doing, and they’re doing an unbelievable job with 5,000 tests, and people flying in from different parts of the world. The minute that someone — and there’s not been many instances – has taken a mask off, you’re getting a letter or a phone call saying put your mask back on.

“I think all sports should be looking at all sports and seeing who’s doing what and what are our best practices, but I’ve got nothing but great things to say about how the FIA and Formula One and the countries they’re racing in are executing because it feels extremely safe here.”

Brown said it’s unlikely the European-based circuit will do F1 COVID-19 testing at races in the United States, Brazil, Mexico and Canada because the events likely will be scrubbed. Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, was scheduled to play host to F1 on the Oct. 23-25 race weekend but just canceled its MotoGP race.

“We’d very much like to race at all those circuits,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, my opinion is it’s probably unlikely we’ll race at any of those venues this year. That’s obviously due to the COVID situation. … Let’s see what happens, but certainly it seems like the spikes in Texas are pretty severe and Brazil and Mexico and Canada a little less so. But if we miss them this year, we certainly look forward to going back to those venues next year.”