Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Montoya's Indy 500 win: a charge for the ages

Mark Glover attended the Indianapolis 500 for the 53rd time on May 24. Here is his take on the 99th running of the world-famous auto race.

Sacramento, California – All month long, the talk was about the cars.  On race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was all about the driver.

One driver in this case: Race winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

Montoya’s charge to the front of the field Sunday in the 99th Indianapolis 500 was epic. It was arguably one of the greatest winning drives in the long history of the race.

Consider that Montoya, who started 15th in the field of 33 cars, avoided disaster three times in the chaotic first dozen laps of the race, with multiple pit stops, bodywork falling off the back of his car and a quick replacement of the rear body/wing assembly by his pit crew.

After all that, he gets the green flag at the back of the pack.  Mentally, at this point, I had counted Montoya out of the running for the top prize.

How wrong I was.

As the first half of the race wore on, there was plenty of dicing at the front, a very entertaining show with the new aero packages allowing drivers to draft down the straights and perform breathtaking late-move passes in the turns.  Sometimes, the passing was done in the turns.  Spectacular.

Somewhere along the line, I noticed Montoya’s Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, car No. 2, climbing the leader board.  I turned my attention away from the front pack and started watching Montoya.

What I saw was a relentless, highly-skilled, super-aggressive charger at his best.  Some of Montoya’s competitors use decidedly salty words to describe Montoya’s driving style, but on Sunday, that here-I-come-get-outta-my-way style was the key to victory.  Continually, I watched Montoya do deep-in-the-turn passes that few others were pulling off.

Every time he was in a drag race down the front stretch, he won going into Turn One.  Every time.  Even when it appeared the leading car had the advantage, he pulled it off.

Simply put, Montoya lifted for no one going into the turns.

The closest thing I can remember to this performance is three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford coming from the back of the field to run down pole-sitter A.J. Foyt and win the 1974 race.  That was a different era, when in-race bravery was held in the highest regard.  In today’s era, Montoya carries that torch.

By the time the 15-lap showdown to the finish came, my money was on Montoya, and he did not disappoint, including an are-you-kidding-me? passing move on Scott Dixon that saw the two cars touch.  Montoya bullied his way forward with that pass, the move of the race, and ultimately blazed past leader Will Power for the win.  Game over.

When Montoya won the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2000, he showed the fastest hands in the game, the ability to immediately get a car with cold tires running under control at top speed, making super-fast corrections on the steering wheel to keep his ride off the walls.

As he showed Sunday, Montoya hasn’t lost a thing.  At 39, he might be faster than he was nearly a generation ago.  If the Colombian had stuck with Indy cars throughout his career – bypassing stints with Formula One and NASCAR – it isn’t too difficult to imagine that he might have rung up five or more Indianapolis 500 wins over that time.

He still might get five.  He’s that good.  He’s so skilled and so aggressive that I believe he was the only driver in Sunday’s race who could have pulled off the win given the cards he was dealt early in the grind.

And so, a month that was dominated by concerns over new aero kits, horsepower limits, downforce adjustments and upside-down crashes ends with a mad-skills master drinking the winner’s milk.  It will be interesting to see what kind of changes, if any, will be made in the aero packages over the next year.

No matter what, I’m already looking forward to the 100th running of the race in 2016.  The smart early money for that one is on Montoya.


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