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Montoya speeds to dominant victory in richest-ever Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IND. -- Juan Montoya had never raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he had never run an Indy Racing League event, and he had never before raced the G-Force/Oldsmobile he was strapped into on Sunday. None of that mattered, as...

INDIANAPOLIS, IND. -- Juan Montoya had never raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he had never run an Indy Racing League event, and he had never before raced the G-Force/Oldsmobile he was strapped into on Sunday. None of that mattered, as Montoya dominated the rain-delayed 84th running of the Indianapolis 500 like no other driver has done for 30 years, winning a swift, clean race to become the first "rookie" in 34 years to capture the world's largest sports event.
Montoya, the 24-year-old Colombian who is regarded as the swiftest and most dominant driver in the Championship Auto Racing League (CART), showed the rival IRL and 350,000 fans exactly what they've been missing in the four years that CART drivers had been forced out at Indy, or had boycotted the 500, depending on which side you listen to. Whatever, the attraction drew a record total purse of $9,476,505, of which Montoya takes away $1,235,690.
To call the Target/Chip Ganassi team ace a rookie seems a stretch, although the last rookie to win at Indy was Graham Hill, a multiple world Formula 1 champion before he came to the Speedway and won in 1960. The finish actually was close, with Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner, creating a stirring late-race challenge before fading slightly to finish 7.1839 seconds behind the sizzling pace of the red car with yellow trim, sponsored by Minnesota-based Target stores.
Montoya averaged 167.607 miles per hour and covered the 200 laps in 2 hours, 58 minutes, 59.431 seconds. Third was Eliseo Salazar, followed by Jeff Ward, in A.J. Foyt's two cars, and then came 1998 winner Eddie Cheever and Team Menards driver Robbie Gordon, all of whom completed all 200 laps, while Jimmy Vasser -- Montoya's teammate -- finished seventh, one lap down after a late pit stop.
Lazier said afterward he was surprised that some of his IRL peers seemed more reluctant to let him pass than they were to get out of Montoya's way, but in the final analysis, a series of yellow-flag caution slowdowns allowed the field to stay closer to the smooth and consistent Montoya than they might have been. He led for 167 of the 200 laps -- the most in 30 years, since Al Unser Sr. led for 190 laps in winning the 1970 race. Scotland's Jimmy Clark also led 190. The most laps ever led at Indy requires a history book, going back to Bill Vukovich's 195 laps in 1953, with the all-time record 198 laps by Billy Arnold in winning the 1930 race. Incidentally, Ralph DePalma led 196 laps in 1912, the second-most, but finished 11th.
One of the biggest challenges Montoya had was from teammate Jimmy Vasser, who stayed out during the last pit-stop flurry and wound up leading the single-file group on the restart with 25 laps to go. Montoya moved up behind Vasser, but found it difficult to get past his friend and teammate.
"I thought I was going to lap Jimmy, so I called Chip and said, 'Tell Jimmy to move over,' " Montoya said.
"I told him Jimmy was leading the race, and that was for position," Ganassi said.
"I said, 'Oh,' " Montoya added.
On lap 180, Montoya went inside and passed Vasser for the lead, and the two Ganassi/Target cars seemed headed for a 1-2 finish. But Lazier, who had started 16th (inside Row 6), moved up to challenge Vasser for second, and when Lazier passed Vasser on lap 193, Vasser pitted three laps later for a splash of fuel to finish the race. That move was costly, because Salazar, Ward, Cheever and Gordon all got by before Vasser came back out, and had to settle for seventh, one lap down.
The start of the race was in serious question because of two days of rain that lingered in the Indianapolis area. All was ready for the 11 a.m. start, when a heavy rainstorm hit shortly after 10 a.m. The Indy cars can't run their big slick tires in the rain, so jet blow-driers and circulating staff vehicles set out trying to dry the surface. It was obvious the race would start late, and a few more interludes of drizzle seemed destined to push the race to today. But the drying efforts worked, and, at 2:03 p.m., under dark and threatening skies, Mary Hulman George said: "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines."
The "ladies" part was because this was the first Indy 500 to have two female drivers qualify. Sarah Fisher, a 19-year-old rookie, and Lin St. James, a 53-year-old veteran, were the youngest and oldest entries as well. Their day ended with an amazingly untimely coincidence. On lap 74, Fisher was passing St. James inside and another car outside. St. James and Fisher touched wheels, and both ended their day by crunching their cars into the outside wall between Turns 1 and 2, about 100 feet apart.
"I took a defensive line but I wanted to stay out of the loose stuff," said St. James, who tried to hold her line. "Whoever it was, I was surprised they would try to force a pass at that point."
Fisher said: "It's not my fault. I was stuck in the middle. I was a sitting duck in this case. It's not anyone's fault. It's a very narrow line, and when you're passing three abreast, things do not happen very nicely."
The race led to some mixed feelings among the IRL loyalists and their fans, who have backed track president Tony George since he changed the rules on cars and engines and then formed the IRL, effectively leaving the CART teams with their giant budgets and sophisticated cars on the outside, unless they would come to Indy and buy the less-costly cars George and the IRL specified. Ganassi did exactly that, but Montoya, Vasser and Ganassi dominated the prerace publicity, along with Al Unser Jr., another driver who was a star for CART but this year returned to race in the IRL.
Ganassi and Montoya refused to be drawn into any comments about the political squabble that has kept CART and the IRL apart. "It's hard to put this in perspective," said Ganassi. "Everybody is interested in the political side of things. I was not into that, and I'm still not. This is still the biggest race in the world, so this is the biggest win in the world."
Montoya was asked to compare this victory with winning the CART season championship last season. "Winning the championship last year meant a lot to me," he said. "And winning today meant a lot to me too. I would say these are the two biggest things that ever happened to me in my life so far."
Unser's day was as inconsistent as the weather. When pole-sitter Greg Ray sailed away from the pole position at the start, chased by Montoya, Unser was struggling to stay in the top 10. Montoya, who yielded second to Gordon for a lap, took it back and then reeled in Ray to take the lead on lap 27. Ray, the top gun for Team Menard, said he got caught by a wind gust coming out of Turn 2 and smacked the wall on lap 66, forcing the first of seven yellows of the race, and also leaving shattered chunks of debris that punctured the radiator of Unser's following car.
While Ray wound up starting first and finishing last, Unser went back out after repairs, but finished only 89 laps before overheating. "It's too bad the day ended by something getting stuck in the radiator," said Unser. "But it was great to be back here. To go around those pace laps and see those cheering fans, and be back at the greatest spectacle in racing, it was incredible."
That overwhelming feeling is something Unser recalled well from his days of winning twice at Indy. It also prompted an unusual warning from Unser to Montoya, who had whipped him and everybody else in CART last season. On Thursday, after Montoya had recorded the fastest practice time in the last chance for drivers to test the track, Unser said that Montoya was "very aggressive," and that "he'd better respect this place or it will bite you."
Montoya, as it turned out, exhibited all sorts of respect for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and sped away with the victory as well.

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