Robin Miller speaks to Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Jimmy Vasser about their former rival's return to the arena where he made his name. (All Images: LAT)
It wasn't as jaw-dropping as when he dumped Monaco for Martinsville but it was as well a kept secret as The Trojan Horse at Indianapolis in 1994 when Roger Penske unveiled the pushrod Mercedes beast.
The fact that Juan Pablo Montoya is coming home to open wheel racing in 2014 and, specifically, the IndyCar Series with Team Penske is probably more of a good-news story than a startling revelation, although it certainly added a nice element of surprise on Monday.
For starters, it puts the 1999 CART Indy car champion back in the environment where he built his reputation and dazzled everyone with his video game car control and relentless aggression. After seven mostly forgettable years in NASCAR, the 2000 Indy 500 winner rejoins the discipline he first mastered in Formula 3000, then CART and then Formula 1.
But the most compelling part of this scenario is wondering if the 37-year-old Colombian will return to the form that took our breath away. Does the kid who was intimidated by neither Michael Andretti nor Michael Schumacher still have that badass attitude? And can he recapture that take-no-prisoners style?
“I wouldn't bet against him,” declared Jimmy Vasser (ABOVE on right, with Montoya and Patrick Carpentier at Vancouver '99), the co-owner of KV Racing and 1996 CART champ who was Montoya's teammate in 1999 and 2000 on the Chip Ganassi Racing steamroller. “If I could afford him, he'd be first on my list, that's for sure. To be honest, when I heard Juan wanted to come back here, I kinda figured it would be with Chip because he's a loyal guy. But I think it's a great day for IndyCar.”
Dario Franchitti, who in 1999 (BELOW) lost a tie-breaker to Montoya for the CART title, reckons his old friend will be inspired.
“Oh yeah, I think the hunger will be there and he wants to prove people wrong who gave up on him or doubted him,” said the three-time Indy king and four-time IndyCar champion. “I think he'll come back, get himself in shape and do some good things. I think it's great for him and great for our sport.”
The standing joke when it was revealed that Andretti had talked to his old rival about a possible IndyCar ride in 2014 was that he wouldn't be able to fit into the new Dallara because of his increased girth on the biscuits and gravy circuit.
“He needs to lose some weight, for sure, but he will and I think he's hungry in another way,” said Tony Kanaan, another of JPM's friends and foes from the CART days. “I don't think he's lost anything and I expect him to be tough.”
Of course this is uncharted territory. No former Indy car stars have ever gone away, stayed out of an open wheel car for this length of time and returned full-time with any success. The only recent comparison is Alex Zanardi, who left CART following back-to-back titles in 1997-98 and returned to F1 for a disappointing season before giving CART another try in 2001. Zanardi was only 35 when he re-joined CART but wasn't close to the confident, charger he'd been before and only had a best finish of fourth before his ghastly accident in Germany.It's been painful to watch Montoya flog around in a tin top and seem satisfied with a Top 15 result. When he claimed his first Cup victory at Sonoma in 2007, he made us all cringe when he declared it was his “biggest win.” Sure learning stock cars involves a huge learning curve and Ganassi's Cup team isn't on the upper tier, but it just felt like Juan's fire had been extinguished – or beaten down. He certainly didn't resemble the ballsy young man who banged wheels with everyone in his determination to lead every lap. “Driving around, collecting big money and eating fried chicken,” we all reckoned.
But the fact JPM wants to get back in an Indy car and mix it up isn't just good for the IndyCar Series: it's a sign he hasn't lost that drive or desire to kick everyone's ass.
“A tiger will never lose his stripes and Montoya is a tiger,” says Kanaan (BELOW, fighting JPM at Rio in '99), who is still without a deal for 2014. “It might take him a couple of tests but look at (A.J.) Allmendinger. He was gone for a long time and it didn't take him long. All Juan needed was a kick in the butt.”
But as happy as they are to have their old pal back in the series, T.K. and Franchitti are downright giddy about the prospects of JPM toeing the company line for The Captain.
“I want to see Montoya in black slacks and shave every day, Penske-style,” said Kanaan with a belly laugh. “I may make that my Facebook picture.”