It’s been 21 years since Juan Pablo Montoya lined up for his first Indianapolis 500, which ended up with the Colombian drinking milk on Victory Lane and sending him on his way to a successful career in Formula 1 and NASCAR.
But that’s all a very long time ago, and as he gets ready to line up on the grid with Arrows McLaren SP for today’s race, the 45-year-old is going back to basics and feeling almost as nervous about the challenge as a brand new rookie.
“I always do when I come here,” Montoya confirmed in conversation with Motorsport magazine. “The more you do it, the more you understand how big it is and everything.
“It’s one of the biggest races, or the biggest race in the US, so to be part of that and with a team like McLaren I think is really, really cool,” he said. “[But] I haven’t been on an oval for three or four years or so.
“I need to be smart about it, I need to be careful about it, I don’t want to be overly aggressive about it,” he said. “You don’t want to do something stupid and crash the car.”
As one of the senior statesman on the 33-car grid for the 105th running of the Indy 500, Montoya is paired with two of the youngest new stars of IndyCar in the form of the team’s regular NTT IndyCar Series drivers Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist.
Montoya said he saw something of his younger self in O’Ward. “It’s pretty cool to see how he drives the car and everything and how comfortable he is with it.
“When you’re young, you’ll fight with whatever they’ll give you,” he continued. “When you get wiser or older, you get really picky about the car, but it makes you a really good technical driver because you really work hard to make sure you get what you want.
“When you do get what you want, you’ll be the guy like Pato who is fighting with a bad car, so I’m trying to teach Pato a little bit of that.”
After a second victory in 2015, Montoya confirmed that he had wanted to return to Indy for several years, but had been prevented from doing so by Roger Penske while he was still contracted to his NASCAR and sportscar operations.
But McLaren CEO Zak Brown kept calling, and with his time at Penske over the deal was finally done earlier this year. Amazingly it will be only his sixth entry into what’s frequently dubbed the world’s greatest motor race.
“Honestly the only reason I came back is because I think they’ve got the potential to give me a winning car,” he said.
“Zak called me again and said, ‘Hey, now you don’t have an excuse if Roger [Penske] says no, do you want to do it?’ and I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ and that was it.
“Being with McLaren, I thought [that] was pretty cool. Really I think that was the number one thing, being with McLaren here,” he said.
“If you can get the win with McLaren here – win with Ganassi [in 2000], win with Penske [in 2015] – winning with McLaren here would be really really cool.”
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