Roger Penske (LAT photo)
After reducing his IndyCar Series program down to two full-time cars this season, Team Penske owner Roger Penske tells RACER he couldn't pass on signing 1999 CART champion and 2000 Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya to return the storied operation to three cars next season.
It was announced earlier today that the 37-year-old Colombian will join championship leader Helio Castroneves and Will Power in one of the team's Chevy-powered Indy cars once the Sprint Cup season concludes in November.
“I've known Montoya for a long time and had watched him in NASCAR recently,” Penske said in a call from Europe Monday morning. “I guess he and Chip [Ganassi] had decided to go their separate ways, and [Montoya] contacted us saying he'd be interested in driving a third car for us. We weren't even sure if we'd be able to do it when he called, and he had another opportunity with Michael Andretti, and also with the Furniture Row guys in Sprint Cup.
“I told him at the time we weren't sure if we could do it, and told him if he had an offer that was stone-cold good, to take it. But he talked more with (Penske Racing president) Tim Cindric and he said he really wanted to race with us. I spoke with Tim while I've been overseas here, and told him I think he'd be a fantastic addition to the team and we got the deal done.”
Penske's IndyCar program has two wins from 16 races this season, and despite Castroneves' points lead, the storied organization has struggled to match the pace of the three- and four-car teams at numerous rounds this season. Beyond the allure of having a past champion in a third car, Penske believes Montoya's road racing skills will be the greatest benefit to his team.
“Having multiple cars is important on the IndyCar side, and with his background in road racing in CART and Formula 1, he'd be a great support for both Helio and Will,” he continued.
“We need to be able to have the best drivers out there, and he certainly qualifies from a road racing perspective. IndyCar has become a place where road racing is so important these days, and I can't wait to see him out testing in one of our cars.”
Montoya, as RACER revealed on Friday, turned down the offer to drive that had been extended by Andretti Autosport, and was believed to be on his way to the Furniture Row Racing Sprint Cup team. But with Penske stepping into the situation to pull off a minor coup with an offer of his own, the Captain says getting JPM signed was the first task at hand. Securing all of the funding for the No. 2 entry, as he shares, is the next order of business.
“I would say that's probably the best way of putting it,” he confirmed. “With his background and capabilities, we have a couple of people that are interested in coming onboard. Based on his background in South America, and that market being important to some of the sponsors we have, we haven't gotten any firm commitments yet, but we feel there's a good possibility it will happen.
“This thing has come together so fast, we haven't had the chance to put everything in place right up front as we'd normally try to do, but there's a lot of opportunities there with Juan, and if we didn't think there were sponsors there to support this, we wouldn't have taken this chance. But no risk, no reward.”
Penske also clarified that he only signed Montoya after ensuring there were no conflicts with his friend and rival Chip Ganassi.
“If Chip had wanted him for something outside of Sprint Cup, I wouldn't have touched him – but he looked like a free agent so we put something together,” he said. “We know Juan, he knows us, Tim met with him and it was a pretty easy process to then get everything buttoned up. It was up to them to conclude something.
“The question for Juan was did he want to run 38 [Sprint Cup] weekends or 18 [in IndyCar]? He decided he wanted to go open-wheel. For us, we knew if we concluded something it would be a real asset to the team so here we are today.”
The IndyCar Series has two weekends left to run this season, and both happen to conflict with Montoya's Sprint Cup obligations. Seeing Montoya back in an open-wheel car will likely have to wait until the NASCAR's Chase concludes on Nov. 17, according to Penske.
“We'll get him testing as soon as we can, and he'll be a fast learner,” he noted. “He's an excellent driver, especially with his previous experience, but he needs to finish out his current obligations first and we don't want to interfere with that in any way. I think he's going to be good for us – another Indy 500 winner – and I think it will be good for the sport. Job 1 right now is for Helio to win this championship and then we'll worry about getting Juan up to speed.”