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Keeping Pace

Thu., July 2, 2009, 11:45 p.m.

Chase Is On For Montoya

Juan Pablo Montoya relaxes on pit road. (Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR) (John Harrelson / The Spokesman-Review)
Juan Pablo Montoya relaxes on pit road. (Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR) (John Harrelson / The Spokesman-Review)

Regardless of how we feel about change, and what our opinions are about cross-pollination between racing series, you have to admire Juan Pablo Montoya.

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

What follows is a textbook example of a racing success story.

It is the story of a kid who, instead of signing up for T-ball or soccer or any of the other team sports so popular with the single-digit age demographic, decided that what he wanted to do was be a racer. And with the help and support of his dad, that’s exactly what he did.

He started out on the go-kart circuit, then moved up through the ranks, racking up an impressive number of wins, poles and a couple of Rookie of the Year titles along the way.

One of the most prestigious and highly coveted trophies in all of motorsports has his name on it. He picked that particular gem up at what may well be the best-known racetrack on the planet -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owners, immense talent behind the wheel of a car is like setting a woman loose in the Macy’s shoe department with an unlimited credit card; their eyes glaze over and they’ve even been known to drool on occasion. So it was inevitable that one of NASCAR’s top team owners would put this young driver on the payroll and place him behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car.

Are you enjoying the Jeff Gordon/Tony Stewart/Greg Biffle/Kasey Kahne/Carl Edwards story so far?

I hope not, because the hero of this particular tale has a slightly more exotic sounding name. His story began not here in North America, but down in its southern counterpart. Early words of encouragement were offered not in a Southern drawl or a midwestern twang, but in Spanish.

This driver is Juan Pablo Montoya.

Montoya is a former CART Series champion and Rookie of the Year, and in 2000 he won the Indianapolis 500, on his very first try. In April of this year, he was ranked 29th on the list of the top 50 Formula One drivers of all time. Not too shabby, huh? He can definitely drive.

Still, it is safe to say that when NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi brought Montoya over to race full-time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2007, fans didn’t exactly embrace him with open arms.

Surely I’m not the only person who remembers the loud chorus of boos that greeted him at many racetracks during driver introductions that first year. As we often say down South, “Folks just took against him.”

NASCAR fans are the greatest people on earth, but we can be just a tad bit overprotective of our sport at times. It’s like we’re saying, 'OK, you just stay over there with your open wheel cars and we’ll stay over here with our stock cars and there’ll be no trouble.' Hatfields, meet McCoys.

The problem with this plan is that it only seems to work well for one side -- ours. For the top drivers in other series, NASCAR is just too tempting to pass up. They are competitors. They have to try; they can’t help themselves.

Granted, for the most part, these efforts haven’t exactly set the stock car racing world on fire. It isn’t easy to transition into something completely new and different. It’s like handing a trumpet to a guitar player and expecting him to be able to play it, just because he’s a musician. It is unrealistic.

I’m sure guys like Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier would be happy to tell you how tough the move from open wheel to NASCAR is. You need teams and sponsors that will stick by you, no matter what. On top of skill behind the wheel, you must have patience, tenacity, and a very thick skin.

A little humility doesn’t hurt, either. One of Montoya’s most memorable lines came from the 2007 NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Award Luncheon in New York City, when he said, “I never raced so hard to finish 20th in my life.”

It takes a big man to be self-deprecating.

Regardless of how we feel about change, and what our opinions are about cross-pollination between racing series, you have to admire Montoya. It cannot have been easy for a guy who has tasted the milk of victory at The Brickyard, and raised championship trophies high above his head, to run in NASCAR’s midfield for two consecutive seasons. What a pure pleasure it has been to see him running so well this year, even to the point of being a strong contender to make the 12-driver championship Chase field.

He has picked up NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year honors along the way. He has even picked up a win, at Infineon Raceway in 2007.

But most importantly, he now lays claim to perhaps the most difficult thing to acquire in NASCAR. Like the championship trophy itself, acquiring this one thing takes time, tenacity and a willingness to wait. It can’t be taken; it must be earned. He has done that.

Juan Pablo Montoya has our respect.

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.