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The Way It is/ Juan Montoya loves life with Penske

by Gordon Kirby
Team Penske was in top form two weeks ago at IndyCar's St. Petersburg season-opener. Penske's Dallara-Chevies swept the first four places in qualifying and finished one-two-four in the race with Juan Pablo Montoya scoring a clear win over Simon Pagenaud. Montoya attacked and passed Pagenaud on a mid-race restart and was in control thereafter, winning comfortably by more than two seconds despite trouble with his steering over the closing laps.

"The race went really well, but we still need to find more speed in qualifying," Montoya grimaced. "I feel like we're getting closer but I haven't figured out how to get the most out of the red tires. I'm a little behind on the red tires. I can't get the balance right. I can't get the most out of them. So I've still got a little work to do there.

"But the car felt really good on the black tires and we did a good job as a team over the weekend in getting a good setup for the race. We do well when the points are given and we had a good, strong day in St. Petersburg."

Montoya says having three fast and experienced teammates in Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves is the key to Penske's strength.

"It's crazy, but good having four, strong teammates at Team Penske who are so fast that it makes you go fast every lap in practice," Juan remarks. "We compete but we help each other too. It's funny and it's hard because you help each other beat each other. We're completely open with each other as drivers but at the same time you're trying to beat them. So it makes it pretty tough.

"I've been with some of the top teams in motor racing but this is the only team I've been with where you actually help each other. You always help each other developing the car and making the car better, and you help each other in each corner with how and where you turn the car or use the brakes.

"If Will, or anyone, has a question, he can ask and we will answer it. It all comes from Roger and goes all the way through the team. We're all team players."

It will be interesting to see if Montoya and his teammates can match their excellent St. Petersburg street racing form on the banked, one-mile Phoenix oval. Juan believes IndyCar's long-awaited return to Phoenix next weekend will be a difficult test for everyone.

"It's going to be interesting," he reflects. "I think it's gonna be hard to get the balance exactly the way you need. It's going to be tough to execute that race. We did a little bit of testing there and I think it's going to be a hard race, physically and mentally. We'll have to see how the cars handle in traffic. It seemed like the marbles were a big thing in testing. If you got off-line a little bit, you paid a big penalty. So it's going to be interesting."

Thanks to this and last year's aero kits, downforce numbers keep going up in IndyCar. This makes for more speed and more loading on the cars and drivers. Like most of the drivers, Montoya would be prefer to see downforce reduced rather than increased.

"I'm not a big fan of where we are with downforce on the short ovals," he observes. "I'm a big pusher for taking off downforce on the little ovals. I think it would be better with less downforce. But I don't make those decisions. I drive the car and I'll give my opinions, but at the end of the day IndyCar decides where we're going to be, and that's where we are."

NASCAR's experiment this year with a new low downforce package has worked well in recent races with good racing, different grooves and the cars sliding around. The drivers like the new package and it's produced some entertaining racing.

"But it's different than an Indy car," Montoya points out. "In a Cup car you're taking away maybe a few hundred pounds of downforce, but with an Indy car we're making more than 6,000 pounds of downforce. It's much harder to figure out how you're going to take the downforce off.

"It's a lot easier in NASCAR to add or take downforce off. You've got the spoiler and the splitter. But our cars are different. We have different rear wings, different front wings, different side pod shapes. So how do you control it? It's a much more complicated thing to make happen and to manage. And every time you change something, it costs the manufacturers money and makes it more expensive for them.

"You have to decide what you're looking for. That's the million dollar question. Yes, we all believe we need less downforce but we need to make sure we don't ruin the show by taking too much downforce away.

"It's a hard compromise, a tough compromise, but it's a work in progress. With Bill Pappas there at IndyCar now, there's a guy who knows what's needed. The question is, what do the manufacturers want to do?"

Montoya has become one of the world's most versatile drivers with experience and wins over eighteen years in Indy cars, Formula 1, NASCAR and long-distance sports cars.

"It's just experience, you know," he shrugs. "I don't think about it. I just drive the car and worry about the balance and what we need for the race. Of course, the more I drive different cars, the more it teaches me and the better I drive. It gives me more understanding of the cars and makes me a better driver."

Last fall, Montoya had the pleasure of testing a Porsche 919 Hybrid Le Mans car at the Circuit of the Americas.

"The Porsche was amazing," he grins. "It was a lot of fun to drive and the preparation of the car is unbelievable. The technology and how everything works and operates is unreal. It's so different from anything else I've driven. It was the first time for me driving an all-wheel drive car on a race track. So in all, it was a unique experience. I was very happy to do it.

"They invited me to drive the car and I went and drove the car and that was it. At some point in the future it would be great to do Le Mans, but I love what I do and I love being with Team Penske. For the foreseeable future, I don't see why I would change what I'm doing. It's a tremendous team and Roger is 'The Man', isn't he? I'm just lucky to be part of this organization."

Montoya turned 40 last September and has been racing cars for a quarter-century after ten years in karts as a kid. But he remains as sharp and motivated as ever and is a favorite once again to win this year's Indy 500 and IndyCar title with Roger Penske's all-powerful team.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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