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The Way It Is/ Juan Montoya is having a fine time settling into life in NASCAR

by Gordon Kirby
Juan Montoya's preparations continued this week for a full season of Nextel Cup racing next year. Montoya took part in his first NASCAR Cup test session this week, running for two days at the Homestead-Miami Speedway with many of the Cup regulars. Montoya has run two ARCA races so far and will make his formal NASCAR debut on Saturday, October 28, in the Busch race at the three-quarter mile Memphis Motor Speedway.

Whether or not Juan runs either the Busch race or makes his Cup debut in the Homestead season-closer on November 18-19 remains to be seen, but at this stage you'd have to guess it's pretty likely. It's his home track, close to Miami, and there's also a big Hispanic fan base that both NASCAR and the Homestead track are anxious to tap into. But Montoya downplayed that possibility this week, saying the focus for him and Chip Ganassi's team is getting ready for February's Daytona 500 '07 season-opener.

"There are so many things we are thinking about at the moment," Montoya commented. "Will we maybe do this or maybe do that? We'll go to Memphis and see what happens there and then we'll say, do we go to the next race or do we do more testing? I think we've just got to take it as it comes and whether we decide to race here [at Homestead] or not, it's not because I want to do my debut here, it's because it's the next right step for me.

"We're not even to the point where we could make that decision, but it wouldn't be because it's here. It would be because it's the next right step to do before going to Daytona. The main focus is getting myself and all the technical team ready for next year when we go to Daytona."

Montoya first tested a stock car at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway, driving one of Ganassi's cars in ARCA trim. As predicted, Juan put the car into wall, then jumped into another car to continue his learning experience. His first stock car race was an ARCA race at Talladega where he qualified third and came back through the field to finish third after an incident while running second.

Juan ran his second ARCA race last weekend, this time at Rusty Wallace's new track, the seven-eighths of a mile Iowa Speedway. Montoya qualified third in Iowa, made an aggressive start and challenged immediately for the lead. He took the lead from Steve Wallace, Rusty's son, and led for a while, working through traffic in company with young Wallace.

Then Juan misunderstood his spotter and drifted up into Wallace who was trying to pass on the outside. They collided with Montoya coming off worst. Wallace said the accident was fifty-fifty, half his fault and half Montoya's. But while Wallace was able to continue, ultimately winning the race, Montoya's car needed a lot of repair work to the rightside. He rejoined to gain experience, and finished twenty-fourth, 42 laps down, the last car running.

Ganassi confirmed on Tuesday of this week that Montoya will make his first formal NASCAR start in the Busch race at the 0.75-mile Memphis Motorsport Park next weekend and Montoya's first run in a Cup car came this week in a two-day NASCAR test session on Tuesday and Wednesday at Homestead.

"I think it's been a good test for me," Montoya commented halfway through the second day. "Yesterday was my first day in the Texaco Havoline Dodge car, and it's been pretty hard. The team is working really hard. They have eight cars here and it was a little bit of hard work getting it together. Yesterday was more learning for me, getting used to working with the car and getting used to the track. I think everything went pretty smooth. We couldn't get really a good balance in the car, or anything close to it. So I'm glad we've got a second day here.

"This track is a lot harder than what it looks like. For example, I was testing in Kentucky which is more complicated. If you look at the layout of the track it looks harder than this track, but actually Kentucky was easier, and with the heat it makes it really slippery out there."

Montoya said the most surprising part of his transition to stock cars is how comfortable he's found himself in the cars he's driven. "When you're an open-wheel driver, there's always a concern about how comfortable you're going to be in an enclosed car," Juan observed. "I drove a couple of those about twelve years ago but the level of these NASCAR cars compared with those is night and day. But I've actually been pretty comfortable in these cars. I get in and I get up to speed pretty easy.

"So far, this Cup test here [at Homestead] has been the hardest test for me. When we did the ARCA testing, you know the spoiler is a lot bigger so the car is a little bit more forgiving. Probably the hardest thing has been learning how far you can go with the car, but I've been really comfortable in it. It's been really good."

Juan was asked whether NASCAR is being taken more seriously by the international racing community now that he's made the switch. "I think they should," he remarked. "They're used to Formula One where the technology is extreme, but I think in Europe, NASCAR is not regarded as high as it should be. I think that's because people [in Europe] don't see it or follow it, or know what it is and how competitive it is. I think it's more of an unknown because they show it on TV, but not a lot.

"I think myself being here is going to make it more respected and more known internationally and I think it should be. I think it's a great sport and I think it's great that it's so based on the fans."

Montoya has taken onboard that there's much more to NASCAR than meets the eye. "The crazy thing here is how limited the rules are for technology and how far they go with the cars," Juan observed. "If you would bring an engineer from Formula One and show them how detailed the cars are, they would be shocked.

"When you look at them on TV they all look very alike. But yesterday, the cars Casey (Mears) and I were driving were all different. I said to a couple of my friends, show me any differences, and they couldn't. I'm driving the car and I don't see the differences yet. The guys in the team tell me that spoiler is more to the right, and I say, is it? You have to look very closely to learn how different the cars are."

Montoya says he's been shocked by the welcome he's been given from people in NASCAR. "I'll give you can an example. Yesterday, Kevin Harvick came to our team and said, you know, looking at the car from behind I think your car is too low on the left. He said he thought this and that. He came to us and said he thought we should try this here or that there.

"Both Casey Mears and Reed (Sorenson) got in my car yesterday and ran my car, and we don't do that in Europe. If you see somebody struggling in Formula One, you're never going to go and say, hey, you're doing this wrong. Instead, you go to your guys and say, see what they're doing wrong, and laugh about it.

"It's a completely different approach, and I think it's great to see. It's great to see how competitive it is out there when it comes down to business and how casual it is back here. It's a great atmosphere."

Juan noted that most European racers and fans completely underestimate oval racing. But he says that like NASCAR itself, there's much more to oval racing than meets the eye.

"When I came from CART to Formula One people in Europe said, you did good on the road courses, but those ovals are a waste of time. Those are easy, they said. And I said, no the road courses are actually the easy bit. The ovals are the hard bit. For a person like me who grew up on road courses, for me it's pretty straightforward. You go left, right, up or down. On a road course, there's one line. There's one way to make a corner and that's it, and you'll see everybody will go through the same place.

"But here, yesterday, there were probably four or even five race lines. People were running high, or against the line at the bottom, or up in the next groove, and using the groove to help the car turn. There are so many things and so many little details to learn."

Montoya won seven oval races, including the Indy 500, during his two years in CART. He won at disparate ovals from the flat, one-mile Milwaukee Mile, to the unique 2.5 Indianapolis Motor Speedway and high-banked 2.0-mile Michigan Speedway where he beat Michael Andretti across the line in 2000 in a fierce, wheel-to-wheel finish. But as demanding as those races were, Montoya says he has much more to learn about NASCAR's slower, heavier cars.

"When you do open-wheel on an oval and you're going so fast, the grip level factor is so much higher, there are a lot of things you miss," Montoya commented. "Here, they told me if you put the car on the seams between the grooves it will actually help the car turn. I said, what? So there are so many little things that can help make the car tighter or looser. And because the car changes so much during a fuel run, it makes the car very, very critical to drive.

"They tell you to start really loose and testing here, you really notice it. You go out there and have a good car for two or three laps but then it starts getting tight and it just doesn't want to turn anymore and you need to find ways to make it turn, maybe by going in a little bit lower, or if it's really tight, to run really high. I haven't done that yet."

Juan was impressed at Homestead this week with the high groove Dale Earnhardt Jr was able to run. "When I ran on ovals [in CART] there was one, maybe two race lines," Montoya observed. "But these guys go all the way up to wall. I'm trying to get a handle on it. I've gone up high to learn how high you can run and I think I'm running really high, and you see Junior and he's going three cars higher than me! And that's like, wow! That's hard, having the confidence to get up there and know the car's going to turn because the speed you're going to arrive at is so much higher than if you go in tighter. I'm not going to go up there and run quick. I need to go up there and run for a hundred laps before I even get comfortable."

Montoya was asked if too much is expected from him too soon. "Like I said to everybody, there are probably two bunches of people," he remarked. "Those that are expecting me to do really well, and there's probably a bunch that are expecting me to struggle. For me, I'm here for the long run, whether they like it or not.

"Do I want to succeed? Of course, I want to succeed. Is it going to be easy? No. Am I going to have good races? Hopefully, yes. Am I going to have bad races? Definitely, yes, and that's part of it. I'm going to go to some tracks and the car's going to be really good and I'm going to be comfortable and we're going to be competitive. And we're going to go to other tracks and we may have to use a provisional. That's all part of the learning process.

"I think you need to work really closely with the people around you and with your teammates to make sure you're in the right position. When things are going wrong, you need to learn to fix them fast. You don't have a lot of time to qualify. You have an hour or two's practice before qualifying, that's all. If the car is good, you're in business. But if you go into practice and you can't even get into the corners, then you're going to have a long day.

"But that's what it's all about," Juan added, "Coming to the pits and saying I have this problem and the car is feeling like that. Then my crew chief understands what I'm talking about so he can fix it quicker."

Again, Montoya emphasized how complicated he's discovered it is to get come to grips with a NASCAR car and how different each car is from any other. "There are so many tools to make the car right or wrong that it's really hard," Juan said. "I think in Formula One, once the car is sorted, you're very close on set-up everywhere you go. With a Formula One car, everything is made out of molds, but here, the cars are welded together and if the guy put more welding on it for some reason the car may be stiffer and it's maybe a little bit heavier. Here in NASCAR, the cars are so different and the tracks are so different, too.

"They try to make all the cars as close as possible but they're never going to be identical. You see some of these guys, they've run this car for the last six races and they've won five of them, and he just loves that car. You don't see that in Formula One. In F1, whatever car you get in, they all handle the same way."

Juan added that he's trying to learn by making small steps in set-up rather than any radical changes. "At the same time that you can make the car really good, you can make it really bad, really easy," he commented. "I've noticed that so far. We're just learning. We're trying things and trying to do little steps at a time. Yesterday the car was really tight all day, but what do you get from making a big change and putting the car in the wall? Nothing. I'd rather do more miles and do small steps.

"Anybody can go in the wall, but you want to try to prevent that because it's going to shorten your running time. It's one against the other. Push really hard because you want to go fast, but don't put it in the wall because you'll lose a lot of time. It's just part of the learning process, I guess."

After a few days vacation in Colombia this weekend, Montoya will return to Miami next week and then fly to Tennessee for next weekend's Busch race in Memphis. Juan said his test at Memphis last week told him it's not going to be an easy race.

"I learned that it's a really small racetrack and it killed the tires," he observed. "It was really hard on the tires. It's a difficult racetrack, a tricky racetrack. If I had a pick of where I would do my first Busch race, I wouldn't pick that one. But that's where we're going and that's what it is. It's a short track, a hard track. I thought I ran pretty good there. We ran with (teammate David) Stremme and we ran about the same pace, so I think pace-wise I wasn't bad.

"At Iowa, even 'though there were a lot of slow cars, you could run high and low, but Memphis, I think, is more of one race line. Everyone wants to run on the bottom, and that's it. So I think you're going to get bumped around and moved around. I think it's going to be a bit of a shock. But I'm out there to learn, and hopefully, we can bring the car home with more pieces on it than the last time."

He's only just begun to scratch the surface of the long trail ahead, but with the unflagging support of Chip Ganassi's team Montoya is poised to become the first foreign driver to succeed in NASCAR.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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