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The Way It Is/ Allmendinger keeps winning, Montoya makes a big move to NASCAR with Ganassi

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
With the help of teammate Paul Tracy, A.J. Allmendinger put himself in the thick of this year's Champ Car Vanderbilt Cup title battle with his third win in a row in Toronto on Sunday. Meanwhile, Chip Ganassi and Juan Montoya made the auto racing headlines of the week with the surprise announcement of Montoya's move to NASCAR in 2007 with Ganassi's Texaco/Havoline Nextel Cup car.

Allmendinger and Tracy's one-two sweep for Jerry Forsythe's team was another chapter in the fairy tale story of Allmendinger's mid-season move from RuSPORT to Forsythe. Not only did Allmendinger score an excellent third win in succession after starting from the outside of the front row beside former teammate Justin Wilson, but Tracy turned in his best race of the year to finish a strong second. Tracy passed and beat Sebastien Bourdais while keeping some serious late-race pressure on Allmendinger so that the 24-year old American has edged into second in points within twenty-three of championship leader Bourdais.

Just four weeks ago, this year's Champ Car title appeared to be a foregone conclusion in Bourdais's favor, but in the past month Allmendinger and Forsythe's team have taken the battle to Bourdais and Newman/Haas. Ten years have passed since Jimmy Vasser became the last American to win CART's championship. Can Allmendinger prove this year that America still can produce a championship-winning open-wheel driver?

There's no question that A.J.'s sudden emergence as a race winner and title contender is the best thing that's happened to Champ Car racing in quite a few years. Top young American open-wheel prospect loses job, gets engaged to girlfriend Lynne Kushnirenko from Toronto, gets hired by top team, wins first Champ Car race and follows that up with two more wins in a row. Allmendinger's Cinderella-like story has given Champ Car more press than it's enjoyed in years while handing the home-brewed fans and media something to get excited about. A better story could not have been concocted by either Mark Twain or a Hollywood script writer.

Since joining Forsythe's team, Allmendinger has retained F1 superagent Julian Jakobi and his company CSS Stellar to represent him. CSS's American office is run by Adrian Sussman who was in Toronto for a preliminary meeting with Forsythe. Jerry Forsythe defused suggestions that CSS had jumped in with some tough financial demands on Allmendinger's behalf.

"A.J. is onboard for the rest of the season," Forsythe said. "I've offered him a multi-year contract but to date, it hasn't been agreed to.

"He needs to stay in the series," Forsythe added. "I hope his aspirations are to stay in Champ Car going forward. I don't think he can ask for a better place to have landed. We're always going to put in the effort and I'll look out for him. So we'll continue working to put a longterm deal together with A.J. and I believe it will happen."

While Allmendinger continued to make himself the hottest property in American open-wheel racing, former CART champion and Indy 500 winner Juan-Pablo Montoya was at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois on Sunday morning where Chip Ganassi announced that Montoya will turn his back on Formula One at the end of the season to make a big career move to NASCAR.

Of course, Montoya drove for Ganassi during his two years in CART in 1999 and 2000, and Chip has kept in touch with the Colombian. Unlike some of his fellow NASCAR team owners Ganassi enjoys a worldview of racing and after Casey Mears decided last month that he was going to leave Ganassi's Texaco/Havoline #42 to join Rick Hendrick's team, Chip started looking for a replacement and quietly settled on Montoya. He dealt directly with the Colombian and made a deal without any serious involvement from Montoya's agent Jakobi.

I have to say I was doubly amused to hear about Juan's decision because I discussed the idea with him at the Canadian GP in Montreal two weeks ago. I suggested to Juan and his father Pablo that if he couldn't find a top ride in F1 he should seriously consider a move to NASCAR where there is plenty of sponsorship money, an additional financial boom arriving over the next few years courtesy Toyota, and a great interest in developing drivers who are something other than white or male. As we talked, I was surprised that Montoya and his dad paid rapt attention to my conversation which would have been rejected out of hand with contempt anywhere else in the F1 paddock.

A few days later I was talking to Ganassi and told him of my brief chat with the Montoyas about NASCAR. "Oh yeah," Chip said casually. "What did he say?" I told him that I was surprised by Juan's interest in the idea and was slow to pick up on Ganassi's feigned indifference. Whatever you might want to say about Chip, he is a very sagacious observer of the entire racing scene and had I been a little sharper I would have heard the gears shifting in his head.

Either way, I have to congratulate Chip on thinking outside the box. Montoya's move to NASCAR is a serious coup for Ganassi. There may be questions about how well Montoya will be able to adapt to stock cars, but his presence in Ganassi's #42 is sure to attract plenty of media coverage. As a successful CART, Indy 500 and Formula One driver, Montoya has a worldwide following and as the first Hispanic racing superstar to compete in NASCAR he will give the Nextel Cup series a big boost among both domestic and global Hispanic audiences. As everyone knows, NASCAR has put a lot of time and resources into its drive for diversity as a whole and pursuit of the Hispanic market in particular. Until now, all this effort has gone largely unrewarded, but Ganassi and Montoya have broken down the barrier in the biggest possible way.

The major question in all this is whether or not the aggressive Colombian will be able to adapt to NASCAR's heavy stock cars. Drivers who have grown up racing lightweight, rear-engine cars usually have a tough time coping with full-bodied, front-engine cars which neither brake nor turn anything like the man at the wheel is used to. There's no percentage in driving a NASCAR car deep into a corner, using the brakes to the maximum or beyond, and then driving through the corner with the tail out. That technique burns up the tires and results in crashed cars.

There's no doubt that Montoya will have to work hard to find a comfortable method of feeling, driving and making the tires last on Ganassi's Dodge Nextel Cup cars. If he gets involved in too many accidents he'll lose the faith of his competitors and find both his fellow drivers and NASCAR breathing down his neck. If that happens, it won't be pretty.

But let's not forget that Juan is fully aware that he has made a major career change, turning down the offer of a Williams F1 seat to make his move. There will be no going back to F1. His future now will be all about NASCAR and the level of his success will determine whether Montoya is the first in a line of foreign, open-wheel road racers to make the switch to NASCAR or an historical abberation.

I guarantee you the likes of Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti will follow Montoya's lead in taking serious looks at finding new lives in NASCAR. Have Montoya and Ganassi created a sea change in the world of automobile racing? As always, time will tell the story.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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