Montoya happy to start new life in NASCAR

3/4/2007 - NASCAR

In 1981, tennis player Bjorn Borg shocked the world by announcing his retirement.

With 11 Grand Slam titles to his name, the Swede had just lost the U.S. Open to John McEnroe and, though barely 26 years old, was tired of life as a professional athlete.

Years later, something of the kind happened with Juan Pablo Montoya. After winning every category in which he competed, seeing his name engraved on prestigious trophies and trying the champagne of the most prestigious circuits of the world, the Colombian driver had had enough of the Formula One policy and slammed the door on, or rather "swerved" away to, NASCAR.

"After years in F1, I lost my passion for racing and was too far away from my family and my country," Montoya said. "In those circumstances, many things no longer made any sense. But thanks to NASCAR and Chip Ganassi, I've recovered the desire to race."

After winning the Champ Car series and competing for the Formula One championship, Montoya found himself in a very awkward position. In 2006, he lost his chemistry with the McLaren racing squad and his leadership role. Besides, his team refused to extend his contract, which was set to expire at the end of the year.

On the other hand, he said the distance from his country and family and the coldness of the F1 environment were important factors that motivated him into making a career change. His family and friends are very happy with the decision.

"Formula One is not for Latin Americans," said his wife, Connie.

"I'm very happy with what I achieved in Formula One," Montoya said. "Running with Williams and McLaren, which have always been big teams; winning races in both; having fought for a championship. The only thing I missed was winning a title, but we contended for it and it was very difficult with Ferrari's domination. I had to be realistic, and this was the next step. I won in Monaco, Monza and in almost every important event, that's why I believe this was the right time."

Arriving in the United States was like starting over, and his first step was racing in the ARCA category, a third-level series, in Talladega, Ala.

Three months before that, he was in Indianapolis, competing in the last of his 95 Formula One races. The funny thing was that, after finishing third, Montoya came out smiling and said, "I hadn't had so much fun in a race for a long time."

Moving from the most popular racing series in the world to one with scarce international recognition could be considered a step back, and the prestige he acquired over many years is in danger.

"The truth is I'm not doing this for prestige," Montoya said. "I've raced for passion all my life, and then I realized that I was losing the love of it. Today, I have recovered a big part of that feeling."

Montoya is so convinced of his decision that he doesn't even want to talk about Formula One. On the final and most important day of the season -- the finale in Brazil -- he had something more important to do.

"I was playing golf," he said.

The challenge is enormous, and he knows it.

"I don't want to look like an idiot on the track," he said during his Busch Series debut in Memphis last season. "The crowd, the teams, my teammates and opponents, and getting used to living in a motor home. Everything is new and a great challenge. I'm waiting with my arms open for what comes next."

Montoya is very competitive. He doesn't like to lose; he doesn't want to finish second. But he knows that there's a price to pay, and 2007 will be a year of transition.

"I'm open to whatever comes; it's very hard to know," he said. "In theory, we should fight for victories in permanent circuits and in some ovals too. But we will have other difficult weekends."

Ganassi said he knows his team could take a great leap with Montoya as a driver.

"The best thing is to see him with a smile on his face; that says it all for me," Ganassi said. "He wanted to be here, and you can tell he's happy. I can't ask for more."

With Montoya's arrival, NASCAR officials hope to expand into new markets and go more Latin and international.

It was even rumored that Montoya's hiring was a marketing move.
That speculation annoys Ganassi most.

"Montoya's nationality is irrelevant," Ganassi said. "Juan Pablo was the best available driver. He is a champion and one of the best drivers in the world."

But, historically, NASCAR rookies have received harsh welcomes from their opponents and more than once finished their races against the wall.

"I don't think they'll be too tough on Juan Pablo," said Rusty Wallace, a former Cup champion and now an analyst for ESPN. "I don't think they'll be too aggressive because they really respect him. They like him and wish him well, so I don't think he'll run into problems on the track. And if somebody tries, NASCAR will be there to stop them."

The Colombian arrived under the radar and doesn't want any enemies on the track. In fact, he appears to be making friends.

"Mark Martin came to me and offered his help; Rusty Wallace gave me lots of advice," Montoya said. "Casey Mears, Reed [Sorenson], [David] Stremme, everyone has helped me to learn. The difference between NASCAR and Formula One is that you may have a rivalry on the field but not outside. It is much friendlier because in the end we are neighbors all year long."

Juan Pablo may have taken a step back as a pilot, but he is at peace and happy with his decision.

And he's the one who's driving.

Andrés Agulla will team up with Alex Pombo for the ESPN Deportes broadcast of the NASCAR Busch Mexico race. He also writes regularly for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN Deportes La Revista.