Commentary

With F1 pressure behind him, Montoya more relaxed in NASCAR garage

Juan Pablo Montoya could have been known as a difficult person in the rarified air of the F1 paddock. But he's his down-home self in the NASCAR garage, writes Lewis Franck.

Updated: March 11, 2008, 3:05 PM ET
By Lewis Franck | Special to ESPN.com

Juan Pablo MontoyaWorth Canoy-VPS MotorimagesJuan Pablo Montoya greeted some of his fans before the Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

ATLANTA -- For most ordinary race fans, meeting a driver and getting his autograph is the next best thing to winning a lottery. And the odds of it happening are about as long.

On a near-freezing Sunday morning, in the infield parking area before the Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, some three dozen Juan Pablo Montoya fans were rewarded with 15 minutes of his time for no other reason than being loyal fans wearing his sponsor's Wrigley's Big Red T-shirts.

While this kind of happening is rare in the NASCAR world, it's unknown in his former life as a Formula One driver. The garage is called a paddock, and a paddock pass is available only for millionaires and celebrities of the moment. There are several layers of security one needs to get past in order to see a driver. Have a conversation and autograph? Forget about it.

At NASCAR races, it's getting to the point that drivers make two or three prerace appearances at corporate hospitality suites. Again, ordinary fans are left at the garage gates. What was different was the idea of his sponsor's marketing company to bring Montoya to his fans.

I've covered Montoya's progress, in the pages of ESPN The Magazine, from his first outing in Chip Ganassi's Indy car and, today, he's a changed man.

Where he could be a difficult person in the rarefied air of the Formula One paddock, now he mingled effortlessly with a group of people from a nearby suburb. When one married couple from New York greeted him in his native Spanish, his eyes lit up in delight.

A guy who drove in the Late Model Sportsman series and spoke with a Deep Southern accent even came out early to meet him.

Montoya wasn't surprised by the diversity of his fans, especially the local driver. He said, "If the guy is a hard-core racer, no, most of the people like that like me because I don't take s--- from anybody. I'm all about business when it comes down to business; I don't go for second to anybody. That's the difference."

Energized by the group, he explained, "This is so different. It's a shame. F1 is not done for the fans ... they are so used to not having any contact and they can't see the cars. This is great."

He posed for pictures, kidding with the amateur photographer who couldn't push the shutter button, hugged the women and signed something for everyone. Totally prepared, he carried two Sharpie markers, black and silver -- for those who had something dark to autograph.

When a timid 5-year-old came up to him, with a Jeff Gordon No. 24 T-shirt under his red jacket, the driver of the No. 42 Dodge Charger gently teased him: "You've got the numbers backwards."

In the car, he's still the same Montoya who burned up the open-wheel tracks, winning the Indy 500, before leaving for Formula One. Talking about his radio chatter, he explained, "I think they should warn me before the race 'PG.' I'm pretty passionate about it. I get really excited, but I calm myself. I get pissed off, at the moment, and that calms me." On the other hand, he added, "You cannot be too nice. And [then] I go for it and see what happens."

When it was time to leave everyone had gotten a word, or two, an autograph, and had posed for pictures. Everyone was a winner that morning.

His treatment of the fans has rubbed off onto how he now treats the press, myself included. I reminded him of that, and with a big grin he said, "It's surprising, isn't it?"

Not everyone's a fan
Ryan Newman, another Dodge driver, won't be at future meet-and-greet sessions for his rival Dodge driver. "Montoya couldn't hold the steering wheel straight going down the back straightaway and drove up into me and knocked my fender in," Newman said. "We had to pit -- we had tire rub."

Steering committee
In the prerace publicity Montoya showed a local television reporter around his motor coach and raced her on a video game. Although it wasn't an even match for the professional driver, he made one interesting admission. He had driven, and won, in virtually every type of vehicle, but, when it comes to video games, if "it behaves like a steering wheel in a game, I can't use it."

New science in NASCAR
I'm constantly amazed at the cleverness of top Sprint Cup teams in finding information. In the midst of the Oil Cover Plategate, I overhead some of the professional photographers gabbing about a top team that requested close-ups of Carl Edwards' backflip. Scratching my head for a minute, then, the penny dropped. They were looking for close-ups of the window to see if the oil cover plate was removed. So, in addition to highly paid engineers, we're looking at the NASCAR science of forensic photography.

Call waiting
Have heard that Brad Keselowski, who was unintentionally bumped out of a potential win at last week's Nationwide Series race by Mark Martin, received a telephone call from the veteran Cup driver. Martin, who has a reputation for fairness, apparently was calling to apologize for the incident but didn't reach the young driver and went straight to voice mail. We'd heard that Keselowski hadn't returned the call as of Sunday evening. Hmm.

Lewis Franck is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at nascarespn@earthlink.net