Commentary

Montoya the man of the Miami moment

Updated: November 20, 2009, 10:23 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- The media and fans couldn't get enough of Juan Pablo Montoya on Thursday night as he and his wife made their way up the red carpet for their annual fundraiser gala. It was the same way earlier in the day at a news conference in nearby Coral Gables.

The circus around him was just as big Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the scene of Sunday's Sprint Cup finale.

The weekend might belong to Jimmie Johnson, who's on the verge of an unprecedented fourth straight championship.

The city belongs to Montoya.

"Well, it's actually a nightmare," the driver of the No. 42 for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing said with a smile. "It is. It's so many people. Everybody wants tickets. Everybody needs this. Everybody is your best friend.

"But in the same token, it's good to have that support and people paying attention."

NASCAR's first Colombian star has an iconic following here like nowhere outside of his native country. That he makes this his home, living on three floors of a luxurious high-rise near the Viceroy Icon at Brickell Miami where he held the gala, is a factor.

But it goes way beyond that. Montoya has touched a culture in the Hispanic community that NASCAR was unable to tap into before his arrival three years ago.

Nowhere is it seen more than Miami, where 62.4 percent of Miami-Dade County is of Hispanic or Latin origin.

"The closer you get to the equator, the more popular he gets," Ryan Newman said.

To fully appreciate Montoya's presence in South Florida, one must attend his gala, which has raised more than $1.5 million to benefit social needs in Colombia.

Let's just say it wasn't your typical NASCAR experience or crowd, although a lot of NASCAR fans and stars -- Johnson and Jeff Gordon, to name a few -- attended.

From a performance by Latin Grammy Award winner Jorge Celedon to a taped video message from megastar Shakira to a fashion show with bikini-clad, stiletto-stomping models to ads for Giorgio Armani, you knew you were a long way from Daytona Beach.

"Going to his gala opens your eyes to his life outside of racing," Montoya crew chief Brian Pattie said. "It's definitely a different atmosphere, whether you're at his house, on his boat or here."

It definitely was a long way from the "Redneck Riviera" in Talladega, Ala., or the red-dye hot-dog-eating crowd at Martinsville, Va.

"No question," said Felix Sabates, the minority owner at EGR. "He brings a higher class of fans than any other driver in NASCAR. I don't say that to be disrespectful. He brings the Giorgio Armani, the boutique type of fans, as well as the guy down in the gutter digging ditches.

"He brings a mixture I don't think any other driver out there does. Just look at [the gala] and all the millionaires. That was not your typical NASCAR crowd."

It definitely wasn't. After waiting more than an hour for a fellow scribe's rental car, I jokingly asked the valet whether he could find the only Chrysler PT Cruiser among all the BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses.

"There is an atmosphere you won't see at parties like that anywhere else on the circuit," Homestead-Miami Speedway president Curtis Gray said. "It's a whole South Beach atmosphere that this market brings."

Gray has done all he can to capitalize on Montoya's popularity. The track offered two ticket packages that included $42 donations to the driver's charity foundation. More than 2,400 were sold.

"It's making Homestead-Miami Speedway the gateway to international marketing for NASCAR," Gray said.

One could argue that Montoya, through his own popularity, has done more for NASCAR's diversity program than anything the governing body has accomplished on its own.

"Ultimately, we get graded on who makes it to the national divisions and then from there that drivers of diverse nature succeed," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "Having Juan Pablo have the success he's had this year is very helpful to that.

"No question he has had an affinity with the Hispanic fan base."

Montoya's crew got a taste of that this past week. The former Formula One star flew them down Tuesday to spend time on his boat and enjoy the delicacies of Miami that you find few other places in the world.

"It's like being on the red carpet when you go to Hollywood," said Mike "Mongo" Bodick, a mechanic on the No. 42. "You get treated like royalty.

"He's not well-known in other parts of the country. Here, he really is an icon."

That'll be most evident when Montoya walks down pit road Sunday. There'll be more people around his car than perhaps Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s. There'll be more people waving Colombian flags in the stands than you'll see at all the other tracks combined.

"There's a lot of [Spanish-]speaking people," Bodick said. "You hear it. You know what they're talking about. You know you're being watched."

Montoya's popularity has risen to a new level because of his success this season. His five top-10s in the Chase equal as many as he had in his first two full seasons combined. His 18 top-10s are six times more than he had a year ago.

His sixth-place position in the points is 19 spots higher than it was a year ago, and it could have been much better without a wreck at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte five weeks ago.

Before that race, Montoya had four straight finishes of fourth or better. He was third in points, only 58 behind Johnson. He was a serious contender for the championship.

"I don't think anybody here would go and say when we started in Daytona the 42 car is going to make the Chase," Montoya said. "We proved everybody wrong. There's a lot of potential on the team to get better. We've got to exploit it."

Beyond diversity and stiletto heels and fashion shows and Latin stars, that is why Montoya is in NASCAR.

"I'm not racing NASCAR to create Hispanic awareness about it, you know," said Montoya, who made his Cup debut here in 2006 with a wreck and 34th-place finish. "I race NASCAR because I want to kick everybody's butt."

And one day, maybe the city and the championship weekend will belong to Montoya.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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